A Fleet of Unicorns

An iconic cruise line is getting a facelift—and My Nguyen is getting the most out of her interiors team with a fresh approach

My Nguyen has a secret. The leading marine interior designer breeds unicorns. Of course, these “unicorns” are not the mythical, horned beasts of ancient folklore—they’re the unusually talented designers she relies on as she creates beautiful yet functional spaces for cruise operator Holland America Line (HAL) and Seabourn (SBN).

Like the one-horned creatures with which they share a name, Nguyen’s team is both rare and in demand.

“The success of a perfectly maintained interior on ships requires a strong team and a good budget,” Nguyen says. “If you don’t have deep resources, it becomes even more important to have these unicorns.”

Nevertheless, the creatures are hard to find. Those who know marine design well are busy and, therefore, not teaching their craft. Interested students have passion, but lack experience and knowledge.

“There’s an imbalance in the world of marine interior design and operations,” Nguyen says.

Given the industry’s massive buying power, she would like to see more awareness, LEED applications on marine projects, and an extended talent pipeline.

Nguyen describes her work in the marine industry as “interior design on steroids.” Her small team of five professionals is responsible for all passenger spaces on 18 HAL and SBN vessels, the largest of which accommodates more than 2,600 passengers. The team provides new designs, upgrades, and maintenance for dining venues, bars, lounges, public spaces, gyms, pools, children’s areas, and passenger staterooms.

There’s also the inherent challenge of designing for a ship. Materials are exposed to salty air and abrasive disinfectants. The vessels are in constant use and have stricter fire ratings than land-based facilities. As they move all around the world, ordering materials must be carefully coordinated. Over time, these materials can also become obsolete, so refurbishment takes more than simply pushing the reorder button. Additionally, economic realities force restrictions to design budgets, engineering, materials,
and implementation.

Due to these and other factors, Nguyen’s team often performs its work as quickly as possible to avoid loss of revenue associated with any downtime. It’s not uncommon for HAL’s interior and retrofit teams to rip out and replace entire sections of a ship in fewer than 14 business days.

But not all interior designers can perform under this type of pressure while appreciating the nuanced challenges introduced by the marine industry.

“I have to find or develop special people who are well-versed in maintenance and who can think with both sides of their brain while working cross-functionally with a huge number of groups,” Nguyen says. She adds that each person on her team must design and project-manage while understanding the practical needs and operational aspects of each HAL ship.

STARTING FROM ANOTHER SHORE

Born in Vietnam, Nguyen came to Seattle as a refugee at the age of two. She discovered an early passion for art, studied at the University of Puget Sound and the Art Institute of Seattle, and joined HAL as an intern in 2002. After three years, she left for a boutique design firm. As one of NB Design Group’s associate designers, she created high-end designs for residential, hospitality, and commercial clients, including HAL. When HAL decided to start work on a new prototype vessel known as Koningsdam, the company asked Nguyen to create the design for its 1,330 state rooms.

The project—HAL’s first large-scale production since the global recession—marked a new and important era for the company. After outsourcing design for decades, leaders recognized the need and opportunity to build a strong interiors program and brought Nguyen back in-house to help create the department.

As she leads her new interiors team, Nguyen puts a special focus on consistency.

“My vision is to build a department that balances operations and maintenance in a way that meets economic realities, but still provides beautiful, refreshed, and current experiences for our guests,” she says. “We’ll take a long-term and holistic view, because when you replace each item one-for-one, a ship can quickly become a patchwork quilt of bad decisions.”

Outside designers that don’t have as much experience in the marine industry often provide amazing designs, but some of these designs fail to translate well to a cruise ship application. Nguyen is drawing upon her years of experience with HAL to attract and develop the talent to create beautiful and functional designs in-house or in collaboration with outside designers.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

“Passengers won’t remember the beauty of your design if they can’t use and navigate the space successfully,” Nguyen says.

She asks each HAL designer to consider flow and function. Then, each of her team members rely on his or her design talent to make the space beautiful, inviting, and interesting. As ships are underway 365 days of the year, each designer must accommodate the needs of other departments, including housekeeping, technical operations, maintenance, food service, and others.

In designing for the Koningsdam—HAL’s largest—Nguyen sought to provide a contemporary design without veering from the company’s classic palette of rich colors and European finishes. Nguyen broke away from neutral tones and managed to use colors without becoming garish. She also fine-tuned the living quarters by maximizing every inch.

Accommodations feature redesigned headboards, stone tops on desks and nightstands, high-end bathrooms, enhanced closet space, and modern touches such as USB ports. In addition, there are 12 single staterooms with an ocean view and 32 family state rooms that each accommodate up to five passengers.

In the midst of completing Koningsdam, HAL’s interiors team has focused its attention on the rest of the fleet. Over the next five years,
Nguyen and her team will uplift the HAL brand by upgrading materials and finishes in all suites throughout the majority of the fleet to match the quality of the Koningsdam. Additionally, the company is partnering with Lincoln Center, America’s Test Kitchen, and other top names in food and entertainment to create unforgettable experiences aboard all HAL cruises.

AN EARLY PASSION

My Nguyen developed a passion for art and design early in life. As part of a Vietnamese refugee family in Seattle, she turned to basic toys and a vivid imagination to keep her occupied. Her mother—a sewing contractor—produced small-batch boutique pieces for designers, so Nguyen was always surrounded by the sound of sewing machines, the colors of endless fabric bolts, and the conversations with customers.

“I had nothing but my imagination, and I always loved to touch and create things. Color and materials have been with me since childhood,” she says.

Nguyen has a BFA in oil painting. Whether designing a ship’s interior or putting a brush to canvas, her goal remains the same—she hopes to inspire others, make a positive difference, and make the world a prettier place.