Whatever Floats Your Boat

We discuss the problems of car styling a lot here and, maybe, we’re unreasonably unsympathetic to the designer’s lot. After all, what do you do when you have a 5 metre length of metal to deal with? It’s a daunting task.

MY Azzam + Applique Rodius to scale - original image : schiffbilder.de
MY Azzam plus, if you look very hard, SsangYong Rodius to scale – original image : schiffbilder.de

Possibly the most universally scorned piece of automotive styling of recent years is the first generation SsangYong Rodius. This car bemused many observers, and the reasoning behind it was only explained slightly by learning that the shape was intended to evoke a luxury yacht, thus insulting yacht designers the World over. So what does yacht design really look like?

The largest current superyacht is the 180 metre long Azzam, though don’t quote that if you’re reading this in a few months time since the arms race between some owners means they are getting bigger all the time. Azzam is the length of 33 Maybach S Classes or 35 SsangYongs, more that 2 A380 Airbuses in a line or, to make a comparison in another dimension, stand Azzam on its stern, and it is exactly the same height as 33 St Mary Axe in London, the ‘Gherkin’.

Of course there are larger buildings than that, and there are larger boats. The largest ever was the 458 metre long Seawise Giant container ship, now broken up, and the current largest passenger ships are jointly the 362m Allure / Oasis Of The Seas. But little interest is taken in the aesthetics of most commercial boats these days. Unlike ocean liners from the pre-War golden age, like the Normandie (314 metres), cruise liners aren’t viewed as romantic devices in their own right, they are now just floating apartment blocks.

Oasis-of-the-Seas - image : cruiseshipdeckplan.com
Oasis-of-the-Seas – image : cruiseshipdeckplan.com

So, it’s pretty safe to say that luxury yachts are the largest, non-fixed, styled structures in the world. And, since many architects would bristle at being called stylists, you could arguably dump the non-fixed part. So, if Mercedes designers assume that viewers get bored with more that 0.25 sq m of sheet metal unless they put in a random crease, bulge, bend or swirl, how do yacht designers cope?

There is no universally agreed nomenclature that decides when a motor yacht (cabin cruiser) becomes a luxury yacht becomes a mega/superyacht becomes a gigayacht. Small motor yachts might be built in their hundreds, larger yachts might be presented as a range by companies like the 140 year old Italian yard Benetti and very large bespoke yachts will be commissioned entirely to order, designed and built from scratch.

Obviously it’s the job of a naval architect to ensure that the boat floats well and performs to order but, unlike a Supertanker or Destroyer, it doesn’t just need to function efficiently, it needs to look good.  Years ago, private yachts tended to relate more to their commercial cousins and many, like Onassis’s 1954 Christina O, were based on prosaic hulls, in the case of that yacht an anti-submarine frigate, but fortunately quite a good looking one.

Christina O, once Aristotle Onassis's yacht - image : yachtmasters.com
Christina O, once Aristotle Onassis’s yacht – image : yachtmasters.com

There are many reasons why very rich people buy very large yachts, but love of the sea is not always high on the list. One advantage a yacht designer has is that they usually have only one client to satisfy. Even architects designing for megalomaniacal developers usually have to deal with planning approval but, broadly, as long as it doesn’t fall over, you can make a boat look however you want.

One irritation I have about modern car design is that production processes now mean that it doesn’t actually need, or choose, to reflect the underlying form. Therefore, individual panels which could or should have their own integrity, appear to stray over into each other with grooves, creases and inserts. Designers of large yachts couldn’t do this even if they wanted. With the need to accommodate a rigorous structure of decks, combined with the requirement for light to be admitted into many cabins, they potentially face far more problems than either a car designer or an architect.  Also, they aren’t dealing with dies and pressings, the immaculate paintwork, which often recalls the fibreglass hull of a high quality small boat, actually covers a network of prosaic welded steel panels.

Not quite a production line. Under construction at Sunrise Yachts - image : charterworld.com
Not quite a production line. Under construction at Sunrise Yachts – image : charterworld.com

Tim Heywood is possibly the doyen of exteriors. His background goes back to the late Jon Bannenberg’s studio. Born in Australia and moving to London, Bannenberg is seen as having revived yacht design after working on the interiors of QE2 in the mid 1960s and his legacy is such that many of the leading design companies are based in the UK. Heywood’s work on the 133m long 2008 yacht Al Mirqab belies its size, whilst still producing something suitably impressive for its owner.

The Yacht Al Mirqab - image : liveyachting.com
The Yacht Al Mirqab – image : liveyachting.com

Colour was something missing from many large yachts until relatively recently. If you imagine the difficulty in spraying a car multiplied 100 fold, you’ll understand why white was the norm, maybe dark blue. The 99 metres 2013 Madame Gu from Winch Design manages to avoid most of the compromises involved in drawing a large yacht, partly by incorporating a complex, fold-out, hydraulic helipad. The superstructure is set far back, giving a distinctive and uncluttered profile, but the finishing of the whole boat in a vivid blue really crowns it, making it one of the best looking large yachts – at least until it moors off your beach and puts you in the shadows.

Madame GU in Blue - image : charterworld.com
Madame GU in Blue – image : charterworld.com

The interiors of these boats usually have little to do with their exteriors. Outside they do have to concede that, in the end, they are just boats. Inside though they might be a beach house, an art deco palace or an 18th Century chateau. And, just as car designers indulge themselves with the fantasy of show cars, so do yacht designers produce calling cards in the shape of ‘the yacht of tomorrow’. Whether anyone believed in the twin hull 155m ‘Streets Of Monaco’ concept featuring a go-kart version of the GP circuit and a superstructure based on various Monegasque landmarks, it got its designers some column inches, but there are more credible proposal too that may point towards new languages and, in fact, there are already boats that have broken away from the conventional.

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The architect and designer Philippe Starck has strayed into yacht design. I’m by no means a universal lover of Starck’s work – at one time no self respecting London kitchen was free of his irritatingly jokey and impractical Alessi lemon squeezer, and his Moto 6.5 bike for Aprilia has not gone down as a classic for bikers. But I do like his 2008 motor yacht called simply ‘A’. It’s actually somewhat aggressive since, without copying specifics, it recalls the threatening profile of a military submarine but, in fact, that just serves as a suitable counterpoint to contrast Starck’s sometimes exasperating playfulness. And, if you wonder what a yacht would look like if Apple made one, the nearest you’ll get is the 2012 Venus, designed by Starck for Steve Jobs, but only completed after his death.

Of most recent projects, here are three winners of the recent Showboats Design Awards. Sibelle by AB Studio/Omega Architects and Savannah by CG Design, exterior styling winners in their respective categories, and Cercio, a concept from Baoqi Xiao, a student of Pasadena Art Center College of Design, who was chosen as Young Designer Of The Year.

To say that the superyacht is an odd thing is an understatement. Except for a very few people, it is hardly a practical aspirational object, either to own, or even to charter. It stands as a monument to the odd World we find ourselves in, The New Feudalism. They are the floating castles, the sea is the moat, and there is a whole world of subjective opinion which reasonably considers any large yacht as two fingers stuck up by the mega-rich at the rest of us. But much like the grille on the front of a Rolls Phantom, I can’t help but look at these things objectively, judging them not on what they represent, but as to how well the brief is fulfilled.

4 thoughts on “Whatever Floats Your Boat”

  1. That’s a world I know nothing about. Floating sculpture: that’s my best term of comprehension. Like cars, the yacht has directionality imposed on them. Building are much less constrained and so potentially stripped of meaning. Classical architecture was a carefully elaborated disguise for that problem, by the way.
    Scale is the major difference. The yacht is viewed so close as to hide surface flaws or from a long way away which does the same. I’d need to see the interior layouts before determining if these objects are more substantial than they seem.

    1. When you go close up to commercial boats, you expect to see some ripples and a bit of rust after a few months, but the level of finish achieved on the exteriors of these is usually remarkably high. Maintaining it in an aggressive salty environment is a chore, requiring a costly repaint every few years.

      As for the interiors, they tend to be whatever the client wants. Twenty years ago, many used to look like the average Holiday Inn, but ambitions have expanded with fortunes. The only thing that takes the edge off the palatial atmosphere is the fact that you can’t beat gravity, so decks need to be set a sensible height from each other, meaning that ceilings are usually closer to 2.5 metres than a grandiose 4.5 metres.

      The best place to view interiors is on one of the chartering companies’ websites such as :


  2. Fascinating article.

    Yes, we do all like to queue up and put the boot in on car designers from time to time. Car design is hard, much harder than superyacht design, I would say. A good idea can be hamstrung by any number of compromises, from the technical to the political. And then, once completed, the car is placed alongside the massed ranks of cars and judged purely on the way the C-pillar looks. Tough gig.

    The cars I find most frustrating are those that are 99% superb, but for one or two ill considered details. Steve Jobs understood this like few others: compare an iMac to an all in one Dell and the uniformity of the quality and detailing is obvious. Ironic in the context of this article, considering that his yacht was so ghastly.

    1. It’s hard to compare the two in terms of difficulty I find. The one-off yacht designer has the advantage of only designing for a single customer, not a fickle public. On the other hand, 60 + metres of metal is an awful lot to have to cover, whilst bearing in mind all the hard points set by the naval architect.

      As regards the Starck/Jobs yacht, it’s an odd thing. It doesn’t send out those essential boaty messages of stability and strength, though it probably is perfectly serviceable in that respect. On the other hand, I suspect it might be quite a pleasantly airy thing to be inside, though possibly not that homely. The Fiat Multipla of the high seas Chris?

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