DAVID CAON IS QUIETLY COMING OUT OF THE SHADOW OF HIS MENTOR MARC NEWSON. THEY BOTH DO AEROPLANE INTERIORS, BUT CAON’S INNOVATIONS AND AMBITIONS IN INDUSTRIAL DESIGN ARE SUBTLY DIFFERENT.
An hour and a half out of Sydney on the inaugural flight of Qantas’s Dreamliner 787-9, as the sun came up over the Pacific Ocean, soft lights in sunrise mode came on slowly inside the business-class cabin. It could not have been a better daybreak for designer David Caon, sitting in row 7 next to his wife and studio director Jeramie, on the Boeing plane he’d kitted out for Qantas.
Eight months earlier he’d spent two days in Seattle in a windowless lab mocked up as a cabin interior with Peter Cistulli, a professor in sleep medicine at Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Research Centre. They were testing lighting scenarios with Boeing technicians, setting lights to put you in the right mood for boarding, eating, sleeping and waking up. Normally the transition from light to dark is abrupt but Caon wanted it to be imperceptible, like the rising or setting sun. It’s harder to do than it sounds but he was confident they’d cracked it, although he left Seattle without having experienced the whole sequence. Around 5.30am on October 20 on flight QF7879 the computerised sun rose just as he hoped it would.
“I won’t lie, it was a sense of relief that everything that we imagined just came together,” he says, of the first outing of the plane he’d spent 18 months working on. When he boarded in Seattle it was the first time he’d seen the interior in totality, let alone had the whole lighting experience. Testing in February had been fascinating but gruelling.
“You spend two days in a sensory deprivation mockup just with a computer and you’re designing the colour of lights and the transitions and all that sort of stuff. It took 16 hours to get to Seattle, then two days in this little room and then you go home again. By the end of it you are kind of half insane,” he says.
It takes a certain temperament to design the interior of an aircraft, to relish creating porcelain cups and saucers that weigh 20 per cent less and look better or make a seat that doesn’t go flat feel like a bed. You have to be almost equal parts geek and stylist, the sort of designer who pins a photo of moonwalker Neil Armstrong in middle-age civvies on his mood board alongside one of Fiat patriarch and style icon Gianni Agnelli with his onetime girlfriend Anita Ekberg. The sort of person who, in aviation industry parlance, gets “juiced” about a latch, which, like everything else on that metal tube with wings, must be failsafe.
David Caon is that person. In this instance the latch opens the ice drawer in a self-service bar in business class. Caon wanted it to look like something you’d find at home or in a hip bar rather than the galley of an aircraft. It became a quest.
“It sounds weird but designing a new latch in an aeroplane seems to be like turning the world on its head because of the certification involved. We wanted to design this latch that didn’t look like a latch. It took months but we were really persistent. When we got it done the insiders at Qantas were coming up and going, ‘oh that latch was amazing’.” It may only excite insiders, but the latch is a good example of how innovation works in practice, he says.
“When you talk about innovation people often think about technology, but for us it happens in the process and in ideas, and they don’t necessarily need to be technologically focused. They can just be how you do something or how you get to an end point.” The most demanding Dreamliner task was its premium economy seat where Caon ignored the rest of the market and used ergonomics to address how you get somebody to be “really, really comfortable in a seat that doesn’t go flat. We threw it all out and started with a blank piece of paper. Once you do that you are forced to be innovative.” He made the ergonomic position paramount, dropping any stylistic choices that compromised comfort.
Aviation industry commentator David Flynn of Australian Business Traveller rates the seat “exceptional”, saying it could qualify as business-class on mediumrange flights of some European and Asian airlines. He says it has been short-changed by the lack of legroom, but for that he blames Qantas, not Caon.
Caon has been working for Qantas in his own right since 2009 when he opened his Sydney-based Caon Studio. Before then he worked for Marc Newson, Australia’s most famous design export, for about five years, four of which were in Newson’s studio in Paris. Caon got his grounding in aviation on Newson’s A380 fitout for Qantas. Comparisons are inevitable.
“The Airbus A380 was Newson’s aviation pièce de résistance,” says Flynn. “You can’t beat the big doubledecker super jumbo as a showpiece.” Caon’s Dreamliner is less grand but there’s an argument that it represents today’s Qantas in its obvious modernity and efficiency and in how it will redraw the network map. Newson’s work has a strong, recognisable stamp, whereas Caon’s is subtler and even pared back, he says. Comfort is key with the Dreamliner because it’s being used for Qantas’s landmark Perth-to-London 18-hour non-stop service, which starts March 24.
Qantas accounts for the bulk of the output of Caon
Studio, though it has other work on the go, including iterations of a distinctly aviation-inspired modular furniture system called Bloc. But it’s a brief for a light switch that’s been giving Caon the most grief of late. He can’t discuss it in any detail, except to say it’s a wrestle between technical requirements and appearance for a client who champions design. The project has a particular resonance because his touchstone is a light switch that Achille Castiglioni designed for VLM in 1968. “You just hold it and you flick your thumb and that’s that. So I channel all that thinking.”
Born in Adelaide to Giocondo, the son of Italian migrants, and Italian-born Mariarosa, Caon was christened David but called Davide by his parents. It’s the latter I meet during Milan design week in April, zipping around on a Vespa, bantering with the waiters in Italian and throwing back Prosecco in the 19th-century tiled courtyard of Il Salumaio di Montenapoleone in the city’s fashionable heart.
“It’s Milan – you kind of get into that terrible thing where you’re drinking Prosecco at breakfast,” he jokes as he orders un altro. Caon loves the northern Italian city where he cut his designing teeth working for George Sowden, an English champion of the Milanese design society and member of the Memphis group. He feels at home there and his design heroes are all Italians like Castiglioni and Joe Colombo from the golden postWorld War II generation. “I feel a sense of connection because it’s part of who I am and it gives me a soft spot for those guys because some of them look like my grandfather,” he says.
Of course, they were also the leading design lights of their era. “There’s a lot of design now that’s beautiful but there’s not such a big emphasis on function. My favourite designers back in the 50s and 60s were making really, really functional stuff.” As a student he was smitten when he saw Mario Bellini’s Divisumma 18, a chunky calculator made for Olivetti in 1973 where the plastic membrane has been stretched over the buttons. He loves Colombo’s Visiona 1, a gloriously purple prototype of a futuristic system for living, and Castiglioni products such as the Lampadina, made from a basic light fitting and a metal spool around which you wrap the cord. He’s got one at home. “What’s popular in design now is hacking existing objects into other objects, and Castiglioni was doing it in the 60s.”
Not long after Castiglioni died in 2002, Caon had a private tour of the cluttered studio in the heart of Milan where he’d worked for 60 years. It’s since been turned into a museum but at that stage was untouched and Castiglioni’s ex-wife let Caon and his design journalist friend explore the studio uninhibited. “We were just riffling though his stuff. There was this big cabinet of trinkets that he’d collected from all over the world because he used to teach at the Milan Polytechnic and he’d gather these things that fascinated him for his own collection and to present to the students.”
Caon, 40, was educated on the brink of the digital design revolution. In his first year of industrial design studies at the University of South Australia, they drew by
“There’s a lot of design now that’s beautiful but there’s not such a big emphasis on function.”
hand with T-squares, while also using rudimentary CAD software, which was new to the teachers as well. When he left university everyone wanted graduates with computer skills and model mock-ups were largely abandoned, he says.
Technology also expanded the realms of what can be produced. In 2003 he created an object called Mr Impossible for an exhibition in Milan to show off the potential of the new and cripplingly expensive 3D technology. Now he has a 3D printer in his office and could make Mr Impossible overnight. He’s also using virtual reality during the design phase. It’s especially useful for explaining concepts to clients and will make it easier to visualise the overall effect of his next job for Qantas, a refresh of the A380. All this technology has, however, caused him to reflect on its creative shortcomings. So he’s going back to go forward.
“I’ve almost put the [stylus] pen down and reverted to old-school industrial design. It’s a bit late in my career to be going that way but I’ve seen the value of it.” Hence his fascination with Castiglioni’s trinkets and the models he’s seen in the offices of Jasper Morrison and Frank Gehry, that are simple but expressive of early ideas and great aids to understanding scale and proportion.
“The best thinking comes when you pare it back to something really basic and see the purity and shape of the form. It might look really boring in 3D. Even working on the A380, the first thing that we’ve done is to make little cardboard models to understand the space.”
With the Dreamliner Caon fitted out the aeroplane that represents the Qantas of the future, yet he’s still mostly known as the designer who used to work for Australia’s most lauded designer, Marc Newson. Even 10 years on, it’s an epithet that seems unlikely to fly away any time soon. “I don’t know when it will stop but I can’t let it bother me,” says Caon, adding with a laugh: “I could probably take it out of my bio if it really bugged me that much.” He’s grateful for what he learned working for Newson, who some say is the most influential designer of his generation, and for the way it set him up for the Qantas role.
Newson’s greatest talent may be instilling his signature sculptural vaguely futuristic forms across anything from a Sunbeam toaster to a solid marble museum piece, without losing design cred. He thrives on diversity and that’s rubbed off on Caon, who says, “It may sound like a weird goal but I would like to almost design one of everything.” But rather than imbue each item with an identifiable look, he wants the thread to be in the way it works. It’s a goal that will make it much harder for him to make a mark as opposed to a Marc.
“Sometimes designers can focus too much on the glamour but that’s not really my approach. I’d like to have an ideological continuity through different products but I’m not sure how you get something to work so that someone says, ‘oh this functions like a David Caon piece’.” He’d probably settle for something like that light switch, which was one of Castiglioni’s favourite creations despite being the ultimate anonymous work. Available in black or white, it was simple, unrecognised and ubiquitous – the essence of industrial design.
“It may sound like a weird goal but I would like to design one of everything.”
Caon’s Qantas dinner ware, premium economy seats and business class in sunrise mode