Inside secret: Iconic designers on how to create a great yacht interior

Inside secret: Iconic designers on how to create a great yacht interior

Light? Proportion? Comfort? Every great designer has their own take on yacht interior design, says Claire Wrathall…

Ask any yacht designer of note what the secret of a great interior is and, almost without exception, they will tell you it comes down to how the space is planned. “Superyacht designs are created from the inside out,” says Terence Disdale, of Terence Disdale Design. “Form follows function, practicality is combined with elegance. The superstructure styling is created to form a timeless envelope that encases the function of the vessel.”

In essence, this means that every single element of the structure and interior decoration is considered: absolutely nothing is designed on a whim. “The positioning of windows, for instance, is determined by what goes on within; the dining room window will be lined up with the centre of the dining table,” explains Disdale.

A good designer will consider practicality for the crew as well as the client, says Andrew Winch, of Winch Design. “We’ll be liaising with captains throughout the build who offer insights into operations – what will help the crew carry out tasks more efficiently, or what might prove problematic in terms of set-up,” he says. Disdale agrees, citing the example of Kibo, where the windows in the guest cabins have a discreet track in the recess above them to make it easier for the crew to keep the glazing clean. “The windows are cleaned every morning so you have to take things like this into account,” he says. “The everyday functioning of the boat has to be paramount, but this doesn’t mean the finished design detail has to suffer.”

Superyacht design presents challenges far beyond those faced in land-based projects. First, there are the strict rules and regulations set by Private Yacht Compliance and similar industry codes, Disdale’s analogy being that “you cannot think outside the box; you have to design inside the box with whatever creativity you have”.

Second, you’re dealing with an object that moves. As Francesca Muzio, co-founder of the Milan-based practice FM Architettura d’Interni, explains, aside from this requiring interior items to be safely fixed, it can affect the use of materials on board. “In a house, the direction of light and the views remain the same. But a yacht will change direction several times a day, so the play of light and shadows on surfaces and materials will alter constantly and needs to be taken into consideration,” she says.

“On one 65 metre yacht we had very big windows and the light was really strong, and we realised when we were choosing the fabrics that we needed to use three-dimensional fabrics.” Without texture, she counsels, textiles can “look really flat”. Lighting, generally, plays a crucial role not least because, says Muzio, “on a yacht it’s not just a matter of fitting spotlights and table lamps and hanging chandeliers. You have to consider the colour of the light very carefully. One kelvin [the unit of measurement used to describe the colour of a specific light source] too much or too little can more or less destroy a project.” No surprise, then, that her 25-strong team includes a specialist lighting designer.

Giorgio Armani also warns against admitting too much light into a yacht interior, especially in “the parts where people really live, the most private parts”. For his own 65 metre Codecasa-built yacht Maìn, he “came up with the idea of creating bulkheads from the navigation deck to the flying bridge with a type of venetian blind – louvres – made of birchwood,” he told Boat International in 2015. These “prevent strong sunlight at sea bouncing off the water and coming in violently, giving the interior a muffled appearance”. The blinds run in a continuous line through the length of the boat, the intended effect of which “is that Maìn looks as if she has no walls. [And] you can see the whole panoramic view from inside.”

For Disdale, panoramic views are not all they’re cracked up to be. “A glass box is also just a room full of curtains after dark; there’s fewer walls to hang things on to create the interior mood,” he says. Setting an interior mood is important and, when asked how to create it, almost every designer will tell you it has nothing to do with style and everything to do with how the space is planned.

“Comfort is definitely as important as the visual side,” says Sabrina Monteleone, the founder and president of Sabrina Monte-Carlo. “Everyone thinks design is a matter of aesthetics, but in reality it is about experience.” As to the décor, Monteleone contends that “harmony is key. Whether the style is contemporary or classic, it is important everything blends in, especially the indoor and outdoor areas. Most owners spend most of their days outside; there shouldn’t be a huge contrast between the two spaces.”

In a similar vein, two of the highest-profile newcomers to yacht interior design, Milan-based Antonio Citterio and Patricia Veal’s Citterio-Viel & Partners and the Italian architect and designer Piero Lissoni, of Lissoni Associati, have each favoured open-plan interiors for the Sanlorenzo yachts they have designed, and both have opted to furnish these free-flowing spaces with furniture of their own ranges.

As Muzio has observed, “clients say they want timelessness, quality, elegance”. The challenge is to make interiors that are timeless but also innovative: owners are not content with a cookie-cutter replica, no matter how luxurious in design. The inimitablePhilippe Starck sees it as his duty to be pioneering in his projects, “to bring something new and interesting to advance civilisation. When you copy, you regress.”

The first step in creating something unique is customisation. “I don’t source pieces from the market,” says Italian designer Achille Salvagni, explaining that by designing everything himself, he can imbue each piece with a narrative of its own. “I never sketch for the sake of it. I’m interested in more than just the beauty of shapes. I prefer to create pieces that embody or evoke a story,” he says.

By assuming control down to the last detail to create “fully bespoke” interiors, he not only achieves what he calls “a very rich standard that few designers can reach”, but ensures the correct balance in terms of the size of pieces in a scheme. “You can change your perceptions of scale by putting a big piece of furniture in a small space, or by furnishing a big space with very small furniture. In playing with proportions, you can change the balance and transform a space into something quite fresh and new.”

Starck is also preoccupied with proportions and whether they are in “harmony”. “On many boats, the proportions aren’t human,” he says, expressing mystification that on most yachts the principal outdoor living space is to the rear of the superstructure rather than in front of it. On the futuristic 119 metre Motor Yacht A, which was launched in 2008, he says: “My goal was to make the people who will be on board live, like the old Indians said, ‘in the light’.” Hence a huge single-span main saloon that extends from the aft deck to the fore: “a beautiful volume, designed to always have the best place, depending on the weather, the sun or your mood”.

His preoccupation with light also explains the myriad gleaming surfaces he deployed throughout its interiors: mirror, crystal, subtly shiny white stingray hide and, most splendidly of all, a scalloped silver-leaf relief that helps to illuminate the walls of the principal spiral staircase.

Salvagni also favours silvery reflective wall coverings in some of his projects. He has, for example, used panels of subtly reflective alpaca, a silvery alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, which reminds him of antique French and Venetian mirrors, but is more often used in the manufacture of cutlery. He also likes to accent walls panelled in brushed stained oak by insetting narrow panels of gilded brass with textured finishes. In one example he hadn’t an appropriate tool to get the pattern he wanted, “so we used pasta – spaghetti, rigatoni, fusilli, stellini – just rolled over or pressed into the clay to make the moulds”.

He too points to the challenges inherent in designing interiors where the scene outside changes constantly. “With a residential project the neighbourhood will have some bearing on the design,” he says. “With a yacht, you need to tailor the concept more to the sensibility, tastes and character of the owner than its location because it is on the move continually so it cannot be impacted by its surroundings.” He cites the interiors of a 50 metre yacht he designed. “When I first met the owner, he immediately conveyed to me his combative approach to life. Although he was a middle-aged, northern European businessman, he struck me as a warrior. So when I created his bedside lamps, I created two symmetrical bronze shields to suggest the sense of power and strength in his attitude.”

Indeed the owner’s character should be the starting point with every project. “It is essential that before we begin the design process we listen closely to our clients to ensure we fully understand their lifestyle, their taste and the vision they have for the project. Only then do we put pencil to paper,” says Winch. “Our approach is really hermeneutic, I like to say, or interpretative,” concurs Muzio. “Designers should not have too much ego,” says Disdale. “One should never design something just for sake of being different. Bentley could easily make a three-wheeler car but that only makes it different, not desirable or better.” Similarly, says Starck, when a designer sets out to make a statement with a yacht project “you are dead. You betray your clients because you are designing for you; you don’t design for them,” he says.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking Starck is handing over any control. The designer is firmly disparaging of any contemporaries who give in to a client’s every whim. “You have to drive them in the right way. Some people and some companies think it’s easier to make more money by flattering, but that’s unacceptable. Morally it’s unacceptable. The beauty is to bring everything and everybody to the highest level you can,” he says.

Rémi Tessier, the cabinet-maker turned interiors specialist, takes a similarly hard line, believing the secret of a great yacht interior is simply to take his advice and do what you’re told. “I will not work for a person who will just put whatever on the wall because it would ruin my reputation with those who are collectors,” he once told Boat International. So much so that there’s a clause in his contract to that effect. “It is fine to have amazing art on the wall,” he says, “but not decorative art. Serious art or no art.” The owners may have commissioned and be paying for the project, but that doesn’t give them “the right to put what they want on the walls”. He takes the same view of accessories. “Every single detail is crucial. How else can I preserve the vision and the integrity of the project? Design is the vision of one person communicated to another, my vision for the client. You know what is a camel: it’s a horse designed by a committee,” he laughs. “You cannot design by committee.”