Designing 'Avenue 5': HBO's epic space cruise ship comedy's look explained

Avenue 5 concept imagery for a 2-mile space cruise ship at the heart of of HBO's space comedy.
Avenue 5 concept imagery for a 2-mile space cruise ship at the heart of of HBO's space comedy. (Image credit: HBO)

You wouldn't want to book a ticket on the Avenue 5, the luxury space cruise ship at the heart of HBO's new limited space comedy series. But if you did, at least you'd ride in style. 

That's largely due to the vision of production designer Simon Bowles, who worked with series creator Armando Iannucci  ("Veep (opens in new tab)") and a set decorating team to create the look of perhaps the the most luxurious cruise ship in space of all time. 

"On this project, I could see there was a wonderful opportunity to really kind of pull about the two worlds that the passengers and the crew inhabit on Avenue 5," Bowles told Space.com in an interview. "For the beautiful, futuristic part of the ship ... it's computer engineered so that every curve, every small detail is so considered with the aesthetics in mind, but also, I really wanted to keep it within the realms of science as much as possible."

Related: The 25 greatest spaceships of science fiction

Set 40 years in the future, "Avenue 5" chronicles the ill-fated voyage of a space cruise ship across the solar system after its eight-week trip to Saturn veers wildly off course. Its two-month voyage will now last years, stranding thousands of passengers and crew who just want to get home. 

"Avenue 5" debuted on HBO Jan. 19 and is in the home stretch of its nine-episode run, with episode eight airing tonight (March 8). It stars Hugh Laurie as Captain Ryan Clark, who is play-acting at command of the titular space liner; Josh Gad as the eccentric Herman Judd, the billionaire owner of "Avenue 5"; Lenora Crichlow as Billie McEvoy, the ship's second engineer; and a host of other characters who have to work together (in space and on Earth) to survive. 

But the "Avenue 5" itself is as much a star as the show's human actors. According to Bowles, the ship is vast — about 2 miles long (3 kilometers). It has a definite "Upstairs, Downstairs (opens in new tab)" feel to it when it comes to the glitzy, luxurious passenger areas and the seedy lower decks for the ship's actual crew. The ship, he explained, likely started off as a huge transport ship for cargo, with luxury spaces like staterooms, a vast windowed promenade, restaurants (and yes, a golf course), added over time. 

Simon Bowles, production designer of "Avenue 5." (Image credit: HBO)

"And that's why this ship is so dirty and grungy," Bowles said of the lower decks. "So, when they're moving through the rear section of the ship, they're having to step over things, or duck because of this huge I-beam ... whereas in the passenger, its very open there, and opulent."

All of the sets were designed with 3-D models first, then explored with Oculus Rift (opens in new tab) before being fabricated through 3-D printing, Bowles said. In all, the design team came up with 50 or 60 different sets. 

Inspired by real spaceflight

Some of "Avenue 5's" gritty spacecraft design is inspired by reality, with Bowles drawing on a tour about 15 years ago of the Russian space agency's Star City cosmonaut training center and its space station mockups to add a sense of history to the show's actual spaceflight controls. 

"I spent time and met with cosmonauts over there, and I've been to their flight control [center]," Bowles said, adding that he was struck by the relatively low-tech, "very manual way of interacting with space" of Russia's space agency at the time. 

"The looks of the lower decks section, where the actual crew is underneath the kind of glitzy part, was really reminiscent of what it was like on the Russian segment of the station," he added. 

The spacesuits of Avenue 5, too, have a used look to them, as if countless astronauts have donned and doffed them over the years to maintain the ship.

Bowles also researched real-life space mission control centers to help shape the Mission Control for Avenue 5. In addition to Russia's flight control center, he looked to NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, views of the private flight control center SpaceX (opens in new tab) has for its Dragon (opens in new tab) vehicles in California and even China's massive Traffic Control Center in Beijing for inspiration. In the end, he opted for a circular design with the flight director (Rav Mulcair portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Bird) at its center. 

"Normally, in those kind of spaces, everybody's facing towards the screen, you know, or an array of screens," Bowles said. "So I really knew that I wanted something like totally different." 

All hail Herman Judd

The podium that Mulcair can use actually rotates to face different parts of the flight control room, and can even rise up. Bowles imagines that Avenue 5's billionaire owner Herman Judd might use the podium as sort of throne to speak down to his employees. "I thought it'd be hilarious because this whole thing has to be the center of attention."

And speaking of Judd, his logo is everywhere on Avenue 5. It's on the beer, the walls, on digital screens and even in the lighting displays, with dozens of tiny "J" symbols spread out in different patterns. In the ship's comedy club, every brick on the stage's backdrop has the Judd logo on it, just because.

The Judd Corporation's logo is front and center in a wall light by Porta Romana.

The Judd Corporation's logo is front and center in a wall light by Porta Romana.  (Image credit: HBO)

"You don't see them so much, but yeah ... everything has got to be branded with that guy's logo," Bowles said, adding that designing Judd's brand was a lot fun. He imagines a backstory where Judd employees had to decide how much branding was enough. 

"It's the people who are doing the interior design and graphic design for him, for the Judd Corporation," Bowles said. "They think they're doing the right thing by putting his name out there. It may not even be an egotistical thing for him."

Season 1 of "Avenue 5" is nearly at an end, but years remain before the ship's passengers and crew will reach Earth. So it's no surprise HBO has renewed the series for a Season 2.  What types of design surprises await for viewers in that new season?

"Oh, this is a tricky question, because I'm looking at all the visuals for the next season," Bowles said, but he let no secrets slip. Instead, he promised that Iannucci and he hope to find new parts of the ship to explore.

"You know, who wants to go back and keep on retreading old ground? We want to go into new places," Bowles said. "That's why we wanted the ship to be very large, so that we can, every season, explore whole new exciting places and spaces within the ship."

 Bowles added that he was grateful viewers connected with "Avenue 5" to make a second season happen. 

"There's these wonderful kind of creative opportunities for the next season and beyond that that can be so exciting," he said. "I can't wait to share it with everybody."

Episode 8 of HBO's "Avenue 5" will air tonight, March 8, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Instagram.

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Tariq Malik
Editor-in-Chief

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award (opens in new tab) for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast (opens in new tab) with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network (opens in new tab). To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik (opens in new tab).