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The earliest generation of large private yachts owned by royalty and the tycoons of America’s prewar Gilded Age owed their designs to established workshops such as those of Fife, GL Watson and Herreshoff, which were fully acquainted with the technical principles governing the shape and performance of seagoing vessels.
This tradition survived two world wars into an era of growing private fortunes in the 1960s and 1970s when the late Australian-born designer Jon Bannenberg, with a background in the decorative arts, established himself in London.
He moved into yacht design, after undertaking interior design work on the QE2 ocean liner.
His commission to collaborate on the design of a new private yacht, Tiawana, broke the engineering-led design dominance of naval architects: hitherto, they had downplayed the role of aesthetics in the above-deck appearance and interior living space on yachts.
Bannenberg’s London office became an incubator for design talent that went on to dominate the custom-built superyacht market.
Three of today’s leading designers — Terence Disdale, Tim Heywood and Andrew Winch — began their careers in Bannenberg’s studio.
Even those who did not work with the designer in those early days acknowledge his legacy in broadening the scope of yachtbuilding.
Mr Winch, who worked with Bannenberg 30 years ago, says: “He taught me to draw the hull lines of a yacht with splines [flexible curves], weights and ink pens. Jon hated the idea that a yacht was a luxury. He said that a yacht was a home that you fell in love with and couldn’t do without.
“I agree with that — you have to love it. I don’t want to design yachts that are tied up on the dock all the time. I’m proud that so many of our yacht projects have been built because of the client’s passion to be afloat.”
In 2017, Mr Winch’s design company has worked on the launches of four superyachts.
Mr Disdale, who joined the Bannenberg studio in 1967, has gone on to design five of the world’s largest yachts, including Roman Abramovich’s 162.5m Eclipse.
In a memoir of Bannenberg, Mr Disdale recalled how the Chelsea workshop experimented in coating cabin walls and furniture in leather — relatively common today, but unheard of at the time. “In those days the industry was very conservative and not always ready to integrate Jon’s sometimes radical ideas,” he said.
Mr Disdale, who set up his own London studio in 1973, has taken inspiration from Bannenberg with his interior designs where he is known for imaginative combinations of materials. Among his studio’s larger projects were the yachts Al Salamah, Ecstasea, Montkaj and Sussurro.
Mr Heywood joined Bannenberg as an apprentice designer in 1972 after working briefly on a building site when he struggled to find design work after leaving art school.
Mr Heywood, who now works in his own studio, prefers to concentrate on designing yacht exteriors and often finds himself collaborating with former Bannenberg colleagues if they have an interior design brief on the same yacht.
Other companies, such as RWD in Hampshire, have followed leads from the studios of both Bannenberg and John Munford, the luxury yacht designer who began his career at Camper and Nicholsons on the Solent. “Jon Bannenberg gave designers their rightful recognition. No one would commission a yacht without a designer today,” says Toby Ecuyer, creative director at RWD.
Parts of the industry are beginning to question the merits of some of the more flamboyant designs.
Espen Oeino, one of the most highly rated designers in the superyacht industry, says Bannenberg knew that design was not enough and that engineering skills were vital.
“Not everyone has his intelligence and understanding. Today, unfortunately, you see a lot of concepts online created using affordable rendering and modelling programmes. Most are not even close to being engineered,” says Mr Oeino.
“You need to understand the physics as well as the aesthetics.”