Smooth Sailing: The Cruise Ship’s Evolution From the 1800s to Today

From the no-frills vessel to the modernist liner, and the ’90s megaship to today’s boutique offerings, the cruise ship has come a long way. Here’s how top designers are changing the cruise ship’s image again.

In 2018, 26 million people set sail on cruise ships, earning the leisure cruise industry an estimated $45.6 billion. The market has grown at a steady clip, with the design of modern cruise ships continuously evolving since the heyday of luxury ocean liners and the industry’s Love Boat days. Below, we trace the cruise ship’s development from its humble origins to its promising future.

The RMS Britannia, one of the first ocean liners from Cunard, was launched in 1840 and could carry 115 passengers.

1800s: The First Cruises 

Passengers began boarding packet ships as early as 1818, when the Black Ball Line ran a mail route between Liverpool and New York City that also advertised space for people. Shipping companies like P&O and Cunard got in on the mail delivery game, and by 1844, P&O was offering sea tours to such destinations as Gibraltar, Malta, and Athens, making them the oldest cruise line still in operation. 

The idea for the first pleasure cruise is often credited to Albert Ballin in the early 1890s. Ballin, a German shipping magnate and general director for the Hamburg-America Line, introduced the concept of the luxury ocean liner as a "floating hotel" in order to compete with on-land counterparts. To do so, he hired hotelier Cesar Ritz to head up customer service and the British architectural firm Mewes and Davis for interiors. Under Ballin’s direction, one liner’s decor included such elegant features as a Rococo stairwell with gilded cherubs bearing light bulbs.   

Cunard's Queen Mary launched in 1934 and featured an Art Deco interior that included the application of over 50 different types of wood in intricate marquetry, carvings, and wall panelling. The ship has been preserved and is today a museum and hotel moored in Long Beach, California.

Early 1900s: Heightened Luxury 

In the early 20th century, shipping companies competed for passengers by increasing ship speed and the onboard amenities, which grew more opulent over time. In 1911, the RMS Olympic, part of a trio of ships from the White Star Line that included the Titanic, boasted a grand staircase, swimming pool, Turkish baths, and private bathrooms for first-class travelers. By 1921, the French-owned SS Paris debuted the first onboard movie theater and a chic Art Deco interior. 

1930s: Crossover Into Architecture 

By 1930, the cruise liner’s aesthetic crossed over as a popular architectural style on land, called the P&O style, after the ships of the Pacific & Orient line. Think curved walls, steel-framed windows, glass bricks, and flat roofs, with such seaworthy features as porthole-shaped windows or a brick chimney that tapers like a ship’s steam funnel.  

P&O style was a form of German modernism in the 1930s, and its influence can still be seen today, such as with this recent design of the Plaster Fun House by Sans-Arc Studio in South Australia.

1970s: The Love Boat Era 

After World War II, once commercial airplanes made crossing the ocean much quicker than traveling by ship and the glamorous ocean liners of the past were too costly to operate, the industry had to reinvent itself. Companies either converted liners into cruise ships or sold them. The interior designs were sharply modernized. For instance, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2, designed by James Gardner and Dennis Lennon, debuted in 1969 with exterior detailing resembling a yacht, and sunken green leather sofas and plenty of Formica and chrome inside. 

The cruise ship itself and its onboard amenities and entertainment became the point of the journey, a shift crystallized by the popularity of the 1977 show, The Love Boat. "With the arrival of the Aaron Spelling production, Americans started thinking about cruises not as something from a 1930s, high-society drama set aboard a grand ocean liner, but as a vacation for the average person," writes Mark Orwoll in Conde Nast Traveler.  


1980s: The Megaship 

The 1980s saw the development of the first megaships when the MS Sovereign of the Seas from Royal Caribbean took its maiden voyage in 1988. Still in service today, that ship is 880 feet long and has a capacity of 2,850 passengers. More recent vessels are double the size and can hold over 5,000 passengers, climb 18 decks, and feature amenities like IMAX theaters, boutiques, and water-slide parks. To maintain an air of exclusivity, luxury lines skew smaller, sailing with 400-1,200 passengers and more curated amenities.  

Designing for Cruise Ships Today

Scarlet Lady is currently being built in Genoa, Italy, as is Virgin’s second ship. The construction of each ship takes approximately two years. 

More recently, cruise lines are tapping celebrity designers to reach a more design-savvy market. Just as on-board roller coasters and ziplines once added to a ship’s appeal, now it’s interior designers with broad name recognition and experience in hospitality design.

In 2020, Virgin Voyages, billionaire Richard Branson’s soon-to-be-launched cruise line, will launch their first "Lady Ship" (a nod to their British roots and the expression "your ladyship.") The exterior of the first ship, Scarlet Lady (named, in part, for one of the earliest Virgin Atlantic planes) was designed by London’s Magpie Studio, and its sleek, silvery-gray hull with accents of the company’s signature red is meant to mimic a superyacht.

For Virgin Voyages' design-forward interiors, the company tapped Roman and Williams, Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio, Concrete Amsterdam, and Softroom of London—all of whom have experience designing in hospitality but are first-time designers in the cruise industry. Roman and Williams took a different approach in their designs for the ship, using lighting to "create a cinematic, dreamy type of experience," says Robin Standefer, who co-founded the firm with her husband, Stephen Alesch, after the two met while working in Hollywood. 

Roman and Williams took a dreamy, cinematic approach and used lighting to create a sense of drama in their interior designs for Virgin Voyages.

Not to be left out, Celebrity Cruises introduced their own luxury line: Celebrity X cruises. For their latest line of ships, called Edge Class, the company partnered with Nate Berkus as the design ambassador and engaged both Kelly Hoppen and Patricia Urquiola for the interiors. Hoppen took the lead on the design of the fleet’s staterooms, suites, spa, and lounge areas, while Urquiola collaborated with architect Scott Butler of Wilson Butler on public spaces such as an installation-like common area known as "Eden."  

Patricia Urquiola designed the interior space for "Eden," a greenery-filled common area in Celebrity Cruise’s Edge Class ship.

The light-filled public space includes pops of color via bohemian macrame-like hanging chairs and plant installations, in addition to the bar in Eden Cafe. 

Luxury lines are also revisiting Ballin’s concept of the cruise ship as a hotel. When Viking Cruises’ founder and chairman, Torstein Hagen, first asked Richard Riveire of Rottet Studios to design Viking’s fleet of cruise ships, Riveire—who has designed a wide range of luxury hotels and has a deep understanding of hospitality environments—responded that he had never been on a cruise or even inside a cruise ship before. Hagen reportedly replied, "That’s OK, I want a hotel guy." 

"It was so smart because I could look at it from a new perspective—a hotel perspective," explains Riveire. "I didn’t think about what we couldn’t do, because I didn’t even know what we couldn’t do!" Riveire had to consider some of the basic differences in cruise ship design, such as adhering to strict regulations concerning issues like weight and having to think about the placement of materials. However, a partnership with SMC Design, a design firm with extensive maritime experience who served as the associate architect on the project, helped successfully translate Riveire’s ideas to the shipyard.  

Richard Riveire of Rottet Studios cites Viking’s Wintergarden as his favorite spot on the ship, and it’s easy to see why. Riveire has done projects for Disney and is a natural storyteller, so he envisioned this open space near the pool as an interpretation of a story from Norse mythology about Odin’s two ravens: Hugin and Munin. Structural steel poles were masked with wood, like stylized trees in a forest. If you look carefully you can find a pair of ravens in the trees.  

The inspirations for his design stem from actual Viking longships, Norse mythology, and a minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic. However, according to Riveire, the most challenging part of the experience was learning how to design to the right scale. "We’re using spaces that are much smaller than we want them to be, but we want them to feel just as luxurious as a land-based hotel," says Riveire. To accomplish this, he employed subtle tricks—like the use of mirrors—throughout to make the spaces look bigger than they actually are. "Just as you would use in a small apartment," he explains.

Viking’s fleet of ocean cruise ships all have a distinctly understated and minimalist Scandinavian feel that emphasizes luxury materials and light.  

The Aquavit terrace bar is a lovely, light-filled space with a connection to outdoor space. 

But ultimately, the key difference comes down to the fact that instead of designing for a place—you are designing the place. "On a ship, every day you open the window and you are looking at new sights," explains Riveire. "Hotels feel like a part of a place. On a ship, this is your home; after a day of exploring, this is where you are coming back to." 

Related Reading: This Winning Renovation Takes Cues From 1930s Cruise Ship Design

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