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

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