From one-of-a-kind wall panels to 600-hour cabinets, superb crafts and artisanship are a crucial piece of the contemporary designer palette when creating rarefied interiors. They offer an opportunity not only to create something unique, personal and inimitable, but to bring the skill of the maker – often acquired over decades – into the creative mix. It is also worth noting that without patronage, crafts will simply die out.
In the UK, Heritage Crafts publishes the Red List of Endangered Crafts every two years. The 2023 list included skills such as encaustic tile making, coppersmithing and passementerie (decorative trims such as tassels and braids). If we are to keep these crafts alive and, importantly, attract new generations to train in the skills required, it is a question of finding them a role in contemporary design projects.
Fortunately, there are many leading designers in the superyacht industry who are doing just that. To this end, BOAT International has announced the first BOAT Artistry & Craft Awards launching in 2024.Read More/BOAT Artistry & Craft Awards 2024: Everything you need to know
One designer who is passionate about craft is architect Achille Salvagni, who lives in London but operates his studio from Rome. He personally seeks out rare examples that may be in danger of being lost forever.
“It is important to keep the past as part of our existence or we lose our compass,” he believes. “The message of craftsmanship reflects not only where we have been, but embodies where we are going next.”
Over the years, he has built up a huge network of Italian artisans to bring his projects to fruition. On Baglietto’s 40-metre motor yacht Club M, for example, he specified cast bronze handles made by the same bronze workers who also undertake restoration at The Vatican. “I start with the craft then invent the piece around the capability of the maker – in that way, they can give advice and be part of the creativity process,” he says. “I want to secure people a living not only in restoring the past, but in creating the future.”
He also commissioned parchment walls and cabinets, tables and shelves with parchment tops. This was inspired by a Gio Ponti bar cabinet he had bought at auction for his own collection.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, parchment was very fashionable and exotic. I wanted to restore the cabinet and was eventually directed to the same atelier that had made it originally. The son of the man who made my cabinet was still there, continuing his father’s work. It was exciting to reintroduce the skill of parchment when it had been largely lost.”
On the 50-metre motor yacht Endeavour 2 – built by Rossinavi – he commissioned lacquer surfaces using the traditional urushi technique from artisans based in Osaka, Japan. “The clients are European with a passion for Japanese culture and are collectors of contemporary art, so we wanted to create a neutral palette on which they could display their ever-changing collection,” he says. “Red lacquer is one of the few touches of colour we included in the project.”
On the same yacht, Salvagni also commissioned traditional Japanese tatami woven straw mats, shoji-style partitions and walls made from koto wood. “The lacquer and the tatami were the first elements we commissioned, because we knew we would have to wait a long time for them – around eight months in a total deadline of nine months. It was scary in a way, because we would not have been able to make any changes had they not been perfect on arrival,” Salvagni continues. “When you order something that is handmade and bespoke, you have to fully trust the people involved.”
When it comes to the survival of craft skills, he believes the client is key. “It is our responsibility to transmit the level of complexity and detailing involved to the owner, so they in turn become the ambassador for the craftsperson. When they buy into the story and the process, it gives a different sort of pleasure when they look at their yacht and understand how much skill was needed to create certain details.”
Winch Design is also highly supportive of craftspeople. As a response to the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it established Under Winch’s Wing – artisans selected by Andrew Winch and his team – with the aim not only to secure their survival but ensure their future success. These makers are promoted through the company’s website and offered practical support, including business development and networking opportunities. As associate Melanie Coleman explains, the scale of Winch projects offers opportunities to be inventive and “keep skills and disciplines alive”.
One example she cites is Amels’ 60-metre motor yacht Come Together for which Winch commissioned leather specialist Rooks Books to wrap four of its own custom-designed ceiling lights in hand-tinted vellum paper. “We chose vellum for its natural patina and the depth of colour. It adds another layer of interest to the interior concept,” says Coleman. On the same project, Winch commissioned US artist Tobias Tovera to create an exquisite, hand-painted headboard. “We were looking for something soft and organic, evoking femininity and serenity,” explains Coleman.
While the march of technology can often be blamed for killing arts and crafts, Luca Dini Design & Architecture is embracing cutting-edge technology alongside heritage crafts. “We do not mass-produce vessels,” Dini emphasises. “Each one is a unique endeavour, designed to generate wonder. Our mission is to astound those who are used to being amazed.”
The 50-metre motor yacht LEL is the first collaboration between Rossinavi and the studio. LEL has many beautiful and intriguing touches, including the carbon-fibre bar custom-made by Rossinavi’s team of master craftspeople. Bedlinen is bespoke to the yacht, made by Tuscany-based Oliveri Home, while the bathrooms are clad in various types of onyx by marble specialist Nuova Lim. As these names suggest, Dini is passionate about showcasing Italian craftsmanship wherever possible. “As Italians, we tend to take the culture and beauty of our land for granted, because we are lucky enough to see and experience it every day.”
FM Architettura has also commissioned Italian artisans over the past decade to create and execute their designs in yachts, private residences and luxury hotels. Founder Francesca Muzio cites 55-metre Feadship Somnium as an example. “We took our storytelling from the islands of the Galápagos, which in turn inspired the accents of blue and orange.”
The cracked pattern of the table in the lounge was inspired by the soil of Galápagos carved by wind, sea and weather. The process used to create it – called reverse fusion – is a patented and highly skilled metalworking process developed by Paolini, one of the most renowned joinery specialists in Italy. “We commissioned them to use the same technique not only on tables, but also in several decorative panels and handrails. The results are true sculptural pieces,” says Muzio.
Laura Pomponi, founder and CEO of Luxury Projects, is also popularising the past. For the 60-metre Amels Moonstone, she commissioned three spectacular cabinets: a rosewood veneer one in the dining room complete with a green suede interior and bespoke compartments for each piece of cutlery; one clad in expertly stitched leather in the main salon and a cabinet with a straw marquetry finish in vivid green, made to the studio’s own design. The dynamic sunburst pattern took about 600 hours to create, not surprising given the complexity of the work. Straw marquetry is thought to have originated in the Far East, arriving in Europe in the 17th century. It reached its creative peak during the art deco period, but is now enjoying a revival thanks to designers such as Pomponi.
Many of the companies Pomponi works with are exclusive to Luxury Projects because she has also chosen to invest in them financially.
“To avoid losing the expertise and knowledge deeply rooted in these historical crafts, we are also employing young, talented people willing to learn all these techniques – it is important not to see those skills disappear forever, so we must pass them on to new generations.”
Traditional art and crafts are being revived across Europe. In the UK, many designers beat a path to the South London door of DKT Artworks when in search of bespoke craftsmanship. Established in 1979, the studio comprises around 40 skilled artists and craftspeople who specialise in high-end bespoke decorative finishes and site-specific artworks such as bas-relief, sculptures, murals, trompe l’oeil, specialist paint finishes, gilding, verre églomisé (the technique of reverse-painting glass), mosaics, polished plaster and illuminated artworks. It is also responsible for more than 90 prestigious yacht projects, many of them award-winning.
Creating fantastical staircases on superyachts is something of a studio speciality. On Oceanco’s 90-metre DAR, for example, they were commissioned by the Italian design house of Nuvolari Lenard to create an ocean scene of fish on the staircase’s curved panels. “The inspiration of the design brief was to bring sea life and nature on board,” says Guglielmo Carrozzo, DKT’s head of marketing. “The fish were hand-carved and then hand-decorated with a fresco effect. There was a lot of detail involved to achieve such a seamless and elegant effect.”
For the 50-metre Heesen Arkadia, Bannenberg & Rowell commissioned DKT Artworks to create a bas-relief artwork nearly two metres high as the central feature of the stairwell when the yacht was refitted. Taking inspiration from volcanic lava once it has cooled, the design was first moulded by hand in clay then cast in a type of bronze, which was gilded with leaves made from precious metals.
“The request from the client was for an artwork with an unusual and textured organic feel that had wow factor – it is mission accomplished when the owner and their guests stop in front of it to admire it,” says Carrozzo.
DKT was also commissioned by Studio Indigo to create verre églomisé panels on Feadship’s 70-metre Joy, which won a World Superyacht Award in 2017 (exterior by Bannenberg & Rowell). The 18th-century technique involves panels created from silver metal mesh sandwiched between antiqued, mirrored glass and hand-painted, silver gilt glass. For the project Mike Fisher, founder of Studio Indigo, was determined to work with the best artisans and the highest-quality materials possible. “We used more than 250 unique and bespoke materials to give the yacht a real sense of identity and luxury. Our first challenge was to make the corridor spaces feel larger than they were – églomisé is not only decorative, but also gives a sense of depth to these narrow spaces.”
In addition, DKT Artworks created the bas-relief artwork with a metallic finish on the stairs depicting trees, echoing the effect of the églomisé, but more practical given the curve of the stairs. Other special touches included the handwoven rug commissioned by Front for the corridors and salon. “Texture and comfort are very important as more often than not, you’re walking barefoot on a yacht,” says Fisher. “We wanted to play with that tactility through the use of contrasting textures – nettle and silk – resulting in a rug that was unusually soft. The pattern was designed to echo that of the stairs and the corridor panels.”
Fisher recognises the important part that top-level craftsmanship plays. “As designers we often have ideas about how we want a space to look and feel, but we need the skills of crafts people to visualise them. It is both a push and a pull to bring out the best of the designer and the artisan working together.”
Not all yacht designers were willing to share the names of the artisans they worked with, which seems a shame given the collaborative nature of the work that Fisher describes. As Carrozzo says: “The superyacht industry plays a crucial part in helping craftsmanship survive. We create artworks and finishes for a tiny niche of individuals who appreciate uniqueness and quality. It is important to give workshops and studios like ours the visibility and credit they deserve, because we are all part of the chain in terms of creativity. Prestige and reward should never be confined to those at the top.”
Helen Chislett is the author of Craft Britain: Why Making Matters, written with David Linley (OH Editions), £40. She also runs her own online gallery, helenchislett.com, launched as a response to the need for artists and artisans to promote their work to the super-prime sector of interior design and architecture.