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Feature: Mile-High House Calls

John H. Ostdick

For 22 years, Rick W. Roseman has been designing aircraft interiors, creating work-and-live spaces that stylishly meet the rigors of flight. His clients’ requests have been practical, challenging, and sometimes mind-bogglingly eccentric. A Saudi Arabian client who was a falconry enthusiast wanted his birds to accompany him onboard, but he rejected Roseman’s plan to construct gilded cages. “These are birds of strength,” the client declared. “They will not be caged!”

Because the customer is always right, Roseman scrapped the cages and equipped the plane with ornate perches on which the falcons could rest when they were not flying throughout the cabin. Three months after delivery, the client returned his plane to Roseman’s RWR Designs for repairs. The falcons had used their talons to shred all of the hand-tooled leather in the interior. Roseman, in addition to replacing the leather, also redesigned the plane’s carpeting so that it would mask bird droppings.

Roseman is not fazed by unusual design requests. He understands that for his clients, who spend much of their time airborne, planes are a home away from home. But what is right for the home is not necessarily right for a plane. “A carpet design may be acceptable in the living room of a house, where you view it for short periods of time,” says Dawn Jensen, senior designer for Savannah, Ga.–based Gulfstream. “When we’re making material selections, one of the things I consider is, ‘Could I look at this fabric for 10 hours?’ ” Among Gulfstream’s aircraft is the GV-SP, which can stay airborne for as long as 16 straight hours.

A client, says Roseman, might embrace a rustic design in his or her home. But that same client might prefer a more sleek and contemporary look when conducting a meeting or entertaining business partners aboard his jet. And Roseman has to determine what it is that the client wants. “Most often, the person doesn’t know how to express particulars,” he says. “It’s up to me to listen, be observant, and extrapolate. I have always had an innate talent to design pretty things. I had to cultivate the talent to extrapolate people’s desires into form and function, finding out what they don’t like as much as what they do like. I attribute half of my success to being able to do just that.”

Roseman entered the aviation business in 1979, when he worked with another designer on a plane interior for the president of Mexico. Roseman also designed planes for the Saudi royal family, a United Arab Emirates customer, and the Sultan of Brunei’s family, before forming RWR Designs in Dallas in 1990 (the company recently relocated to Evergreen, Colo.).

The process of designing an interior begins with Roseman’s spending several days at a prospective client’s house or office, learning about the customer’s tastes and needs. If the client cannot articulate a look, Roseman produces what he calls his “mug shot” books, an assortment of clippings from interior design magazines that run the gamut of styles for his client to consider.

He crafts designs by determining where his client will fly, how much social or business time will be spent in the aircraft, and what amenities his client wants. “When you first start in the business, it’s a little like sitting in David Letterman’s chair. You feel like you have to jump in and say something,” says Roseman. “But after a while, you learn when it is important to just sit there and listen.”

Sometimes his clients’ wishes lean toward the unusual. For instance, a Saudi prince told Roseman he wanted to face Mecca while praying in his plane. After some brainstorming, Roseman installed a gyro-operated device in the main cabin that always indicates the direction of the holy city. Another client requested a bed that would correct the six-degree nose-up angle maintained by most aircraft during flights. Roseman designed a bed that operates on a gyroscope and tilts for a level sleep.

Requests such as these are rare. “Ninety-nine percent of aircraft today are fairly generic,” says Donald Thompson, president of New York–based Donald Thompson Industrial Design. “The market dictates a beige or a medium gray interior. All the seats and furnishings look the same. People do not know what’s possible, so they take whatever’s available. For example, if people didn’t know about Rolls-Royces, they would buy Chevrolets.”

Clients who place specific orders, however, demand perfection in their designs. San Antonio, Texas–based Gore Design recently delivered a Boeing 767 to an Asian head of state, but the company had to complete 21 different floor plans and five sets of renderings with different concepts and colors before the client approved the final blueprint. And if a client wants a specific item in his or her plane, such as a sofa or a painting, interior designers must make sure it complies with FAA regulations—upholstery must meet flammability requirements, and lamps are not allowed because they could move during ascent, descent, or turbulence. “A plane performs in a dynamic environment,” says Sean Elsner, president of Infusion Design, a design firm in Bonner Springs, Kan. “The tube flexes and changes shape. There’s moisture and humidity. A plane doesn’t just move from point A to point B. It’s in a dynamic, three-dimensional axis.”

Despite the challenges that planes present, designers enjoy creating solutions to meet their clients’ wishes. The real joy, however, belongs to the clients when they board their planes for the first time. “It’s a process of creating layers of discovery for both the owner and guest,” says Roseman. “Little morsels of visual and interactive fantasy—some bold, others sublime.”

John H. Ostdick recently finished work on Boone Pickens: The Luckiest Guy in the World, a Beard Books update of the best-selling autobiography Boone.

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