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Spring 2010 Features

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Flight patterns

An eye to the sky is what it takes to catch a glimpse of this alumna’s creative interior designs.

By Gabrielle Maxey

When Kim Richardson Emery was studying interior design at then-Memphis State University, her mother sent her a newspaper clipping with the words, “What about this?” handwritten across it. The article was about a man who designed aircraft and yacht interiors. “From that moment on, nothing less would do,” she declares.

Today Emery (BFA ’81) is president of Aviation Concepts Inc., a firm that designs interiors for corporate and commercial aircraft. She created the interiors for the first three Gulfstream VIP jets and one of the first Boeing 777s. Emery’s clients include CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, heads of state and members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. She’s crisscrossed the globe from the Middle East to Indonesia, Germany, Switzerland and England, producing plush seating areas, beautifully appointed bedrooms and fully equipped kitchens for airplanes.

Emery started her career at K.C. Aviation in Dallas, an area that is home to many businesses specializing in upscale aircraft work. The company’s upper management allowed the young design team to stretch the limitations of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and standard VIP interiors. “We questioned why interiors consisted of walnut and brushed aluminum cup holders with avocado green and gold palettes,” she says. “Our new marketing strategy became creating a comfortable and elegant interior — a place to work in a stress free environment. We felt that the aircraft should be an extension of the individual’s home or office space.”

The plan worked. High-profile companies and wealthy individuals lined up to have their aircraft designed and completed by K.C. Emery and many of her fellow designers became successful managers or owners of VIP aviation firms; Aviation Concepts was formed in 1990.

Designing for an airplane is basically like designing for a home or office, Emery says. All drawings and most renderings are done on computer software. “It is especially important to be able to read engineering drawings,” she says. “I had to learn basic engineering through osmosis since this wasn’t part of the design curriculum.” Designers have to submit concepts to an aviation engineering firm for detailed FAA-approved construction drawings. “It’s important to review the engineering data to avoid conceptual conflicts between the designer and the engineer. If you don’t work closely together, little details such as screw locations can be a huge surprise in the finished cabinetry article.”

In aviation, construction materials must be lightweight and flame resistant. Covering materials have to pass tough flame requirements and testing. Space is very limited and storage for each item has to be considered, calling for creative solutions. “You might have a beautiful bedroom, but emergency medical equipment might be stored under panels, beds or in cabinets,” Emery says. “The equipment is specially built for a small, compact area.”

Emery likes to start a project by researching the client on the Internet. Meeting individuals in their home, office or aircraft also is helpful. “Is the person reserved? Flamboyant?” Emery asks. “Clients come in every shape and nationality. Some are very interested in every detail and others just want to approve the general overall concept.” She’s found that American clients, and especially U.S. corporations, are the most involved with the projects. “Many of them want to know every detail, down to how many stitches per inch will be used on French seams. Most of our European or Middle Eastern clients are more concerned about the overall beauty, comfort and quality being the finest in the world. They don’t tend to second guess our decisions.”

Cultural and religious factors must often be considered. “Meeting the client in their homeland requires you to know their culture and religious rituals and manners,” says Emery. “The same principles might affect activities such as meal service or hardware in the aircraft.” For example, some individuals prefer buffet-style meals, requiring extra storage for casseroles and serving dishes as well as an area to set up the food. Muslim clients may require special bathroom fixtures so that they can wash before prayer.

One universal expectation: the job has to be flawless and delivered on time. “Every day an aircraft is behind schedule means thousands of wasted dollars for our client,” Emery says. “Pilots, flight attendants, hanger rent, insurance costs, interest on money invested for the project are accruing. Being late on a delivery schedule is not acceptable.”

Designing a private Boeing 777 has been Emery’s most elaborate project. The 777 incorporated a lighted dance floor and Star Trek-style pocket doors that open and close as they sense someone approaching. Other features included private bedrooms, a medical suite, vaulted ceilings and artwork displayed in a museum-like environment.

Unfortunately, Emery can’t divulge personal details about clients. The first rule of upscale aviation is complete privacy regarding all client information. “I’ve often thought of writing a book about some of my adventures, changing the names to protect the innocent,” she laughs.

Today, most small to mid-sized aircraft completion centers use a pre-packaged interior design package. “There’s a set price. If you deviate from the plan, there can be a huge money and time penalty. Changing something as simple as an oven can trigger a delay and huge cost increase.”

Elegance, style, function and comfort are   some of the hallmarks of designing custom   aircraft interiors for U of M alumna Kim   Emery, president of Aviation Concepts Inc.   Her husband, Ralph (pictured in center   bottom photo with Kim), is the company�s   chair. Some of their projects feature   bathrooms with full showers, state-of-theart   communications centers for pilots, and   elaborate entertainment and gaming systems.
Elegance, style, function and comfort are some of the hallmarks of designing custom aircraft interiors for U of M alumna Kim Emery, president of Aviation Concepts Inc. Her husband, Ralph (pictured in center bottom photo with Kim), is the company’s chair. Some of their projects feature bathrooms with full showers, state-of-theart communications centers for pilots, and elaborate entertainment and gaming systems.
Large planes like Boeing or Airbus provide more flexibility in creating a unique, one-of-a-kind interior, Emery says. “We can do most anything within regulation on those aircraft. Another option is to purchase a slightly used aircraft and to ‘gut’ the interior. We start with a clean sheet of paper to create a unique environment for our client.”

Her husband, Ralph Emery, handles contractual and most business related aspects of the company. Aviation Concepts also has a CAD design engineer who works closely with Emery on the drawing package and a “Jill of all trades” who handles accounting, purchasing, meeting notes and other functions.

“What has made us successful is the fact that we personally check every detail from the glare shield in the cockpit to the webbing color in the baggage compartment,” says Emery. “We don’t rely on a large staff of new employees to make major decisions. Each student has to go through a rigorous internship and close supervision before being allowed to make decisions on these multi-million dollar ventures. On the flip side, young designers can rise quickly in this relatively small market. They must be hardworking, willing to work occasional weekends, and sometimes very long hours. They must be willing to fulfill requests like finding a commemorative plate of Princess Diana as seen on the History Channel months before.”

Business has struggled, though, with the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the sluggish world economy. Many European and Middle Eastern clients, angered at decisions made by the U.S. government, have taken their aircraft to more expensive European completion centers even with cost-cutting prices by American companies. More recently, some corporations and individuals are not making payments on time, halting work on their projects.

Still, Emery remains positive. “I have been able to travel all over the world and meet many of the most fascinating people of our generation. I cannot imagine doing anything else,” she says. “Our world is filled with intelligent and creative people. It is ever-changing, challenging and never boring. This career involves high motivation and a strong will. We have broken the glass ceiling for women, but this is still basically a man’s world. You need to be strong to survive in this environment. The Memphis program is an excellent place to start.”

Former faculty members Jane Poodry, Martha Morris and James Harrington were instrumental in preparing Emery for her career and instilling the confidence required for the job. “They were tough on us. My fellow students and I would groan each time we had a new project, but I’m forever grateful for their knowledge and influence in my life.”

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