|Jon Bannenberg: 1929-2002|
A look back at the rule-breaking originality of the preeminent yacht designer.
By Diane M. Byrne — August 2002
The news that Jon Banneberg, the renowned megayacht designer, had died in late May came as a shock to many people in the marine business, particularly because few outside of his immediate circle knew he had been ill for some time.
"Jon was Jon--he didn't want people to know," says Paula Tebbs, reflecting on her boss' personality. Besides, she adds, even though he was battling an inoperable brain tumor, "he treated the issue as a Tyson vs. Lewis match and was absolutely dead set on winning, despite the odds." Indeed, so powerful was his conviction that, according to Tebbs, "we all went along with it."
This speaks to the very soul of what endeared Bannenberg to the legions of yacht owners, captains, and yards he worked with during a distinguished career that spanned four decades and saw about 200 yachts progress from imaginative concept to often-startling completion. It also characterizes his emergence as one of the most well-respected interior designers and exterior stylists in the business. Particularly during the 1970's and 1980's, Bannenberg was to yacht design what Beethoven was to symphonic composition: He brought his own distinct, rule-breaking style to a field that had been largely colored by tradition.
The music analogy is appropriate, as Bannenberg actually wanted to be a concert pianist as a young man. Born in Australia in 1929, the son of a Dutch father and Australian mother, he studied piano at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. While still a student he began playing in jazz clubs and bars and continued to do so after graduation, also developing an affinity for acting in the theater and designing some of the sets. He left for England in 1952 to pursue his musical passion, and while he continued to perform in clubs, he also continued to design sets, including ones for the famed Old Vic in London. In 1954 he and his wife Beau opened an interior design business, working mostly on houses and apartments, although Bannenberg did also form a partnership with a high-profile antiques shop and designed various antique exhibitions.
Bannenberg's life was forever changed the day a client showed him the plans for a new yacht and asked him what he thought. "I told him it was terrible," Bannenberg revealed to us when we interviewed him in 1985. "So he said, `If you're so bloody smart, do it better.' So I did. Fortunately his original design was so bad, it wasn't hard to improve on it!" And improve he did: The yacht became the center of attention at the 1963 London Boat Show.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.