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Interview: Tomas Tillberg, Managing Partner, Tomas Tillberg Design

Sunstone cruise ship sylvia earle
The Tillberg-designed interior of the cruise ship Greg Mortimer (Tomas Tillberg Design)

Published Mar 20, 2023 2:20 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2023 edition.)

The Tillberg name is synonymous with modern cruise ship design, a business practically started in the industry’s infancy by Tillberg’s father, Robert. Today, Tomas Tillberg and his two partners – Carlos Reyes and Nedgé Louis-Jacques – continue the tradition of innovative, forward-looking design.

Tell us about yourself – your background and education.

I was born in Stockholm and exposed to cruise ship design early on through the work of my father, Robert Tillberg. I attended the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. While studying there, I did a commission on a cruise ship – a mural in mosaic – which became the first job done together with my father.

That was in 1970. The ship was the Sea Venture, and my father was in charge of designing it. I was asked to design the mural for a wall in the Galaxy Lounge on the top deck. I created a mural in glass mosaic and went to Murano near Venice in Italy to purchase the materials. This first project taught me how to think out of the box as I had to figure out how to attach thousands of pieces of cut glass to a curved aluminum wall.

That was the beginning. And that ship, the Sea Venture, later became the Sun Princess of “Love Boat” fame, the TV show that debuted in the mid-1970s and basically introduced cruising to the world. What a coincidence!

Wow, amazing! Tell us more about your father.

Robert started working providing materials for interior designs of ships as early as 1943 – before I was born. His first major ship design contract was with the Swedish American Line and its iconic MV Kungsholm, built in 1966. After that there is a long list of ship designs, including the aforementioned Sea Venture in 1970. A series of three Crystal Cruises ships followed. His last designs were in cooperation with our office here in Fort Lauderdale on the Crystal Serenity. She was built concurrently with Queen Mary 2 at the French yard, Chantiers de l’Atlantique.

When did you decide to come to the US and set up your own business? What was your ambition?

That was in 1996. We already had clients here – Royal Caribbean was one of them – and the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area was fast becoming the cruise center of the world. We really wanted to have a presence here.

How many offices and employees are there?

We have two offices – the main office in Fort Lauderdale and a support office in Bogota, Colombia. I have two partners – Nedgé Louis-Jacques, who joined us about 20 years ago and came from Royal Caribbean where she had a very senior design post, and Carlos Reyes, who also came from Royal Caribbean where he was the Senior Project Architect.

When Carlos joined us, we had about 35 people in the Fort Lauderdale office. He had an idea that proved to be very successful. Being from Colombia where he was educated and trained, he had a group of architects in Bogota that he wanted to work with and establish an office for maritime work. This meant we could outsource all our CAD work to a team of architects in Bogota. That was more than 10 years ago, and it’s been very successful. Today, we have about 30 people doing all our CAD work. Our whole team of designers and architects is skilled and talented.

How did COVID and the shutdown of the cruise industry affect your business?

We were very fortunate because we were in the middle of a contract with SunStone from Miami, building ships in China. Expedition ships – seven of them. And those contracts kept us very busy even during the pandemic.

You were among the first to recognize China as a promising market for the cruise industry. Tell us about that.

Our Asian work actually started in Japan where one of the Crystal ships was built in 1989. Later we did a ferry in Korea at the DSME yard – a big, 3,200-passenger cruise ferry that travels between Tunisia, Italy and France.

So when Sunstone started looking at newbuilds, we considered many different possibilities, and China and our experience in Asia came up as one of them. At that time we had also been approached by a Chinese company that was a supplier to Chinese shipyards. And that's how it started.

Fascinating! You have a very distinctive logo.  What does it signify?

Yes, the logo is a key thing for us. It’s a sail and the “R” is for “Robert” because my father originally designed it. I was a schoolboy when he designed it, and he asked me what I thought of it. It’s been modified and colorized over the years to make it look more modern. And, of course, it’s copyright-protected.

You are widely recognized as the “go to” source for innovative cruise ship design. How did you achieve that recognition? What were some of your notable projects along the way?

Yes, well, whatever reputation we might have as a company was really built on my father's work. He was the trailblazer, and we learned from him. He taught us to explore new possibilities and be on the frontlines of design innovation. The company we have today – Nedgé and Carlos and the rest of our team – we excel at that. We got into Korea and then China, opening up new doors. We love a new challenge, whether it be a newbuild or a refit.

As for notable projects, there’ve been many such as the Crystal Cruises ships, the Queen Elizabeth 2, the Queen Mary 2. And there are two we’re working on now that are just as notable – the SunStone Infinity-class expeditionary vessels built in China and the conversion of the former Holland America ship Maasdam for the French company CFC.

The SunStone vessels are unique in that each is being built for a different charterer. The way SunStone operates is they build and own the ships, but they’re all chartered to different travel companies. So each ship is different in its interior look, which is a wonderful design challenge.

The seventh ship – the one we are staring to work on now – is chartered by an Australian company that specializes in Antarctica and the Arctic and very exotic locations. They cater mostly to Australians, so we listen carefully and have a dialogue throughout the design process to make sure the result really fits their clientele.

Another ship in the same series was for an American charter company with different requirements that catered to a completely different public. It makes our work fun and challenging.

Neat. And then the conversion of the former Maasdam for CFC?

Yes, refurbishments are another type of work we really like to do and are very good at. From a design viewpoint, refurbishments are very different from newbuilds. You really have to know what you're doing because you usually don't have a whole lot of time and have to get it right the first time.

This project is really a first since it revives the long tradition of French cruising, which has been dormant for decades. Think of great ships like the Normandie and SS France! And that’s what we’re doing – helping resurrect that tradition in the Renaissance, the new name for the Maasdam – and a very appropriate name, don’t you think? The work is also being done in a French shipyard.

Materials and designs – those are your building blocks. Tell our readers about the design process. How do you go about fitting the right design for the customer?

Yes, well, the first thing is you want to understand what the vision is, what the ideas are that the owner has in mind, and then you want to materialize those ideas. So it's a process. You start by listening. You learn what the brand is all about and provide a series of presentations. Today this process is different and interesting because we work more and more with renderings.

In the past, it was done exclusively with sample boards. Meetings were more frequent to discuss the materials to be used. It was not really easy to visualize the final design doing it that way. Today, with the Internet and modern technology, it is easier to visualize the designs with the high-quality renderings we produce in house. We also have a library of samples from more than 400 suppliers from the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world. This library is constantly updated with new materials which open new design possibilities to us. The renderings and the material samples give the client a full picture of the final design.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

I can think of a couple. One is the supply chain challenge, particularly with refits or refurbishments because they're fast-paced, and right now delivery times of materials are longer than they used to be, and that's partly a result of the pandemic. So you have to be very careful with what you select so as to make sure it's available when it needs to be available.

A second is the fact that the cruise industry in general – the big companies – are heavily in debt from the pandemic, so they're reluctant to invest money like they used to on big refurbishments of existing ships. Newbuilds are happening, so that's good, but they tend to be repeat designs. So we’re very fortunate to be working with companies like SunStone in the expeditionary field and CFC in refurbishment. The industry is coming back now, which is very positive for all of us.

What do you like most about your work? What gives you the most satisfaction?

It’s the people I work with, the team we have. It's an amazing team that we’ve established over many years, so it's very stable. And that's very important. The other thing is the challenge when we get a new project – meeting the client, scheduling conference calls, coming up with new ideas, figuring out what the design is going to be, and so on. That’s what keeps me going. Those things. 

Jack O’Connell is the magazine’s Senior Editor.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.