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