The Art of Innovation in Superyacht Design


Genuinely innovative design is hard to come by. It takes just the right combination of imagination and feasibility to turn an inventive idea into an innovative solution. Justin Ratcliffe looks at some of the design ideas that are pushing boundaries.

The original brief for this article was to track the latest trends in superyacht design, but then I recalled a comment by leading yacht designer Dickie Bannenberg, who once said: “By the time a trend is recognised as such, it’s already mainstream.” Indeed, there is nothing more irksome to a yacht designer than to be asked to identify trends. The very word – and especially the adjective ‘trendy’ – is loaded with negative connotations of imitation and predictability. Instead, designers strive to be original and innovative, not least because that is what most clients want when they are investing tens of millions of dollars in a custom-built yacht.

Innovation is related to invention in so far as it suggests a certain level of uniqueness, but it further implies a degree of financial return or market performance. An improvement on an existing product or process might be inventive, innovative, both, or neither, if it is not substantial enough. The distinction is important because it qualifies what designers can or cannot do if they want to see their proposals get built. Owners may like innovation for its own sake, but also because it can add resale or charter value to their investment; shipyards like it because it provides an opportunity to build on a brand identity. If it does neither of these two things, then the designer is probably barking up the wrong tree.


We usually think that an innovative idea is necessarily a completely new one, but this isn’t always or even usually the case. Take, for instance, Eidsgaard Design’s approach to the layout of the transom on VANISH, a 66.25m (217ft 4in) motoryacht completed by Feadship and delivered to her owner in 2016. Beach clubs have become de rigeur (‘trendy’ sounds so much better in French) aboard large yachts, but conventional solutions only increase proximity to the water when at anchor and the fold-down transom doors are deployed to create a swim platform. Moreover, such doors are subject to wave slapping or even flooding if a tender comes off the plane too close to the stern. Acting on the client’s desire to feel close to the water but also secure, Peder Eidsgaard and Ben Harrison came up with a terraced layout comprising twin stairs that lead down from the main deck to an intermediate sunbathing area and then the fixed swim platform. The beach club is effectively moved outside, although between the stairs is the entrance to the spa and gym that can also be accessed from a portside platform serving the tender garage. As so much volume was removed from the transom, the shipyard had to rework the buoyancy calculations, but Feadship recognised the added value the solution brought to the project.

“It’s a welcoming way to come aboard from the water that still feels protected and cosy,” says Harrison. “Rather than a cavernous beach club, it provides a more sociable space where guests can also interact with people on the main aft deck.”

The same yacht reveals another innovation. Balconies are not new, but they are invariably of the fixed or fold-down variety. The owner’s balcony aboard VANISH, however, comprises a teak-covered platform that slides out from under the owner’s suite, complete with a section of the bulwark, then locks in place flush with the floor to provide a seamless transition through glass sliding doors between interior and exterior. In a classic example of how good ideas are not always as new as we might think, a similar solution was proposed by Italian designer Alberto Mercati in a 1980s concept for a larger sister ship to the 85m (278ft 11in) NABILA. This was the yacht designed by Jon Bannenberg for Adnan Khashoggi that famously broke the Benetti shipyard in Viareggio. Mercati’s 120m (393ft 8in) project featured four deployable balconies on either side of the upper decks that pulled out like drawers from under the companionways. Sadly, his design was never built.

ESTER III is a 68m (223ft 1in) motoryacht with rigorous exterior styling by Espen Oeino and lavish interior design by Reymond Langton that was launched by Lurssen in 2014. The yacht illustrates how the kinds of amenities and attention to detail once associated with superyachts of 80m (262ft 6in) or more are now appearing on yachts in the sub-70m (229ft 8in) category. This includes a custom-designed, carbon fibre limo tender styled to resemble the mothership, an elevator that runs the full height of the yacht from lower deck to sun deck, a 5m pool with swim-jet current, and a Versailles-inspired interior that ranks among the most finely detailed on any custom yacht. According to Oeino, ESTER III also reflects the next stage in reducing the barrier between interior and exterior by taking outside those activities that have traditionally taken place inside.

“We’re now designing more elaborate outside spaces with more features, such as cinema screens and teriyaki bars,” said the Monaco-based designer. “The owner of this yacht for example, spends up to four months on board during the summer, but to extend the season the ducting above the dining table on the bridge deck aft can pipe both cool and warm air and the stairs leading to the sun deck can be closed off in case it rains.”

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The 66-metre (217ft 4in) yacht VANISH, launched in 2016 by Feadship


Classification societies once looked askance at large windows on yachts and structural glass was unheard of. But they are now updating their safety criteria in line with advances in adhesives for bonding glass to metal, the demands of the superyacht industry and what is happening in land-based architecture. A striking example of this was the 79m (259ft 2in) VENUS designed by Philippe Starck and launched in 2012 for the late Steve Jobs. London-based consultancy Eckersley O’Callaghan that works with Apple on the use of glass in its retail stores around the world, advised Feadship when it came to engineering the yacht’s extensive glazing.

“We generally know how the hull will behave and we can therefore detail the glass around that behaviour,” explains company partner James O’Callaghan. “We have to deal with these kinds of issues every day in buildings, so we should be able to deal with them in marine applications through relatively simple and rigorous analysis.”

Designer Martin Francis is widely considered the guru of glass after leading the way with his bug-eyed windows aboard ECO (now ENIGMA) way back in 1991. Inspired by the windscreens of Parisian buses at the time, the curved panes were custom-made between two matching moulds to deform them to the desired shape – a process that required hugely expensive tooling to avoid distortion during cooling. Although entirely successful (Francis insisted spare panes be made, which have never had to be used), cost was perhaps one reason that this particular procedure was never repeated. Not one of the deckhouse windows aboard 67m (219ft 10in) sloop VERTIGO, designed by Philippe Briand and launched by Alloy Yachts in 2011, has a flat surface, while Ed Dubois proposed windows curved in two planes for his 58m (190ft 4in) high-performance sloop, nicknamed “The Beast”, in build at Royal Huisman.

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The design for 47-metre (154ft) new-build HEYSEA 152, for sale exclusively with YPI


Some innovations, although they make perfect sense, fail to catch the imagination of the marketplace. A good example is the SWATH (Small-Waterplane-Area Twin Hull) concept. The submerged torpedo-like hulls provide a very smooth ride and reduce the motions that cause seasickness, while the wide beam with fewer bulkhead restrictions also offers immense interior volume. Abeking & Rasmussen in Germany has built many such working vessels for offshore use, but has launched only one private SWATH yacht: the 41m (134ft 6in) SILVER CLOUD in 2008. The shipyard has co-developed unconventional yacht concepts based on tried and tested SWATH technology with both Ken Freivokh and Reymond Langton respectively, but neither project has proceeded beyond the design stage.

It’s a similar story with the DynaRig that first appeared on THE MALTESE FALCON nearly a decade ago. The governing principles were first proposed in the late 1960s for use on bulk carriers, but it took 40 years and forward-thinking owner Tom Perkins (in addition to advanced composite materials and some technical wizardry from Dykstra Naval Architects) for the idea to become reality. Despite proposals from Perini Navi and others, it is only now that a second DynaRig yacht is in build. With exterior design by Nuvolari Lenard and naval architecture again by the Dykstra team, the much anticipated Project Solar – at 105m (344ft 6in) the biggest yacht to be built in Holland – is due to be delivered by Oceanco next year.

“Although there are more owners prepared to consider new concepts and accept a departure from traditional solutions, it is a somewhat slower process than we would have hoped for,” comments Frievokh, who designed the exterior and interior of THE MALTESE FALCON and has developed other DynaRig concepts. However, that process is likely to accelerate following the announcement that American car designer Chris Bangle has signed a 10-year deal to refresh the Sanlorenzo range of series yachts. Bangle is no stranger to innovative – and often controversial – thinking.

As head of design at BMW, Bangle came up with the Gina concept car, which had an outer skin made of stretch fabric. Following a series of workshops with the Sanlorenzo team, Bangle produced a rendering of a yacht standing vertically on its bow that resembled a skyscraper in a futuristic urban landscape. “Sometimes to be innovative you have to view the project from a different perspective by turning it on its head,” said the maverick designer by way of explanation.

Trends are almost by definition derivative. Genuine innovation means staying ahead of the curve before original ideas become mainstream. Dickie Bannenberg knows that only too well – as indeed do all the best yacht designers.


[Text updated in August 2016]