I’m sorry I couldn’t invite you aboard my yacht somewhere exotic,” says Dickie Bannenberg. “But I am afraid there isn’t one.” The admission is a little surprising considering that Bannenberg is one of the most feted names in high-end yacht design. Then again, a yachting jaunt would be something of a busman’s holiday.
Instead, we meet at Bannenberg’s home in Fulham, west London, a four-floor terraced house which he has redesigned to strain every last drop of sunshine out of the leaden London sky. The wall separating the hall from the living room has been removed and replaced with glass. The two ground-floor rooms have been knocked together to create a single long space, segueing into a huge two-storey glass box, which extends into a garden of teak decking. On the first floor, internal walls have been replaced with glass balconies that overlook this airy space, as though from the captain’s bridge. A porthole has been inserted in the bathroom wall. Did he deliberately try to recreate the sense of being on a ship? “Not consciously … but you could try to argue the case.”
Yacht design is, as he says, “in the Bannenberg DNA”. His father, the late Jon Bannenberg, with whom he worked for 19 years on some of the world’s most renowned yachts, taught him the ropes. Bannenberg senior got into the business almost by accident when he was a partner at the interior design company, Partridge. One day a client showed him drawings of his new yacht but Bannenberg was underwhelmed. “If you’re so clever, you come up with something,” said the client. So he did and Bannenberg’s career in yacht design was born.
“When [my father] died in 2002, the industry stood back to see what would emerge from the studio,” says Bannenberg. “I was careful not to do a pastiche of his style. So I went in a different direction, while remaining faithful, I hope, to the courage and clarity my dad encapsulated. Our designs are fresh and adventurous but also approachable. There is no point having a showpiece if you can’t live in it.” The designer is himself highly approachable, unencumbered by the usual barrage of PRs and proffering mock apologies for not being more glamorous. He speaks amusingly of his privileged childhood, growing up in the stage actress Ellen Terry’s former home in Chelsea.
“I have lived all my life within 100 yards of the King’s Road,” he says. “My dad, being the racy guy he was, would drive me to prep school [and later Westminster School] in his Aston Martin DB4, with me wearing regulation shorts that he had had tailored by Doug Hayward because he didn’t like the cut – all of which I thought was perfectly normal at the time. These days, I try to have a more balanced view.”
Bannenberg, 52, likens yacht owners to geological strata representing the distribution of global wealth. “In the 1960s, there were a lot of Greek clients. We spent summer holidays in the Greek islands, or in a house in Corfu, and my father would take great delight when a boat he had designed sailed past. Then it was Arab clients in the 1970s, followed by American West Coast software barons. Now, most of our clients are east Europeans, and we are seeing a growth in interest from China and Hong Kong.” Having designed 30 yachts, five homes and even a jet since 2003, Bannenberg has a turnover of about £4m per annum and he is presently working on eight projects.
Among his current residential work is a brief to create a “man-cave” for a young Middle Eastern client. “He gave us the film The Party as a point of reference, which is a wonderful opportunity to create a Peter Sellers-inspired 1970s party space. We pluck ideas magpie-like from architecture, car design, James Bond movies – it’s a modern eclectic bunch of influences.”
If there is any trend he can identify in yacht design, it is a greater demand for interaction with nature, with more emphasis on outdoor spaces, balconies and terraces. Which brings us back neatly to the home he shares with his wife, Susan, his son, Jack, 21, and daughter, Ella, 17, Moose the cocker spaniel and a plaintive tabby cat.
Apart from the glass extension, its most immediately striking feature is the total lack of clutter. “You have unwittingly opened a nice wound,” Bannenberg jokes. “It is my wife who is the great tidier and seller of things. If I’m not careful, something that hasn’t been used for a couple of weeks will end up on eBay. But before you think I am a total barbarian, I promise there are books upstairs.”
The house reflects its owner’s taste for 1960s and 1970s art and design. The small garden is dominated by a bronze statue by John Farnham, an apprentice of Henry Moore, which was a birthday gift to Susan. In the conservatory, there is a Flos floor lamp and a spiky 1970s salmon-coloured glass vase (“which my children hate”). The living room is filled with screen prints by pop artists Gerald Laing and Patrick Caulfield, and a “Warhol-style” canvas of his children. There are also references to Bannenberg’s profession, in part of a Julian Opie panel “which we were going to use on a yacht, but the owner lost his nerve”, and in a model of Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird car, which Bannenberg’s office gave him for his 50th birthday “because we had recently rebuilt a boat called Blue Bird of 1938, for Tara Getty”. The model sits by a photo of Bannenberg aged six dressed in a Dalek costume, “which I used to wear wandering down King’s Road, holding my mother’s hand”.
The focal point of the room is an steel fireplace, commissioned from Bannenberg’s father by the National Coal Board in 1968. “He made about eight designs for them, all very avant-garde,” he says. “I found this one in Camden Market.” Upstairs, in the spacious study/television room (“study makes me sound too learned”), an assortment of the promised books sit on 1960s modular shelving units by Dieter Rams, sharing space with a bowl of sea urchins, “which I dived for in Greece – that’s the kind of thing I like to bring back from abroad”.
One could call this Bannenberg’s “boat room”. Wooden builders’ models, which shipyards used to calculate the shell plating before it was cut, are mounted on the wall. Half-models of boat ribbing hang opposite, above a glass-encased 1913 cargo ship replica. Tellingly, there are also miniature models of sculls: rowing is his preferred form of aquatic transport, rather than sails or engines, and it remains a family passion. Bannenberg met his wife through rowing at Cambridge, and their children have inherited the oarsman’s gene. As chairman of the Tideway Scullers in Chiswick, Bannenberg rows every weekend in most weathers. “There is nothing like it for a sense of comradeship,” he says. “But it is very time-consuming.”
This may be one reason why the saxophone, which sits gleaming in a small music room dominated by two large Atlas carvings, has been neglected of late. “A few years ago, I kept saying I wanted to play the sax, so my wife called my bluff and gave me an alto sax for my birthday,” he says. “I had lessons, and put myself through exams, to Grade 6. It was a terrible step back in time – much more scary than any presentation I do today.”
Bannenberg chooses a simple Wedgewood pitcher given to him by his father, and the letter that went with it, as his favourite thing. The pitcher was used on HMY Osborne, the Royal Yacht of Queen Victoria.
“My dad was a great browser and would spend many happy hours trawling around the Chelsea antiques market,” says Bannenberg. “He’d often turn up with great things and draw a lovely card.
He loved yacht memorabilia and he found this for me, for my 35th birthday. The letter ends: ‘Fill it with claret and think of me as you drink’.”
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