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Naval Architect Or Stylist?

Naval Architect Or Stylist?
Which should design your next boat?

By George L. Petrie — May 2001
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• Part 1: Architect or Stylist
• Part 2: Architect or Stylist?

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Once upon a time, it wasn’t a matter of choice. If you wanted to build a custom boat, you hired a naval architect to do the design, or you hired a yard, which then engaged a naval architect for the design work. That, and maybe an interior decorator, was all you needed. The naval architect had complete control of and responsibility for the design, including hull form, proportions, powering, stability, structure, arrangement, and styling.

Over the past decade or two, it’s gotten a lot more confusing. The 1980s brought forth the concept of the designer, a term suggesting that the function of a naval architect is something other than to design. Actually, anyone can call him- or herself a yacht designer, but to be a naval architect requires broad training in a number of disciplines, including engineering. That’s why the term designer as it is commonly used refers to someone who specifies the appearance and arrangement of the yacht and leaves the naval architect to work out the engineering details relating to speed, strength, and stability.

The most recent practitioner to emerge in the yacht design business is the stylist. In the narrowest sense, the stylist is the one who specifies what a yacht’s exterior will look like, which includes the profile, proportions, windows, doors, and other features of the exterior shape. While some stylists perform other functions in the design process, such as interior space planning, those functions are not customarily part of the stylist’s responsibility. The role of the stylist is simply to design the exterior appearance of the yacht.

Considering the preceding discussion, it seems that a naval architect can perform all of the necessary functions in the design process, including styling, while the role of the stylist is quite limited, relying on the naval architect to make the whole thing work. So what do stylists really have to offer? The answer depends on whom you ask. I spoke with Juan Carlos Espinosa, who includes among his many design credits the 130-foot Feadship Gallant Lady and the 147-foot Gran Finale, soon to be launched by Delta Marine. I also talked with Gregory Matzat, chief naval architect for the design firm Sparkman & Stephens, whose portfolio includes such yachts as the 195-foot La Baronessa and the soon-to-be-launched 156-foot Anson Bell, both built by Palmer Johnson.

Both agree that a good stylist can make a positive contribution to the outcome of a yacht design project and that an inexperienced stylist can create serious problems by getting a prospective owner excited about a sleek-looking project that seems great on paper, but can’t possibly be built. Each had a story to tell of a client bursting into the naval architect’s office, waving some stylist’s rendering that a broker had provided and demanding that this is what his yacht must look like. Trouble was, putting a scale to the rendering showed that there was barely five feet of headroom in the upper decks. No wonder the profile was low and sleek!

What are the pros and cons of having a stylist involved in a custom yacht project, and how can you, the prospective owner, predict if a particular stylist is going to be an asset or a liability? On the other side of the coin, if you do engage a stylist, do you need your own naval architect or should you just leave the engineering details to the shipyard?

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This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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