Nautical design: Defining luxury in motion

Massimo edonismo. Maximum hedonism is how the former Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo famously described the marque. Yet, the concept of luxury has been evolving for some time away from this perhaps crude description to include a much more complex set of values such as time, authenticity, privacy, serenity, sustainability – even, it seems, amongst the über wealthy superyacht community.

Ideas of luxury and contemporary design informed a passionate debate in the context of nautical design at the Superyacht Design Symposium. The annual event is held every February in the unlikely location of Kitzbühel in the Austrian Alps, some distance from sea and sailing – perhaps to permit flights of imagination.

Here yacht owners, builders and aficionados meet and mingle with influential designers from across the nautical, automotive, airline, architecture, interiors and fashion worlds. The professionals, we suspect, are here to inject a dose of design credibility into the yachting world. Nevertheless, the three-day event can be the instigator of some stimulating dialogue.

Lapo Elkann kicked off the debate with a characteristically provocative announcement. ‘When I look at the motion industry,’ says the entrepreneur and heir to the Fiat fortune, ‘as in cars, motorcycles, boats, the reality is that the boat industry can be far less innovative than the others.’ He continues to express real concerns for the nautical world, which he also inhabits, accusing the designers of recycling ideas from product to product. It offers a punchy start to the debate.

However, given the event and its audience, the idea of hand-me-down design seems perhaps a little exaggerated. After all, each and every one of these few hundred million pound vessels are, by their very nature, prototypes. They are envisaged, designed and executed for one single client – many of whom are here. Surely then a personal touch is at the very core of their existence.

Since his Fiat days, Elkann has been busy building his Garage Italia Customs firm that helps fine-tune such luxury toys. The socialite is very much his own brand ambassador too – he sails a 40-knot Baglietto that is tailored by his own firm. So it is not hard to see why Elkann sees the future of luxury in the highest degrees of personalisation. This, he believes, is the ultimate path to true luxury.

Elkann concludes with an impassioned speech on how nautical luxury needs to be a careful blend of craft and innovation, and embrace sustainability. He sites Luca Bassani, the charismatic founder of Monaco-based maritime design company Wally Yachts, as the very last contemporary innovative boat maker.

‘Modern luxury’, he finalises, ‘should be about cross contamination’, as in the sharing of knowledge and ideas technology and eco-innovations across all disciplines. ‘Together they speak the luxury of today and tomorrow. Sadly, most brands are viewing luxury only in the now.’

Axel de Beaufort picks up the thread agreeing that new luxury has to take on ‘authenticity, perfection and the skills of the craftsman’. The director of design and engineering at Hermès continues, ‘the definition of luxury is the emotion of the object. Hermès has a history of craftsmanship but it is about utilising this and mixing it with new innovations, like laser technology.’ Celebrated yacht designer Tim Heywood steps in to say he also feels the real key to luxury is through the artisanal skills of craftsman who build these vessels.

We need to invest more in the ‘immeasurable things’, warns Ilse Crawford, airport interior designer and owner of Studioilse. She admits borrowing the term from Charles Eames, coined by the mid-century Californian designer to advance the modernist principals of form follows function. Crawford, too, feels we must instil more emotion into the design of luxury yachts. ‘Our job as designers is to find ways of injecting soft value into hard values. It is about relevance, showing that we are part of our time,’ she clarifies.

Form follows function is an ideology Stefan Sielaff feels passionately about too. He interjects Crawford, simply saying, ‘I hate the phase’. The Bentley design director speaks candidly of his aversion: ‘I am German, and our design education was very strict, totally dedicated to Bauhaus. Form follows function comes from an almost totalitarian ideology where everything is to be equal, yet joyless, with no irony, no humanity, without love. Later, when I went to the Royal College of Art in London, I learnt a very different perspective. I learnt about humour, irony and love.’

He feels Bentley’s last concept car, the EX 10 Speed 6 sportscar, is a great example of a product that encapsulates true luxury yet is full of ‘love, irony and humour,’ he says. ‘It offers a statement, more than from, say, a technocrat.’ Sielaff believes good design should raise us to a higher level.

Nicky Haslam stresses on a number of occasions during the discussion how luxury and taste, which he fuses together, cannot be bought, that the rich in fact have very little taste, and a simple dose of ‘magic’ is all that’s needed to express true luxury. ‘Good design has to move you,’ says the interior designer to the rich and famous.

Elsewhere, panellist Andrew Winch agrees that good design in all sectors should make the user smile. The London-based nautical architect raises an interesting point, which sadly doesn’t quite get picked up on afterwards. He talks passionately of the need to humanise space in his field. ‘When you design a yacht you are accommodating a space with many staff who cannot be seen, who are not seen. They are invisible. It is about showing the crew, showing their existence.’

Pininfarina also dabbles on occasion in sea vessels. Francesco Lovo vice president of the specialist Pininfarina Extra arm feels luxury in motion is essentially about creating industrial beauty yet with the client at its core. A yacht, he offers, ‘is about the user experience, it is a matter of process, the emotional experience and how we interpret this.’

The opulent Ottantacinque, the marque’s latest superyacht sketched for the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri Yachts, wasn’t meant as a revolutionary statement. Nor was the meticulously crafted and innovative Wallycento#, designed alongside Wally Yachts for race-boat maker Persico Marine.

As expected from an innovative company such as Pininfarina, both are hugely engaging propositions for the nautical design. The Ottantacinque retains the essence of superyacht design by being elegant, ‘sober but not shouting,’ adds Lovo. He feels that this is part of the spirit of his firm’s overall design philosophy, and in the nautical world, ‘we simply want our customers to enjoy sailing.’

At this level in the nautical world, the designer and maker are kept separate. In the 1990s German shipyards Lürssen Yachts employed an in-house designer, but reality proved that clients prefer diversity, and so boat makers have to offer a wide selection of freelance designs.

Unlike cars and planes, yachts and in particular superyachts are one-off products; each and every one is reliant completely on the close collaborations of the client, designer and maker. So ultimately it’s down to the likes of company chief Peter Lürssen to orchestrate a smooth operation. He offers, ‘we have to get along with the designers and we have to get along with the owners. It is simple.’

Nargess Banks

The Superyacht Design Symposium runs from 21-23 February 2016 and is organised by Boat International

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