Lunch with superyacht designer Martin Francis

21 January 2015By Mark Chisnell
‘Learning to make things with one’s own hands gave me an enormous advantage for the rest of my life,’ Martin Francis, superyacht designer

Our lunch with Martin Francis breaks new ground: first, the Briton is a designer not an owner of superyachts, most notably of the iconic Eco. And second – we are not meeting at a restaurant. Francis lives and works in his beautiful contemporary home, perched on the escarpment that rises from the Mediterranean towards the Alpes-Maritimes, overlooking Antibes, Valbonne and Biot. It’s not easy to find and the hairpins keep it challenging – but I make it, and Francis greets me warmly in his driveway, before leading me through to the dining room.

Over coffee we discuss the gorgeous house with its stunning view and its art collection, before moving on to his start in the marine world. Francis grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s in Hammersmith, London, close to the River Thames. His father was no sailor, but a doctor and photographer, yet Martin drifted down to the river.

‘I used to mess around with friends on the river, like people do,’ he says, recalling, a time of model boats, rigging sails on rowing dinghies and building a canoe at school.

Carpentry skills provided his early living. After graduating in furniture design from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Francis worked as a cabinetmaker, designing and building bespoke furniture for West End shops, and individual customers.

Francis’ career has involved from creating sculptures for Rolling Stones’ concerts to Russian oligarchs’ yachts.

Learning to make things with one’s own hands gave me an enormous advantage for the rest of my life,’ he says, ‘because you don’t draw things you don’t know how to build.’

The first twist in the career path occurred when a neighbour, the renowned structural engineer Tony Hunt, introduced him to a young architect called Norman Foster. It was the late 1960s and Foster was at the forefront of a revolution in building design, a revolution Francis was happy to sign up for.

‘We worked in this bedsitter in Hampstead and I would flit between working with him there, and working with Tony Hunt,’ Francis recalls. ‘I got confidence in my ability as a multi-disciplinary designer, and it was the start of what has gone on for the rest of my life.’

Multi-disciplinary is an understatement, with a career path that resembles the mountain road to his house.

‘I was working one day in Hunt’s office, and this tall American hippie guy walks in off the pavement and says he wants a proscenium arch calculated for a rock ’n’ roll band.’

The band was the Rolling Stones, and the arch for their 1970 European Tour stage set.

After demonstrating a solution to the problem, Francis was hired as assistant production manager.

‘I stood stage right and Mick (Jagger), when he did Jumpin’ Jack Flash and took off his pink jacket, would give it to me.’

He followed this up by working at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, then one of London’s premier music venues, and the place where Jimi Hendrix first set fire to his guitar.

Martin Francis worked on the design for the 1989-90 Whitbread entry British Defender.

More soberly, Francis also caught the sailing bug, and bought his first sailboat, a small single-handed MiniSail that pre-dated the Laser, which he sailed and raced around London’s lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

‘I was looking through a sailing magazine one day and there was a picture of a Halcyon 27 under a stormy sky at Burnham-on-Crouch,’ says Francis, ‘and it just flipped something I thought it must be really nice doing keelboat sailing. So with my then wife we decided to learn to sail and went on this course.’

After he returned from the rock ’n’ roll adventure and went back to engineering and architecture, the couple got an Invicta 26, a Folkboat derivative designed by EG van de Stadt. Francis bought the hull mouldings from Tylers and finished it with his wife, working weekends in a Poole boatyard, then successfully raced it with a friend at Poole Yacht Club. Although an aborted trip to the Mediterranean via the French canals got no further than a collision with a barge on the first night.

The Invicta 26 was followed by a Contessa 32 that cost £7,500, and was sold six years later for almost double. That may reflect more the economics of the early- to mid-1970s, with the oil shock and subsequent inflation, than about the value of Jeremy Rogers’ wonderful creation. The same economic malaise drove the next twist in Francis’s career. In 1975, with projects on hold or cancelled all around him, he and his wife took their young family to live closer to her parents on the French/Italian border.

While Francis was in Antibes, modifying a Contessa 35 ahead of the One Ton Cup, that the door opened to the next career twist

In France, Francis worked as a sales agent for Contessa – he had sailed his boat down there solo – but it wasn’t easy. ‘It wasn’t my thing at all,’ he remembers. In 1977 just talking to England meant travelling to Antibes and sending a telex asking them to call you back. But it was while he was in Antibes, modifying a Contessa 35 ahead of the One Ton Cup, that the door opened to the next career twist.

Francis was approached by a mast-maker who was short of staff. Francis accepted the offer and found himself working on the rigs for two French entries to the 1977-78 Whitbread Round the World Race. One was 33 Export, led by a 23-year-old Alain Gabbay, the youngest skipper in the race.

The boat broke the mast on the first leg, and Francis went to South Africa to help with the repairs, and then on to New Zealand for more service and support work. By the time this adventure ended, business was still slow in France.

‘My wife said wouldn’t it be a nice idea to sail around the world,’ Francis says.

The 28m Francis-designed Diablesse: a Maxi notable for her frameless structure.

After looking for a boat and finding nothing suitable, he decided to design and build his own. Undeterred by a complete lack of formal training, he settled on a 14m sloop and set to work.

The result was an eye-catching brushed-aluminium boat with a red mast called, prosaically, Prototype.

‘It went like a rocket, of course it went like a rocket, it had no interior weight!’ says Francis of the initial sea trial. He kept the boat for five years, before his finances forced him to sell it. He hasn’t owned a boat bigger than a rowing skiff since, but Prototypehad turned heads and changed his life. He was asked to design a 25m ketch called Deva, then two 26m sloops were ordered, plus a couple of smaller boats and suddenly, Francis remembers, ‘On the strength of my one boat, I had five new builds going on.’

These sailing boats – many of which were built in a shed in Biot by Chantiers Navals de Biot – tend to be forgotten when Francis’s design output is considered, probably because of the high profile of the subsequent motor yachts. But looking at the pictures and lines plans you can see the origins of trends in superyacht design that have unfolded over the last 30 years.

Martin Francis with the family owners of Galerie des Arcades in Biot, south-east France

He was also involved in the racing scene during this period, thanks to his connection with Jeremy Rogers, and subsequently worked on the design of the 1989-90 Whitbread Race entry, British Defender. Built for a German owner, and incorporating an innovative frameless structure, she was ultimately chartered and raced around the world by a team of British servicemen.

For lunch, Francis had picked a restaurant that he had been using ever since he had built those early sailing yachts in Biot: Galerie des Arcades, filled with art and memorabilia. We let owner André’s son Marco direct our choices and are treated to a feast of Provençal cooking. Despite the quality of the food, Francis is willing to pick up the story of his busy career.

‘I never thought of being a naval architect until I did this boat for myself and it worked, and people suddenly started asking me to do boats,’ he says. Before he knew it, ‘I had the four largest sloops in the world sailing around simultaneously.’

It says a lot for his confidence that he took this on with no technical training – but what happened next was even more remarkable.

Martin Francis is best known for designing motor yachts A (pictured) and Katana (ex-ECO).

Francis had met George Nicholson during a marina development project, and when Nicholson became agent for Emilio Azcárraga’s new boat, he asked the world’s leading designers to present ideas for a 55m to 65m vessel. He also asked Francis.

‘I was terrified, never done a motor yacht in my life, it was a big deal,’ he reflects. ‘I have to do all this stuff I can’t afford [to prepare and present] and it’s all an enormous gamble. I go through this presentation – at the end of it (Azcárraga) says, “I think your boat’s a heap of junk,” or words to that effect, “but I like your work methods.”’

Azcárraga retained Francis to work on it, and over the next couple of years he toiled away without finding the magic pixie dust that would inspire the commencement of a build. It was only when Azcárraga talked about buying Carinthia VI – a classic 71m Jon Bannenberg design – that Francis looked at ideas that might work on a bigger boat. The eventual Eco concept, with its glorious curved windows and open deck space, came out of that exercise.

Once he’d seen this new design, Azcárraga gave Francis control of the whole project. Francis explained, ‘He put $5 million in my bank account and said tell me when you need more. I was designer, project manager, owner’s rep, all these things that now you have teams of 50 people, I was doing the whole lot. And I’d never done a motor yacht before.’

Explorer yacht Senses, now owned by Google chief executive Larry Page, was designed by Martin Francis.

This was also a highly innovative design with many firsts, not the least of which was the largest KaMeWa waterjet built at that time. The 73.5m Eco was launched in 1991, not without teething troubles, but she’s still going strong 20 years on – and still does 35 knots.

During the years following Eco’s launch, Francis lived in Paris running RFR, an inevitable distraction from moving ahead in the superyacht business. Nevertheless, it indicates how far Eco was ahead of her time, when Francis reveals, ‘I didn’t have an enquiry for a boat on the basis of Eco for eight years after it was launched.’

There were other projects, though, including Senses, a 59m explorer boat for which Francis did the styling with the owner Jack Setton. She was launched in 1999, and is now owned by Google’s Larry Page.

Katana (ex-ECO), showing her distinctive convex windows.

While Francis was working on Senses, Emilio Azcárraga died aboard his beloved Eco, and the yacht was sold to Larry Ellison.

Francis was employed by Ellison to help with the remodelling, and also started work for him on a new design. In the end, Ellison’s new boat was a Bannenberg, but Francis continued the design project, now called Sultan, for a Turkish owner.

‘I pick up the FT (Financial Times) one day,’ recalls Francis, ‘and on the cover there’s this story that Nokia and Ericsson are suing this Turkish company for six billion!’

And that was that – such are the ups and downs of life as a superyacht designer.

The roller coaster had another lurch, however. ‘Six years later, I’m asked to make a presentation to Andrey Melnichenko when he was looking for a boat. I take a model of the FT100, a smaller boat, and a model of Sultan with me. I make the presentation, and they give me a round of applause at the end.’

Eventually the design concept for A came from Philippe Starck, but Melnichenko engaged Francis as the naval architect. Built by Blohm + Voss Shipyards, the 119m A now stands as one of the most distinctive superyachts in the world.

Francis once again found himself shutting a London office and heading south as the work dried up

The early part of the new millennium was spectacularly busy for Francis. As well as A, he was doing development work for a much larger vessel, so moved from the South of France and set up an office in London in 2001. For the three years following, he designed for the Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises division, and developed several other projects, including Crystal Ball, an all-glass-superstructure boat he first showed at Monaco eight years ago. And then came the 2007 crash.

In a strange echo of the 1975 recession that inspired his initial move to the South of France – and led to his marine career – Francis once again found himself shutting a London office and heading south as the work dried up. This time it was back to the home above Biot.

These days, Francis’ work remains as wide-ranging as ever. His current 120m+ boat is being built at Lürssen – about which he will say nothing more beyond paying tribute to the interior designer, Alberto Pinto, who recently died. He is also working with Swarovski on new surface refinement possibilities for superyacht interiors; and for the last decade he has designed those big inflatable structures used by the Tour de France to mark course boundaries.

When we meet, Francis just returned from the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, buzzing with news of Silver Arrows Marine – a new company with which he is involved – and its joint project with Mercedes-Benz. ‘It’s 14m long, it goes like a train, and it’s as important to me as A or Eco,’ he says.

Coming from the man responsible for Eco, the builder of glass walls and Frank Stella’s massive sculptures, the finished boat is sure to be special. In fact, if his past informs us about the future, there’s simply no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from Martin Francis.

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