Superyacht stairway & foyer design

21 January 2015
The imposing main deck foyer of the Platinum Project designed by Andrew Winch originally for Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei
Whether it involves a staircase or not, a foyer sets a tone. The heavily veined marble floor

The foyer on the 65m Feadship _Trident _is a wow-worthy staging of mirrors if not smoke. To make the foyer feel bigger, Starkey designed a series of magical reflections surrounding the stairwell, a gambit that works in the foyer but would be too high energy, say, in a master stateroom.

Where the staircase meets the elevator shaft, Starkey created a gap. Inside the gap, he installed a lighting feature directed at the mirror-like stainless steel rails and plates along the walls. The ceiling, too, is adorned with this same steel plate. The effect is magical.

When a mirror runs into a plane such as a ceiling or wall at a 90 degree angle, it creates an illusion of infinitely extending space. Little wonder Trident's guests feel beamed up as soon as they step on board. The illusion is glamorous but not funhouse glitzy. To balance out the brilliance, Starkey purposefully left the marble walls and floors unpolished.

'It's a real conversation starter,' says Starkey, 'whenever guests reach out to touch the marble. They wonder whether it is wood or stone; indeed, it's hard to tell.'

Seanna's main foyer immediately creates a sense of formality

In contrast to Starkey, Patrick Knowles sees the yacht foyer as a hub for the main deck where all the various design elements are meant to come together.

'At the same time, the foyer should have a perspective of its own,' says Knowles. 'It's got to captivate its audience and give them pleasure, but should not be such a crown jewel it feels trapped in the space.'

That trapped feeling can happen easily because foyers themselves are evolving in how they're used. Where Knowles is based, in Fort Lauderdale, and in other American ports, yachts are still often docked side-to, but in Europe where 'they don't have that kind of real estate' they dock stern-to, and in so doing, aft decks are slowly taking precedence over starboard-side foyers as entrances. Foyers, which Knowles finds are still obligatory, are now more about defining the main deck space.

'It has become a crossroads,' he says. 'People have to pass through easily. The only two real design opportunities are the floor and bulkhead designs.'

Knowles' foyer for the 58m Trinity_ Mi Sueño _is consequently all about realizing those opportunities through architecture.

Other than a Daum crystal vase atop a lone console, it is the luxuriousness of the materials that causes this area to sing: antique gold inlays set in foliated Kozmus granite on the floor, mahogany on the walls and overhead with dark wenge inlays, cabinetry in maple burl, a bone inlay mirror and stair rails in satin nickel making for elegant ascents and descents.

No less than four divas welcome guests in the foyer of the 61m Benetti Diamonds Are Forever. Here, guests will encounter two original Erté sculptures posing on mirrored sconces while two more Art Deco ladies captured on canvas grace the bulkheads where they are set in diamond-themed, carved glass panels. Low-energy LED edge lighting turns the entire scene into a seaborne jewel box.

Guests also enter the yacht from the stern, Knowles used the area of the structure that is narrowed for technical services as a foyer, highlighted by a tasting area and display of wines

'The paintings were commissioned at the beginning, which is unusual,' recalls UK-based designer Evan K. Marshall. More often than not, art is an afterthought, a matter of finding some paintings at the end of a project and mounting them on some empty bulkheads. However, if one thinks of a classic design like the ocean liner SS Normandie, there's not much room in that design for winging it.'Almost everything was made to order, totally bespoke,' says Marshall.

Let's return to our premise how leading designers can teach a yacht to sing her uniqueness through design. In that sense, seemingly minor details such as a wide expanse of seamless marble floor in the foyers makes beautiful music and evoke the limitlessness of the oceans, the placidity of coves and the barefooted luxury waiting within.

But there is also the desire to soar or, continuing the metaphor to rise an octave to decks offering the promise of different lifestyles or enhanced privacy.

Interest in the straight flight of stairs began to ebb with the arrival of the Modernist movement in architecture, when staircase design began to be seen as a tool for opening and integrating internal spaces.

On yachts, the spiral staircase was an instant space saver, although its safety and elegance were sometimes compromised with radii that were a bit too aggressive. Rhoades Young Design preserved limited space but broke the spiral humanely on their staggered reversed half spirals for Calliope in 2010.

Examples of why Andrew Winch is called the King of Stairs

One of the first yachts to explore the atrium concept was the 40m 1987 Feadship Fiffanella originally designed by Susan Puleo, which opened the entire footprint of the staircase and its 90 degree turn between the main and upper decks. Starkey picked up the theme with the 50m _Lady Marina _executed by Hakvoort in 1994, adding a second 90-degree turn and an even larger atrium opening connecting three decks.

Although larger yachts designed to frequent Europe are increasingly designed with a defined entrance aft for receiving guests, in the very large, such as the 134mt Fincantieri M/Y Serene, the aft entrance lobby and a double stairway coincide; the impact is spectacular.

Vessels over 90m often have more than one staircase or local staircases between two specific levels to link usages and avoid long corridors and awkward pas de deux on the stairs. This presents designers with options for a change of pace or repetition on a theme.

Still the combination of foyer and central staircase is the matrix for a grand statement. Even custom vessels of 45m or so can present designers with stairway location options to avoid space constraints above or below, yet few exploit this option.

Fifteen years ago, Winch was requiring staircases to do more than connect decks, which was a rather novel idea at the time

'I hate improperly placed stairways that require corridors; corridors get you lost. The idea is to make movement through the yacht stimulating but not complicated,' said Andrew Winch in a 1997 interview with ShowBoats International magazine. Fifteen years ago, Winch was requiring staircases to do more than connect decks, which was a rather novel idea at the time. Yet, considering his degree is in 3D design, it should have not come as a surprise that he considered stairs as the architectural spine of a yacht and insisted all design must go forward from there.

Winch has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the studio he founded and he is still the King of Stairs. Winch is a sailor at heart and even though he understood why stairs on sailing yachts need to be arranged fore and aft, he saw no reason that even the simplest companionway could not be a thing of beauty.

'On [the original] Hetairos, for example, the transition between the upper and lower salons was the only space of grandeur on the yacht. It had to be as important as the skylight and the fireplace. On boats such as Cyclos III, the object was to turn a ladder into a work of art,' he said. 'We created a staircase sculpture of stainless steel and high-gloss lacquer that led from the aft steering cockpit to the owner's bedroom. The unusual materials and contemporary design was, for the time, a revolutionary concept, but one that has stood the test of time and continues to be a striking feature.'

Indeed, the yacht still has her original owner and while she was refitted last year, the staircase remains.

The profile of the central staircase of the Platinum project

The Winch studio's history includes many projects where the staircases are sculptural installations that add height and drama, although changes to design requirements brought about by MCA mean we will not see the likes of the outrageous installation aboard the White Rabbit ever again.

Winch says there should be emotion attached to ascending and descending through a yacht. 'When you stand at the top of a staircase, you can either feel like you are going to fall down a shaft or like you're Judy Garland and you're going to descend like a star into the arms of forty guys in black tie.

'Regardless of the size of the yacht, our staircase architecture is designed to be the stunning link between areas, whether it's the practical four steps linking the lower deck pilot house to the formal dining area aboard sailing yacht_ Whisper,_ or the grandness and opulence of our Britannia design and on to the reality of our Platinum project,' Winch says.


Today, larger yachts regularly have elevators, and the question of whether they should be discrete or public is an issue for every designer. Should an owner and their guests be seen in the elevator or should it be a private experience?

'On-board the beautiful 2011 Amels motor yacht_ Imagine, adjacent to the helix cantilevered steps that magnificently spiral around a beautifully laminated timber core, a glass elevator ascends from the tank deck to the sun deck,' says Winch. 'Our 2004 Feadship project, _Cakewalk, incorporated an elevator concealed by a grand, wooden staircase, so the answer is unique to every project. Personally, I feel lifts are exciting and so you should be bold with them,' he says.

So, is Winch comfortable being called the King of Stairs?

'I love the challenge of designing staircases and doors, these are the most tactile design elements on a yacht, so why not?'

Originally published: Megayachts Volume 13 (2012)

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