Meet the Singaporean designer behind the world’s first commercial spaceport
To create the interiors of Virgin Galactic's Gateway To Space, they first hiked across the New Mexico desert, revealed Viewport Studio’s Voon Wong.
If you were tasked to outfit the interiors of the world’s first commercial spaceport, there’s probably only one reaction that’s truly appropriate.
“We were over the moon,” quipped Voon Wong, the creative director of multidisciplinary design outfit Viewport Studio, which was asked by Virgin Galactic to work on its Gateway To Space project.
The brief? To create a space that underscores the journey from earth to space, and the transition from the ground up to the sky. It also had to allow for chance encounters between passengers, Virgin Galactic engineers, staff and astronaut pilots, and their families, friends and visitors.
Viewport Studio, which has offices in London and Singapore, took a decidedly grounded approach “exactly the same way we do with every project, by immersing ourselves into the brand values and ambitions of the client alongside understanding the local site conditions,” explained the 56-year-old Singaporean architect, who specialises in product and industrial design, as well as interior design.
HIKING IN NEW MEXICO
It also helped that Wong’s working relationship with the Virgin group goes back 20 years. “We worked with them on their cabin interiors for the A330 and 787 Dreamliner. It has always been a strong collaborative process and their teams are professional and engaged,” Wong said, adding that two of Viewport’s existing team members were former longtime employees at Virgin Atlantic.
Wong, who had worked with Zaha Hadid Architects in the 90s, has chalked up an impressive list of accolades over the course of his career, including the Oxo Peugeot Design Award for lighting, for a series of lamps fitted with electro-luminescent wire he co-designed with Malaysian designer Benson Saw; the Loop lamp that they designed for Fontana Arte in 2002 that was nominated for the prestigious Compasso D’Oro awards; and the Designer of the Year Award at the President’s Design Awards Singapore 2012.
Taking into consideration Gateway To Space’s New Mexico location, and some of Virgin Galactic’s brand values – togetherness, family, innovation, humour – the team started out by hiking into the local desert and sketching the landscape and the vegetation. Those sketches became key elements in the ensuing design process.
The team also watched two seminal movies about the journey into space: The Right Stuff, which chronicled the first 15 years of America’s space programme through the stories of pioneer astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard; and Overview, a short documentary featuring astronauts and philosophers discussing the life-changing experience of viewing Earth from space.
The project took two years from start to launch (it was unveiled to the public in August 2019), and saw the team making regular visits to the New Mexico desert, and working in tandem with the Virgin Galactic team and a local architecture practice.
“Everything is designed to look outwards in the same direction through the floor to ceiling windows onto the runway and the desert mountains beyond,” Wong explained. “There are a variety of spaces each with its own specifically seating formats to allow for different interactions, but at the same time designed to emphasise the space as a means of bringing people together.”
The area is also landscaped with different heights in order to create the best possible views for everybody: A rear platform encircles the area for viewing over the tables and sofas and a “mesa” in the corner features a raised area with window seating.
NO SPACE AGE CLICHES
Viewport Studio also custom-designed all the furniture, which includes an enormous central barista island, a 12m-long banquette seat with deep crisscross patterns in the upholstery.
“The furniture is designed specifically for comfort but at the same time, the striking way the large plywood banquettes appear to hover in the space creates a lightness of touch as well as portraying elements of flight. The low cradle sofas in the window areas reflect the contours of the sand dunes. The barista island is the heart of the space and is designed to reflect the desert strata of the eroded sandstone monuments with a large translucent onyx top that echoes the idea of a water oasis in the desert,” Wong said.
The material choices are all natural in colour – terracotta and greens, and the rich rusted corten style finish to the table tops – and are intended to reflect the warm desert environment surrounding the Spaceport.
The slatted elements of the rear walls work as a soundproofing element in the large open space area – which accommodates the restaurant area and the operation rooms on the open floors above – and are in natural wood, which attenuate as they rise up though the building to a thinner white painted finish.
“The space has almost deliberately avoided the cliches of the space age. However, we were able to introduce into the astronaut walkway an element of technology, with its mirrored ceiling, it is entirely made of interactive LED screens which will work as an animated lighting introduction for the astronauts and pilots as they walk down towards the spacecraft,” Wong adds.
During the flight itself the screens will work as information displays for the attending family, friends, staff and journalists.
Wong’s final verdict? “It was such a satisfying project as it involved different aspects of the whole team – architecture, experience design, product design, and digital design. It would be great to work on another project that involves the whole team again, such as more hospitality projects like hotels and restaurants. It is always great to design something we have never done before such as when we first designed a restaurant – Common Man Coffee Roaster in KL – or the Kids 21 retail stores.”
SOUTHEAST ASIAN IDENTITY
Viewport Studio’s other clients include Walter Knoll, Como Holdings, Royal Selangor, Delta Air Lines and EasyJet. It also undertakes hotel projects and private architectural work.
At present, the team is working on a variety of projects, ranging from a stacking chair with an Italian furniture maker, a villa for a client in Spain, a digital project with a new company Hyper CRC, and redesigning the interiors for arts venue Wales Millennium Centre.
Defining good design as something that “mixes innovation and rigorous attention to detail but also should answer the client’s brief, and at best exceed their expectations”, Wong, who divides his time between London and Singapore, noted that “the standing of Singaporean design is getting stronger and the global international design world is taking note."
He added: "Importantly, Singaporean designers are now a feature of the global design conversation. Singapore is also using design to define itself and its specific character as a global city alongside its unique Southeast Asian identity.”