A plethora of smart, stylish yacht design springs forth from American designers and builders - and influences more than just American buyers.
In the annals of design, whether it be for architecture, automobiles, or even fashion, there are distinct contributions from American visionaries.
In the architecture world, there’s Frank Lloyd Wright. When he started his independent career in the 1890s, he set out to design homes that would suit the American prairie. Wright went on to create more than 1,000 designs reflecting varying styles for commercial buildings, residences, museums, and more. His work appeared on both sides of the ocean, too, as Wright was sought out for his singular sensibility.
In automotive design, there’s Harley Earl. If you’re not a car fanatic, you may not recognise his name, but you’ll surely recognise his work. Earl was the creator of the Corvette, the famed American sports car that went into production in 1953. He’s credited with putting the excitement back in American automotive design following World War II.
The excitement hasn’t stopped, either: Nearly 1,400,000 Corvettes had been sold by the end of 2013. Most Corvette owners are, understandably, American, but some car collectors across the ocean covet them, too. When it comes to fashion, it’s hard to argue the staying power of Ralph Lauren. The young Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz) started his career in the 1960s making men’s ties from rags and selling them to shops in New York City. He soon expanded his neckwear into a menswear line and opened his own storefront. Today the Ralph Lauren Corporation is a multi-billion-dollar global business in men’s, women’s, and children’s apparel plus home goods, accessories, and fragrances.
Given America’s influence on so many prominent aspects of design, is there an equally large impact on yacht design? From the late naval architect who was considered the dean of American yacht design for decades, to more modern-day naval architects and interior designers, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Now, some yachting magazines and yachting websites seem to have a plethora of information about and images from European designers and builders. That may give you the impression that they are the only ones who are busy. Don’t confuse their American counterparts with being less productive or less proactive, however.
Indeed, stateside designers and shipyards are no less focused on meeting and even exceeding clients’ expectations. They’re working with buyers who want everything from New York City-chic saloons to gentleman’s-club skylounges, from go-anywhere expedition yachts to throwback-looking cruisers. Equally noteworthy, these States-based designers and builders are not just raising interest among their fellow countrymen. And, just as there are diverse individuals involved in American yacht design and construction, they hold equally diverse views as to what ultimately influences an American yacht buyer’s styling and decor decisions and why.
Dean of design
To understand where American yacht design is at present, it’s important to understand where the modern era of it really began. Speak with any naval architect or exterior stylist about who influenced them early on in their school years or even their career, and chances are high that you’ll hear the name Jack Hargrave.
From the late 1950s to the late 1990s, the J.B. Hargrave design office was responsible for more than 300 designs and an astounding 7,000 fully built boats, yachts, and ships. Among those thousands of boats and yachts were ones from notable American yacht and superyacht yards like Burger Boat Company, Hatteras, and Palmer Johnson. Foreign builders ranging from Amels to Cheoy Lee tapped Hargrave, too, for his expertise at making a yacht look right. Hargrave married time-honoured styling with practical arrangements, plus smart engineering. No wonder, then, that Hargrave earned himself a suitable nickname: dean of American yacht design.
“Whether it was a Hatteras, or a Burger, or a Feadship, there was an unmistakable look to the Jack Hargrave office,” comments Bill Prince of Bill Prince Yacht Design. “That really was the focus of American yacht design - at least on the power side of things,” he says, noting that in the same era in the sailing-yacht sector, Sparkman & Stephens, “Was equally pre-eminent.” But, he quickly cautions, there are fewer opportunities in sailboat design for stylistic expressions.
“Above the sheer, you don’t have much happening stylistically on a sailboat until you get to a very, very large vessel,” Prince says. That’s why he feels that Hargrave was able to have that much more influence. “It was an honest look, a well-proportioned look, whether it was a tri-deck or a raised pilothouse,” he says of Hargrave’s work. Indeed; that focus on proportions even extended to the shape and height of seat backs, to ensure first and foremost that they were comfortable.
Overall, Hargrave wanted every yacht, no matter how big or small, to truly reflect the way the owners liked to live, supported by a structure capable of cruising as many seasons as they planned. Some are still cruising today, which doesn’t surprise Prince in the least. “Refit after refit, they can be expected to serve their owners well for generations,” he says.
Prince believes that the concept of prioritising practical needs has a broader application across American yachts in the modern era. Whether it’s a project from a West Coast builder, a Midwest yard, or another U.S. builder, “In the language of their superstructure, they’re honest,” he says, explaining that 'honest' means purity of design.
“You see deckhouse windows where you expect deckhouse windows to be. There’s no visual trickery, which you might see in a typical Italian-style express. With them, there’s the clichéd diagonal that runs from the forward end of the forward cabin all the way up to the aft end of the aft-deck overhang, and splits the saloon windows in two and tries to fool the eye into thinking there are three or four different levels. I think many of those forced approaches and artificial styles will expire before some of the honest American heritage of a Hargrave, or a Hunt, or a Burger.”
In fact, Prince avers that the purer the design of a yacht, the better the look will serve owners from a resale perspective, because it won’t appear overly trendy or tied to a particular time period. “It’s part of a designer’s responsibility to look after the owner’s best interest when designing a vessel from any number of ways - safety, seakeeping, performance, but also the investment interest,” he explains. “When we design them something that will look comically silly in ten years, does that serve the owner well?”
Prince makes an analogy to the automotive industry, quoting the head of design for Audi and Volkswagen, who stated at a car show in 2013 that the era of overdesign is over. The car models that have been coming out of each company since then have had crisp, clean lines, standing in stark contrast to the busier, trendier lines of some other car models. “The yachting sector almost always trails the automotive sector by three to five years in terms of zeitgeist of design trends and technology,” Prince says. “I think it’s in the best interest of the owner to have a boat that will be appealing in five or ten years as opposed to some of these which I think are just gratuitous.”
The idea of form serving owners well raises another interesting observation about American yacht design. While many people believe there is certainly something that’s considered American style, there’s no single American yacht style. Rather, there are various looks that stem from regional influences.
As Prince puts it, “From these very regional pockets, whether it’s the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast up to Maine, or the East Coast, I think they’ve all developed what have become iconic American styles by virtue of the function.”
He goes on to point out, “You can tell a West Coast boat is a West Coast boat by the fact that they typically have long, functional bow pulpits for fishing activities. They’ve got enclosed pilothouses in reliance on the fact that the weather can be lousy. You can always tell a West Coast boat or a Pacific Northwest boat by its combination of functional attributes. Likewise, you can always tell a Downeast boat. The hull form, the particular look of the deckhouse, the long, low cockpit - those are elements you see that you understand are evolutions of 80 or 100 years worth of commercial fishing and workboats.”
Ward Setzer, principal of Setzer Yacht Architects, is in agreement with Prince’s sentiments about regional influences. He’s a firm believer in yacht buyers basing their likes and dislikes on what they’ve seen throughout the years on both private and commercial boats alike.
“If I’m designing a boat for somebody in the Middle East, sometimes they will refer to those old, swept-bow dhows that some of them have as mini yachts, with just a cooking deck onboard. That influences their eye, their perception of what they expect, what they like in a yacht. So, even we Americans, whether we see a Bubba Gump shrimp boat or some longliner tuna boat from San Diego, an Alaskan fishery vessel, a classic rumrunner-type with long, sleek lines, or even a Maine lobster boat, you and I are influenced by that. We don’t know that we are, we’re sort of blind to it....It’s all there, it’s all ingrained in us whether we like it or not.”
That also explains why, Setzer believes, American buyers don’t necessarily label some looks the same way as their European counterparts do. “Europeans point at us and say, ‘That’s a classic, that’s American.’ That’s an interesting word; they do seem to use ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’ and that kind of thing when they look at our designs,” he explains. “I don’t think we refer to ourselves that way in America. As a matter of fact, Americans are coming from the other direction. Something that Europeans would call a classic, Americans think is modern. It’s not that we’re behind the times, it’s just culturally how it shapes you from the time when you’re a kid in the marina looking at a boat versus what other cultures are seeing in their backyards.”
Funny thing is, those American styles have been appearing in more backyards around the world. While on a self-imposed sabbatical in Antigua from his primary office during the summer of 2013, Setzer was inspired to start sketching new creations based on the styles he kept seeing over and over again out in English Harbour. Specifically, Setzer noticed that regardless of size, design studio, or even country of creation, the majority of the yachts embraced design elements that came from established American yacht design, and even American commercial vessel design. Setzer reasoned that these design cues had staying power for a reason and, when mixed with some more contemporary lines that moderately push the boundaries, they’d appeal to new yacht buyers.
The fruits of Setzer’s labour are nearly two dozen designs from 28 to 70m LOA that he’s grouped together under the banner New American Motoryachts. They’re evocative of several time-honoured yacht categories that have strong American roots, like tri-decks, raised pilothouses, flush decks, and even commuters. (Commuters were swift, elegant yachts that rose to prominence in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, whisking their wealthy owners from their large summer homes along the shores of New York’s Long Island and Connecticut to their offices in New York City’s financial district.) The New American Motoryachts seem to have hit the right mark, as Setzer says he’s sold seven of the designs to date - and two buyers happen to be shipyards on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
The U.S. builder is Front Street Shipyard, located in Maine. JB Turner, the head of Front Street Shipyard, and Setzer have known each other for a number of years. Turner met with Setzer last summer, just prior to the New American Motoryachts being publicised by the yachting media, to preview the designs. He liked what he saw, further seeing strong parallels between Setzer’s vision and the vision of clients with whom he had been speaking in recent months.
Turner therefore picked four designs from 28 to 40m and asked Setzer to develop them further, incorporating the feedback that Turner had been receiving from clients. The designs are the Vintage Tri-Deck, in a 40m LOA; a Modern Commuter, in a 28m length; a Flushdeck RPH (raised pilothouse), as a 24m; and a Modern Explorer, in a 38m LOA. “Setzer’s New American Motoryacht series represents the direction we at Front Street Shipyard see the U.S. superyacht industry moving,” Turner says.
As for the shipyard on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s Admiral Tecnomar, in Italy. Details were still preliminary when the Superyacht Owners' Guide was going to press. However, Setzer says the builder planned to offer 40m, 50m and 60m yachts for the U.S. market that were based on the New American Motoryacht designs.
Setzer isn’t the only designer working with a non-American shipyard that’s striving to attract more U.S. buyers. Patrick Knowles of Patrick Knowles Designs was approached by Danish Yachts late last year to collaborate on its QuadraDeck 40M.
The yacht initially was a concept project presented at the Monaco Yacht Show a few years back, intended for the European market. However, Danish Yachts subsequently decided the yacht needed some re-thinking both outside and in.
The QuadraDeck 40M bearing Patrick Knowles Designs’ contributions was unveiled for the American marketplace in March at the Palm Beach International Boat Show - a show which had 140 superyachts on display, more than in any of its previous 26 years, and which regularly attracts a highly qualified American clientele. “We were excited by the idea of developing a vessel specifically for the U.S. market that really made the most of our combined experience,” says Patrik von Sydow, CEO of Danish Yachts.
Because of its location in Northern Europe, Danish Yachts already has a level of credibility among potential American clients. The key for Knowles and his team was to maintain respect for the Scandinavian aesthetic of light, bright, open, and airy interiors, all of which are largely influenced by the region’s summertime midnight sun. At the same time, the design team needed to create something that would appeal to a more American aesthetic.
“Most Americans are not comfortable living in that environment,” Knowles says, referring to the just-mentioned Scandinavian principles. Even if you visit an upscale U.S. coastal residence, it may be airy and have lots of sun, but “you have mahogany panels, raised panels, crown moulding, and coffered ceilings,” he explains. “Even though they are in a coastal environment, they still do not embrace what Scandinavian design is.”
So why don’t Americans embrace all of this - what does Knowles see as comprising the American aesthetic? He actually sees two fundamental things that characterise American preferences. First, “Americans are more ergonomically geared than the European market,” he says. Knowles is quick to add that he doesn’t believe ergonomics is entirely eschewed by Europeans. Rather, “Europeans, especially the Italians, put design way ahead of comfort,” he explains.
Knowles has observed (as have others) that yacht owners from European regions first and foremost want a piece of furniture or an overall room arrangement to reflect a decidedly modern mode, while Americans focus on comfort first and style second. Furthermore, “Americans still are quite traditional,” he says, where as Europeans prefer more contemporary elements.
Knowles says American clients tend to want predominantly wood packages, plus ones that are along the lines of mahogany, cherry, and walnut, all of which have deep finishes. In contrast, European yacht buyers tend to prefer woods like anigre and sycamore, which are much lighter in tone, plus they tend to gravitate toward reflective and painted surfaces and have these materials play a larger role in the decor than woods do. “Europeans by and large are jaded on anything traditional,” Knowles says. “The European market and designers are very much driven by the contemporary factor.”
He has a compelling explanation as to why these traditional versus modern and richer versus lighter preferences exist. It’s akin to nostalgia for an era which pre-dates the American experience and existence. “What I liken it to is, the American culture is young, it’s new, and the European culture is very old, has a lot of history, and has a lot of depth,” Knowles explains. “They’ve lived with those things for centuries, and quite frankly, they’re tired of it. They’re tired of the heritage, they’re tired of the history, they’re tired of the look, the age...whatever you want to call it, the Europeans are over it.”
They may very well appreciate what the tradition stands for, he says, but they certainly would not design a traditional boat or even a traditional home for themselves. “When you think about the history of the U.S. and think about architectural buildings, some of which may date back 250 years, that’s a serious American archive, it’s a serious piece of American history,” Knowles continues.
“There are homes in Europe that are hundreds of years older than that. So really, psychologically, as far as I’m concerned, American culture has been trying to create depth and history by mimicking what has been established and what has been around for ages. That’s why Americans as a whole are traditional, because our culture and our existence are relatively new. The Europeans want a new chapter, they want a new look.”
“Made in America” matters
Interestingly enough, not everyone agrees there is a distinct difference between American and European design. As relationships between shipyards and designers from around the world developed, regional yacht styling began to fade. Burger Boat Company, located on the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan, is a good example of a company who shares this very experience.
In Burger’s earlier years it was not uncommon for customers to seek out what became termed as “traditional” or “American” styling. It was this styling that Burger, working closely with the aforementioned Jack Hargrave, became so well recognised for. Variants of this style can be seen in yachts from shipyards and designers from around the world that recognised and admired it as classic and handsome.
Burger has found that, with the number of talented designers from around the world, the lines of distinction between American and European designs have blurred. Just as highly recognised international automobile brands have evolved their styling over time, so has yacht design. This evolution in yacht design is fueling an increased demand for individualism, exceptional quality and craftsmanship.
As with other major yacht builders, Burger works with several highly respected designers, stylists, naval architects and interior designers from around the world. These relationships result in the creation of projects that showcase the style and individual tastes of the yacht owner, whether it is ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary.’ “In my opinion, today there is no such thing as an ‘American style,’ at least where Burger is concerned,” says Thom Conboy, Burger’s commercial director.
Today clients look to all possible interior and exterior styling alternatives. According to Jim Ruffolo, Burger’s president and CEO, “Burger has worked with a variety of internationally acclaimed designers to build yachts of varying styles to meet the ever changing desires of our customers.” This becomes very apparent by observing the varying styles of Burger’s recent yachts.
While the eye catching Sycara IV is styled to replicate a fantail cruiser of the 1920s, Tò-Kalòn takes on yet an entirely different style, that of a sporty enclosed-bridge motor yacht. Ruffolo goes on to point out that these two projects utilised European based designers.
According to Burger, today’s yachting enthusiasts focus on individualism, quality, value, and brand. While acknowledging this, both Ruffolo and Conboy feel there is an underlying attraction for yachts that are linked to the term “Made in America.” Yachtsmen worldwide recognise the value that a yacht “Made in America” provides. “I believe that ‘Made in America’ is recognised by yacht owners worldwide as a benefit,” Ruffolo explains. “’Made in America’ historically reflected quality, reliability and long-term value; that same recognition continues today.”
Ruffolo feels that yacht owners look for “Made in America” brands at a shipyard that upholds their expectations of quality, state-of-the-art technology and craftsmanship. Conboy underscores how the concept goes beyond a literal interpretation of where a yacht is built. “‘Made in America’ not only reflects financial stability, heritage and brand, but also quality, value and a highly respected work ethic.”
Burger, at over 150 years old, finds that offering valuable experience, quality craftsmanship, innovative design features and an exceptional work ethic, regardless of the styling, is what today’s yachtsman are seeking.
Conboy adds that “In this changing global market, styling preferences have become highly individualised. While each new yacht is styled to reflect the owner’s individual tastes and lifestyle, it must also provide them with long term quality and value.”
Another American shipyard, Seattle-based Delta Marine, actually has seen different requests based on geographic region. Jay Miner, chief naval architect of the builder’s own Delta Design Group, particularly sees it come into play with exterior styling. Furthermore, Miner sees it stemming from an influence the average person might not expect, but one which makes a lot of sense.
“Given that the auto industry essentially came of age in this country, and so much of other industries has been influenced by the automotive industry, perhaps there’s a stronger design element that harkens back to automotive in the way that Americans may approach design,” Miner says. “That may be a fairly broad statement, but I think there’s an element of truth to the fact that there’s maybe a stronger influence here from the automotive industry than perhaps other areas of the world.”
Mark Obernberger, who is a member of the Delta Design Group’s interior-design division, agrees. “It really depends often on the owners’ likes and dislikes of their particular cars,” he explains. “They’ll reference a car type or a car detail, and that extends into the overall design when you’re talking about the yacht exteriors.”
Being a custom yacht builder, obviously Delta Marine lets the client drive the direction of a project. The Delta Design Group can and does both lead and supplement the design process, in the latter case working with a stylist, naval architect, and/or interior designer that the owner has brought in on a project. The Delta Design Group therefore is in an interesting position when it comes to observing how design in general develops.
To that point, “American owners seem to be more involved with the evolution of the design, and are more particular about the individual room spaces and joinery design overall,” Obernberger says. Miner sees it as well. “I think in general, more American owners tend to be involved in the details,” he explains. “They tend to be more hands-on. I can think of a number of American clients who have been interested in the minutia more than non-American clients.” That minutia runs the gamut from interior decor elements to exterior styling, but even sometimes mechanical systems.
Miner adds that the Delta Design Group may have “a skewed data set” because most of Delta’s clients so far have indeed been American. It’s worth noting that any other design team or shipyard whose client base is comprised mostly of one nationality will probably offer a similar declaration. Regardless, Miner has observed an interesting characteristic about the nature of the American clients with whom his team has worked.
“One big aspect that’s been fairly consistent is the more informal approach to things,” he says. He sees this applying as much to the interiors as it does the exteriors. “The way the boats are laid out, they tend to be more inclusive and less partitioned off, maybe, than a European-style yacht may be. Americans by nature are outgoing, they’re more receptive to crossing paths with the crew members and interacting with the crew members more directly than perhaps the classic European client might be.”
Miner says the philosophy fits well with that of the Delta Design Group’s own approach. “There’s a culture that’s unique to Delta in some respects, so part of what we do here is based on our own approach to things, and certainly priority to crew accommodation and consideration to things like serviceability in the technical design is an important aspect of what we do,” he comments. “Again, part of that is maybe company culture, as opposed to an ‘American perspective’, but those are strong elements that are important to our clients.” Obernberger adds, “We find that many of the American owners concentrate a fair bit on the crew quarters and crew circulation just for the purpose of making sure they have a happy and comfortable crew.”
Obernberger also says American clients tend to commission yachts to use with their families, more than their overseas counterparts do. This results in them giving a lot of thought to how their yacht can maximise everyone’s interaction with the water. While not a uniquely American concept, he admits, he does see “a prevalent trend to have more hull openings, access to the water from both sides of the boat, and a lot of access and open areas astern for interaction with the water on every deck.”
Ultimately, no matter how many fold-down balconies a yacht has, or whether it has a fully dedicated beach club, “This is custom yacht building,” Miner says. “The most important thing you can do with any client is listen and make sure you understand what their priorities are, and then you gear the project around that set of priorities. It’s got to be a fun process for them. Everybody has a slightly different set of interests and priorities and requirements and sense of aesthetics, so you have to understand what that is so you can lay things out in the most enjoyable and constructive manner.”
Miner’s point is one that is echoed around the world in yachting. After all, the key to an American designer or builder creating a great design is the same as it is for any other person penning one for any other client. The way that Ward Setzer explains it seems most apt: “If you can see what a person drives, if you can see how they live, meaning their house, if you can see their present boats, you don’t have to ask them about their dhow or picnic boat or anything like that,” he avers. “All you have to do is see it. They won’t tell you, ‘I love the lobster boat, I wish you could integrate something from it.’ You know they bought that lobster boat for a reason. What you’re trying to do is dig into their head: what makes them click. So, if somebody has a traditional, swept-bow vessel, then you know deep down they probably like a clipper bow and a swept hull, and you’re going to have a hard time selling them a flat, plumb-bow vessel.”
Setzer admits - as do others interviewed for this story - that sometimes clients have surprised him, but more often than not, “From what they wear, to what they drive, to how they live, to the furnishings that they purchase to be comfortable in their home, that whole style and persona is the chemistry that makes up an individual buyer. You need to take that in, even when they tell you they want a tri-deck or something else they’ve seen. That’s a starting point. You know they’re deeper than that, so to really click with them, you’ve got to dig beyond.”