How residential designers bring a fresh perspective to superyacht interiors

21 January 2015 • Written by Rebecca Cahilly

The world of interior superyacht design is and has been largely dominated by a small specialised group of yacht stylists, interior designers and architects. Yet every so often a yacht is launched that makes its way into coffee table books and design magazines – its interior by a designer better known for residential and commercial design. Is the transition between the two genres of residential and yacht design as easy, or as difficult, as one might claim? Must designers approach projects for the two with different mindsets?

When designing for a yacht, space is your number one concern,' says Aileen Rodriguez

‘Design is an issue of proportion, balance and scale, as well as the function of the space,’ says Jim Harris of JW Harris, a residential design firm in Scottsdale, Arizona. ‘The client’s vision is what you approach and solve [in either case]. However, the vessel moves! There are issues of balance, stability, and sea-fastening, as well as what is not visible for the safety and security issues.’

‘When designing for a yacht, space is your number one concern,’ says Aileen Rodriguez. She has been designing high-end residential and yacht interiors since 1996 and says she takes a different approach with a yacht project.

Residential and yacht designer Tom Bakker says, ‘The technical challenge and complexity of yacht interior design and construction is greater than in residential projects. In addition, yacht systems can be more complicated than in homes, so the architectural interior needs to accommodate all these equipment elements. Spaces where architecture and cabinetry meet compound curves of the hull on the lower decks pose a challenge.’

'The integration of systems, technology, architectural styling and cabinetry design is critical [when designing a yachts interior],' says Tom Bakker

True, unless the designer is working for a client who wants to embrace the raw surfaces (as some owners of carbon-fibre sailing yachts have done) or the base structure, (as some owners of classic yachts have demanded) yacht designs of the modern era have gone to extreme measures to make the inside of a boat look like anything but. Only smaller. In fact, a project coordinator for a European production boatyard actually offered this advice to a horrified US designer: ‘Just draw everything you want in the room and scale it seven-eighths size.’

‘What [remains] the same is the human interaction distances, space between sofas, the size of dining tables, the room needed in the main guest areas,’ says Rodney Black of Rodney Black Design Studios in the UK. He designed the interior of 68 metre Feadship Lady Christine. ‘These distances can be reduced to heighten the feeling of excitement, but for a boat like Lady Christine, interpersonal spaces were the same as a large house.’

Black, a residential designer, contends that the main differences in the approach between residential and yacht design have to do with the limitations on headroom, the requirement for more services and the nature of the relationship between the interior and the exterior. ‘With a house, the interior space is considered in relationship to a garden or landscape. With a boat, there is no constant relationship. The view can change from a clear horizon to a marina berth with other boats in close proximity.

The movie theatre aboard Feadship superyacht Lady Christine

‘Boat interiors are also more detail intensive,’ Black continues. ‘We create a world that makes the boat a cultural universe in its own right. Houses have the privilege of living off the cultural heritage of their surroundings. Boats do not.’ Rodriguez agrees and says that space limitations encourage designers to compensate with special finishes and luxe items. ‘In a residential project the expense of these finishes would limit them to areas such as the entry way or kitchen or bathroom,’ she says. ‘There is a difference in the way a yacht is finished on the inside. There is nothing left for paint: the surfaces are wood, stone or covered in a speciality finish or upholstered silk padding.’

‘The detail is finer,’ says Black. ‘It is as if the senses are attuned on the boat and the eye takes in more detail. With a house, the eye rests on individual items of furniture and the detail of the natural world in the landscape. The boat interior itself becomes a large piece of furniture – nearly every surface is given that degree of finesse.

‘I have done things with the design of carpets [aboard yachts] I would not normally do in houses, such as to mirror the ceiling treatment on the floor,’ says Black. In the saloon and owner’s suite aboard Lady Christine, the line of the ceiling dome was set out in the carpet with a relevant motif. ‘The idea was to strengthen the suggestion of an invisible cocoon within the larger space. What we did not want was a decorated floor that would draw attention downwards. Keep the eye fascinated by objects above the floor, in the furniture, then provide detail at eye level. The ceilings are light in colour and weight so the whole effect is one of the spaces rising and floating.’

The concept for superyacht Smeralda's gym, as penned by Andreas Smeralda

‘In our latest project we did a great deal of ceiling architecture to hide, camouflage or distract from the numerous security, safety and entertainment apparatus that always ends up in the ceiling,’ says Harris.

‘With a yacht, you must consider the full concept, from the technical through to details such as bath towels,’ says Andreas Holnburger of Vain Interiors. ‘I love to create interiors that can be the background for the client’s personality. A house always grows and changes; a boat must be completed all at once.’

Harris stresses the importance of the personality of a space once people enter it. ‘Spaces are typically rendered or photographed empty,’ he says. ‘When you add people, there is colour, pattern, texture, personality. Carry that further with fragrances, music and elements of an event and you have a dramatic change in space. The design elements are subordinate to the people using that space. Every room is a background for what “might” happen.’

On 50m Westport yacht Annastar, designer DD Allen chose oak in a warm honey colour

‘Like a house, a yacht should be designed for comfort and expression,’ says architect and designer Peter Hawrylewicz of PH Design in Miami. ‘It should be an extension of the owner’s personality interpreted in a dialect outlined by the designer.’ Of the interior of the 70 metre Perini Navi ketch Hawrylewicz is designing, however, he concedes, ‘I delineated the layout of the interior with a sense of democracy I wouldn’t necessarily feel inclined to use in someone’s house or apartment. Because of the boat’s dynamics there were no advantages to orientation. I found my adherence to symmetry in this particular yacht refreshing and new.’

Does one architectural style lend itself better to a yacht interior? Black thinks so: ‘Clearly, the days of heavy ornament derived from any historic style is a thing of the past, but this does not mean the death of design motifs which animate and enrich the experience of the interior. I have concentrated on developing the motifs so they have an embroidering role, or perhaps like the role of illumination in calligraphy, so what looks like decoration is in fact governing the whole scheme.’

Miami-based architect and designer Peter Hawrylewicz is designing Perini Navi's new 70m sailing yacht ketch

But of the trend for minimalism in residential interiors, Black does not feel that it adds a relaxing feel to a yacht’s interior. ‘Minimalism has its roots in anxiety about making cultural statements. The great early modernist architect Adolf Loos described ornament as immoral and degenerate. The great works of early minimalism were aimed at avoiding historical references in an age of gathering world conflict. So it was hardly a relaxed style to begin with. Its translation into today’s relaxation architecture suggests time-killing, a space on the way to where something interesting is happening.’

This feature first appeared in the book Megayachts 2014: Concept – Design – Construction.

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