A family affair: On board the 50 metre Benetti AJ
Two superyachting dynasties, Benetti and Bannenberg, have staged a long-overdue reunion to mark the arrival of AJ. Clare Mahon reports.
When Benetti launched a family of 50-metre yachts built with a fibreglass hull and aluminium superstructure, the builder’s goal was to offer owners the utmost flexibility in terms of design and layout in a compressed delivery time. AJ and its “Dolce Vita with a contemporary twist” interior by Bannenberg & Rowell exemplifies this goal – and continues an illustrious design partnership.
Like Vica and Zazou, her predecessors in Benetti’s FB800 series, AJ features an exterior by Benetti with forward thrusting lines that mask the verticality of multiple floor-to-ceiling windows. They also share the same pre-engineered platform.
Ferdinando Pilli, Benetti’s custom engineering manager, explains why the Italian shipyard is moving its production in the 40-metre-plus range towards pre-engineered platforms. “Using a platform brings advantages both to the shipyard and the owners,” he says. “We work within tried and true parameters and the owners don’t have to wait for prototyping.” Add that Benetti has begun the yachts in this series on spec and you get some serious acceleration on build time too.
However, despite the strong Benetti family resemblance between the three, these are no cookie-cutter yachts. “Our FB800 series is designed to stay just under 500GT [and] as long as owners don’t add enclosed spaces that increase volume or move structural bulkheads, they’re free to design the interiors as they please,” Pilli says.
In the case of AJ, it was Bannenberg & Rowell who decided how to play with the interior spaces. Benetti called in the design studio when it started the yacht on spec, writing another chapter in the Bannenberg family’s long history with the Italian builder.
“My father Jon designed the Benetti yachts Nabila and Multiple,” Dickie Bannenberg says. “Nabila was launched in 1980 and Multiple in 2002, just before my father died. I’d be surprised if anyone could find a design firm that goes back as far as us and Benetti do. Viareggio was a sort of spiritual home for my father; he rented a house there for years, he was doing so much work in the area. He loved checking in at the shipyard and he loved exploring the backstreet restaurants. So it feels great to be able to continue that relationship; it means a lot to me.”
On this project, Bannenberg & Rowell had few constraints. “We do appreciate the trust placed in us by Benetti with this project,” Bannenberg says. “By and large, we were given complete freedom to come up with an interior theme, but the design still had to be commercially viable and appeal to a wide customer base. We have quite a lot of experience with this kind of build, so I like to think that we’re aware of the commercial sweet spots and know how to build a marketable interior, something that appeals but isn’t bland and has character. We know the sensitivities.”
The first space that welcomes guests boarding the yacht from the passerelle is a spacious aft deck furnished with deep sofas and a large L-shaped bar in teak, burnished brass and stone. This informal space establishes a convivial tone that continues in the main deck saloon, where many of the same materials are repeated for continuity. “We can’t design to hose money around but at the same time anyone who is buying a boat from a shipyard like Benetti is expecting something bespoke and special,” Bannenberg says. “So you have to tread that line: careful of materials while keeping a good sense of luxury.”
While the owner of the first yacht in this series, Vica, opted for outdoor dining space on the main deck, furnishing the saloon with sofas and a grand piano, Bannenberg & Rowell chose a more traditional layout with living and dining spaces indoors. The London studio set a light base tone by panelling the walls with brushed spruce and using cream carpeting and bleached oak on the floors. While the tonality is neutral, the surfaces have texture that keeps them visually engaging: the spruce, for example, has been specially treated to bring out its rich grain.
Bannenberg describes the interior as “Dolce Vita with a contemporary twist. We used a clean and consistent palette with not too many changes in materials but some quite strong themes.” For example, bold textured rings are inlaid on the walnut doors throughout the yacht. “Devices like the rings give personality and make the space memorable,” Bannenberg says.
Bannenberg & Rowell likes to mix shapes, materials and finishes in unexpected combinations, a design philosophy that expresses itself in the yacht’s lobby. The staircase spirals like the centre of a seashell through the three levels of the yacht, its circular motion contrasted by angular V shapes in the balustrade. The rounded back wall is lined in natural grass matting accented with ultra-smooth machine-polished stainless-steel hoops. “Benetti does great stainless-steel work, so we didn’t want to pass up on that, and the matting adds an element of texture,” Bannenberg says. Stair treads are thickly carpeted while the handrail is covered in a cushion of tobacco-toned leather, making this a space you want to linger in.
After passing through the owner’s study, the first thing to catch the eye on entering the master cabin is its fixed balcony. Floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors open on to this private nook that is a perfect spot for breakfast, reading or a cocktail or two. With this addition to its other spaces, the owner’s suite is really like a yacht within a yacht, a perfect area that offers everything you want from a holiday on the water, including refuge.
Furnishings in the owner’s suite pick up a mid-century vibe. The extra-large bed in tufted leather and bleached oak seems to float in the centre of the suite, while custom furnishings in spruce with contrasting walnut bands have a retro feel.
AJ has asymmetrical his-and-hers dressing rooms and a full-beam bathroom with separate heads. “This is one of the areas where the various FB800 owners have all opted for different layouts,” says Pilli. “One owner wanted separate bathrooms and a single closet space; another wanted symmetrical dressing rooms and a single bathroom.” AJ bathroom has a large, central tub faced in travertine and backed by a panel of mosaic that shimmers like a pearlescent seashell. A shower ensures that all bathing options are covered.
In addition to the two VIP and two twin cabins on the lower deck, AJ has an additional guest cabin on the upper deck. “Here too owners have opted for different solutions: some have used this space as a den with a dayhead, others have gone for the added cabin,” says Pilli. All cabins have luxurious furnishings in leather and neutrally toned fabrics while the yacht’s ring motif is picked out on the doors and etched into the Eramosa stone floors in the bathrooms.
The upper deck reveals the FB800 series’ emphasis on the great outdoors. The curved glass doors that lead from the upper saloon to the aft deck open wide so that movement between the two spaces flows. Outdoor areas, including symmetrical conversation corners and a dining table for 14 shaded by the overhang, complement the indoor living space with a television, games table and bar. The wide open and spacious foredeck has a large sofa, armchairs and extra-wide loungers for enjoying the sun.
With its two spa pools, the 135-square-metre sundeck could more accurately be called a splash deck. “We had originally planned a single round pool aft, but when the owners wanted two, a rectangular one with glass sides for the children and a round one with spa jets for the adults, we were happy to accommodate them,” says Pilli. A dumb waiter serves the bar and dining area under the hardtop, making this a perfect all-day space.
Access to the water or a tender is an easy run down two curved staircases from the main deck. The transom area is another place where various owners have adapted the FB800 platform to their needs: one owner decided to forgo a beach club so that he could have two large tenders, while one went for a classic beach club plus bathing platform layout. AJ's owner dedicated a slice of his beach club to a glass-sided sauna. The logistics of this sweating-in-plain-sight set-up make ending a sauna session with a cooling dip fast and convenient.
While Bannenberg is pleased with AJ, he is already looking forward to the next chapter in the Benetti/Bannenberg collaboration. “I hope to be coming down to Livorno soon to see Metis, the 63-metre Benetti we recently did for a German owner. There we did some fun things in custom stainless and carbon fibre.” To be continued…
Benetti and Bannenberg
Nabila, the legendary 86-metre yacht commissioned by the Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi and designed by Jon Bannenberg, began the Benetti/Bannenberg collaboration.
Launched in 1980, Nabila had some unusual features such as a secret passageway and 296 telephones, but it’s her outward pointing funnels, designed so that they wouldn’t interfere with helicopters ferrying guests in and out, that really characterise her look. She has played the role of Flying Saucer, the evil Maximilian Largo’s headquarters at sea in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again and inspired Queen’s 1989 song Khashoggi’s Ship.
She has had a few men in her life. After Khashoggi, Nabila was owned by the Sultan of Brunei and then by Donald Trump (pictured top left), who renamed her Trump Princess. Nabila’s current owner, another Saudi, named her Kingdom 5KR.
While the Fratelli Benetti shipyard closed its doors following the challenging build, Paolo Vitelli, the subsequent owner of the rebranded Benetti, kept ties with Bannenberg. Multiple, a 50-metre yacht and the second Jon Bannenberg design for Benetti, was launched in 2002, shortly after the “man who could design anything” died. Featuring multiple round portholes, the yacht is still plying the waters with elegance and grace today.
After his father’s death in 2002, Dickie Bannenberg rebranded his studio Bannenberg & Rowell and continued working with Benetti, designing the interior of 44.2-metre Lady Sheila, 56-metre FB261 and RJ. The latest Benetti/Bannenberg collaboration, the new 63-metre Metis, was also recently delivered.
All photography Giovanni Malgarini