There is no greater proof of the trust between a client and a designer than when the former is happy to leave every aesthetic decision – not just the configuration, finish and furniture, but the cushions, throws, silk rugs, glassware, even the choice of books in the library – to the studio they’ve appointed to design and spec their yacht. It is even more of a tribute when, a decade on, the boat changes hands, and its new owner resolves to keep her exactly as she was (bar the books) when she first slipped from her dock – in this instance Perini Navi’s Viareggio shipyard.
“Panthalassa is totally as she was,” says her current owner Peter Dubens, founder and managing partner of Oakley Capital, who bought the 56-metre ketch last summer. “I wouldn’t touch anything.” Indeed, it’s the groundbreaking design of her interior, by the global architecture and engineering firm Foster + Partners, founded by Norman Foster, now Baron Foster of Thames Bank, in 1967, that prompted him to buy her.
“We are big collectors of French furniture from the 1940s and 50s,” says Dubens. Pieces by “Jean Royère, Jacques Quinet, Jacques Adnet, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and the great architects of that period”, some of which he keeps on his other yacht, 25-metre Kizbel, the sister boat to Black Knight, which was the America’s Cup committee boat from 1983. “And I love Norman Foster as an architect. What he’s designed is just incredible,” he says. So when Panthalassa came on to the market, he could not resist a yacht “so perfect that you couldn’t change anything. The more time you spend on her, the more you realise how clever the design is. It’s extraordinary, really amazing.”
Foster himself did not work on Panthalassa. Rather the architect assigned to lead the design was David Summerfield, one of 10 board partners at the practice (which employs 400 architects), which he joined in 1992 to work on Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok.
Since then, his projects have included the majestic Yacht Club de Monaco, Apple Stores in Chicago, Istanbul, London, San Francisco and Singapore, the leading New York art gallery Sperone Westwater, and, also in New York, 50 United Nations Plaza. Panthalassa was his first marine project.
“The practice had done yachts,” he says, notably the Lürssen-built 58.5-metre superyacht Izanami (now Ronin), the interiors of the 30.45-metre Wally Dark Shadow and the 41-metre YachtPlus fractional share yachts Ocean Emerald, Ocean Pearl and Ocean Sapphire. “But I personally hadn’t designed one before, though I sail a bit myself.”
He had, however, worked on various projects for the client who commissioned her. Such projects “usually come through clients who have enjoyed working with us on building projects,” he says. “I’ve known him for 12 years, and he keeps coming back. He’s a great person, and we have an ongoing relationship.” There are further projects in the works.
As is not always the case when it comes to yacht interiors, Summerfield and his team “started on the project at the same time as the naval architect”. The exterior was a collaboration between Perini Navi’s in-house design department and Ron Holland Design, “but we were involved from the day the client ordered the boat”, and Summerfield chose the colour of the hull, a very dark grey rather than the usual navy blue. Otherwise, he says, their remit was “from the fly deck down”. The brief for the main deck and guest and crew quarters below was to create a sense of openness, a free-flowing configuration of “independent spaces” for different activities, such as a library and bar, from which “you could still see everywhere else”, thereby enabling up to 12 guests to be “in and around the same space, even if they wanted to do different things”.
The focal point of the main saloon is a striking elliptical open-tread timber staircase “wrapped in horizontal tubes of solid perspex that curve around it”, recalling the lenses in the lantern of a lighthouse in the way they refract the light. Above and beyond its practical function, it provides a sculptural centrepiece to the space and a translucent screen that partially conceals the deck beyond. “We were trying to get just enough transparency [to suggest] a little bit of a mystery [as to] what goes on behind it.”
The other surprise is that the floor is visible across the entire 11.5-metre beam of the boat. Rather than stand on the floor, the sofas and bar have been cantilevered out from the hull, the subtly lit space beneath them left empty to amplify the sense of spaciousness. (“That was another thing I hadn’t seen before,” says Dubens.) Only an elliptical coffee table, a round ottoman and a pair of lounge chairs interrupt the floorspace, the latter – designed by Antonio Citterio for B&B Italia – rare instances of furnishings that Summerfield and his team did not design themselves. “Even the handles on the cabin doors are all bespoke Foster + Partners design.” Though the Citterio chairs were modified to complement the rest of the scheme. “We had the bases custom-finished” to match their leather upholstery.
Beyond the saloon lies another adaptable space: a dining area that can be converted to a conference room, cinema or spa, thanks to a central circular table that rises and falls, and can be covered with a pad to become a massage table. “It can be closed off with curved glass doors which turn it into a quiet, perfectly circular meeting room,” says Dubens. (A blessing given last summer he was working from the yacht and is “constantly on Teams and Zoom calls”.) Circles are, he notes, the yacht’s defining form “all the way from the aft to the bow”. Hence the oculus that sits directly above the round table in the dining area/office, drawing light down from the fly deck above.
“We were very keen to get as much daylight into the boat as possible,” says Summerfield, indicating the nine porthole skylights in the roof of the saloon and, beyond, a large circular skylight that both illuminates the rear of the saloon and functions as a glass-topped coffee table, flanked by sofas, at the aft of the fly deck. “We had some early ideas about trying to put the constellation of the stars into the glass,” he says. But the way it reflects the cloudscape is surely decoration enough.
Descend below deck and the guest quarters reveal another surprise, and not just because “the feeling of space in the staterooms is so much bigger than you’d see on a normal yacht,” says Dubens. Configured with an eye to the charter market, there is no master suite. Rather its six cabins have similar dimensions and identical furnishings, notably a sinuous writing desk, covered in tan saddle leather, against the hull that extends into a sinuous chaise longue that seems to extend into the bathroom “to create one flowing surface”, where it becomes the sink surround. It’s an exercise in trompe-l’oeil: beyond the glass, which can be rendered opaque for privacy at the touch of a button, the surface is, for practical reasons, crafted from teak that exactly matches the colour of the leather.
The same hide has also been used to cover the bed and bedhead because Summerfield deliberately wanted to restrict the palette and the number of materials – timber, leather, white lacquer and “very beautiful” black marble with a subtle red vein “that just takes the darkness away” in the bathrooms.
It was inevitably a learning curve, but not only did it pave the way for Summerfield and his team to design the superstructure and interior of Alen Yacht’s 20-metre motor yacht Iguazu for the same client, but some of the lessons from the Panthalassa fit-out have had a lasting legacy on Foster + Partners’ land-based projects too.
Before embarking on the yacht, Summerfield had been working on the McLaren Group’s headquarters in Woking, Surrey, where its Formula One and high-performance road cars are designed and developed. “It was the early days of 3D printing, and they were using it to rapid-prototype parts for the cars.” Summerfield deployed the same technology to create overnight prototypes for Panthalassa. “This meant building 3D models – actual physical objects – of the inside of the boat to see how they looked from different angles. And those modelling techniques have progressed into almost all our building projects now.” So would he take on another yacht? “Always!” he enthuses. “They’re great fun to do.”