Ocean Liner Interior Design: Profit vs Patriotism

The interior design of the great British and German ocean liners reveals the conflict between the public’s desire for national symbols and the shipping lines’ desire for profit.

Books and newspaper articles usually described the liners as nationalistic symbols.  The ships were expected to represent their homelands, and many people thought they did:

German liners struggled heroically to emulate Wagnerian castles, English liners fell into the dark wood and leather habits of a London club.1

If the Mauretania and Olympic had taken the stately homes of England to sea, the Imperator had exceeded all that by providing a floating imperial palace.2


Lusitania's first class dining room, in the French style of Louis XVI.

The British public wanted to think of ships like Mauretania and Lusitania as solidly British.  Frederick Talbot described the interior design of the Mauretania as “British in style, treatment, and workmanship, solid and durable, so that it fulfills national traditions.”3  But, in fact, a visitor to Mauretania could hardly have guessed that the ship was British at all:  The Dining room was sixteenth century French, the grand staircase and smoking room were fifteenth century Italian, and the lounge and the library were modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles.4

The interior design of other British ships revealed similar international influences.  The White Star Line’s Olympic of 1911 was decorated in Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Empire, Dutch, and Italian renaissance.5  And Cunard’s Aquitania of 1914, while somewhat more English in design, still had a Louis XVI restaurant and writing room.6

First class cabins on Olympic and Titanic were designed in a range of non-British styles, including Old Dutch, Italian Renaissance, and Empire.

First class cabins on Olympic and Titanic were designed in a range of styles including Old Dutch, Italian Renaissance, and Empire.

This discrepancy between perception and reality can be explained, to some degree, by the differing viewpoints of Edwardian social classes. The lower and middle classes — the people who bought the newspapers and illustrated magazines — were caught up in the nationalism of the era, and wanted to think of “their” ships as innately British.  The upper classes — the people who bought the first class steamship tickets — were far more cosmopolitan, and more interested in luxury than nationalism.  It is interesting to note, for example, that while the first class rooms on Mauretania were largely French, the second class rooms were mainly Georgian.

By decorating the first class areas of their ships in elegant continental styles the lines were appealing to the aesthetic values of their passengers.  At the same time many middle class Britons were turning back to the traditions of their homeland the upper classes were indulging their taste for luxury, which often implied France. “French styles had long been associated with aristocratic elegance in the minds of wealthy British people… The rich went on commissioning many of their grandest rooms in the French classical styles, especially that of Louis Seize, already long associated with elegant splendour in England.”7

The great ocean liners also had to appeal to American passengers, who filled two-thirds of the berths on the North Atlantic, and who had little interest in displays of foreign nationalism.

As with their British counterparts, German ocean liners were also billed as showcases of national culture.  Marine historian Frederick Talbot wrote at the time: “The German owners…sought their foremost artists and offered them the mural decorations, mosaic, sculpture, and plastic embellishment. The result is that every modern liner flying the German eagle constitutes a picture gallery of famous native painters and craftsmen.”8

A 1908 article in the magazine “International Studio” also praised the German liners as showcases of German art:

The commissions given by the North German Lloyd have opened up an entirely new and important field for German applied art. They are not without significance from a patriotic point of view. Hitherto the only means which German artists-designers have had of showing foreign countries what they can do has been at international exhibitions. Now, their very best creations…are borne far and wide across every sea.9

And certainly the German ships bore the trappings of German nationalism.  Most of the liners prominently displayed full-length portraits of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Imperator’s main saloon and Vaterland’s social hall both had veritable altars surrounding helmuted busts of the Kaiser.

Imperial German Eagle on the bow of Hamburg-Amerika's Imperator

Imperial German Eagle on the bow of Hamburg-Amerika's Imperator

Most notably, Imperator’s bow carried a monstrous German eagle, its head topped by an imperial crown and its talons clutching an orb with a motto that could have described the attitude of the Kasier as well as the Hamburg Amerika Line: Mein Feld ist die Welt.

The names of the great German liners were another reminder of their heritage.  Norddeutscher Lloyd named their great liners after German royalty:  Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (1897); Kaiser Friedrich (1897); Kronprinz Wilhelm (1901); Kaiser Wilhelm II (1902); and Kronprinzessin Cecilie (1907).  And HAPAG christened their most famous ships with names like Deutschland, Vaterland, and Bismarck.  Albert Ballin originally intended to name the first of his “big three” liners Europa, but changed the name to lmperator to honor the Emperor, who christened her.

But despite these trappings of German nationalism the decoration of the German liners, like their English counterparts, was actually quite international.  The interiors of Hamburg-Amerika’s largest liners were designed by Charles Mewes, an Alsatian who spoke no German and had an English partner and an office in London.   In fact, at the same time Mewes was designing HAPAG’s Imperator, Vaterland, and Bismarck, his English partner, Arthur Davis, was designing Cunard’s Aquitania.  And as John Maxtone-Graham commented, “close collaboration between the two for over a decade, together with the compatibility of taste that originally brought them together, meant that by 1912 their work was perhaps interchangeable.” 10

One of the projects for which Mewes was best known was the Ritz in London, built in 1904, which stood out for its Parisian exterior and colonnade and its Louis XVI interiors.11  Mewes also designed the Royal Automobile Club in London, and a series of English town and country mansions.

Mewes brought his international flair to the ships he designed, and despite Imperator’s massive German eagle and shrine to Kaiser Wilhelm II its interiors were heavily French rather than German.  Mewes even designed the ship’s lounge in the eighteenth century English style of Robert Adam and Imperator’s Pompeian Bath was copied directly from the swimming pool Mewes built for the Royal Automobile Club in London.

While the larger and more prestigious German ships — those prominent in the headlines and in the Kaiser’s mind — at least bore the trappings of Imperial Germany, the smaller ships were largely devoid of national symbolism at all.  Even the names of these smaller German ships reveal their purely commercial orientation, largely chosen to appeal to immigrants crossing the Atlantic to become new Americans:  George Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, President Lincoln, President Grant, Chicago, and Brooklyn.

HAPAG’s Amerika of 1905 even had decks named to appeal to Americans:

Lower Promenade:  Washington Deck
Upper Promenade:  Roosevelt Deck
Saloon:  Cleveland Deck
Main:  Franklin Deck

Amerika’s first class passengers took their meals in a Louis XVI dining saloon or a Ritz-Carlton Restaurant staffed by chefs and waiters from London, and the ship had an Elizabethan smoking room and staterooms decorated in the traditional English styles of Georgian, Adam, Sheraton, and Queen Anne.  And the ship itself was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast.12

Next Page: Conclusion

  1. Melvin Maddocks.  The Great Liners.  (Alexandria, VA: 1978). Page 97.
  2. Wall. Page 106.
  3. Talbot. Page 79.
  4. “The Shipbuilder”. November 1907. (New York Public Library: VXH).
  5. “Scientific American”. v. CV Page 9. (July 1, 1911).
  6. “The Shipbuilder”. June, 1914. Page 114.
  7. Alastair Service. Edwardian Interiors. (London: 1982). Page 121.
  8. Talbot.  Page 80.
  9. International Studio. v.36 Page 154. (December, 1908).
  10. Maxtone-Graham.  Page 97.
  11. Simon Nowell-Smith, Editor. Edwardian England. (London: 1964). Page 357.
  12. “Cassier’s Magazine.” v. XXIX, #2 (Dec. 1905). Pages 94-105.; Cooper Hewitt Museum. Ocean Liner: Speed, Style, Symbol. (New York: 1980). Page 26.