It struck me at 2:35 p.m. while walking the docks at the 2020 Miami boat show last February: More and more production boats are brutally ugly. See, it was at that moment that I ran into a longtime friend who’s a respected yachting reporter. We got to talking about yacht design because she was concerned that boats are getting uglier. “What in the hell is going on?” she asked. She gestured to an ugly Italian thing with picture windows positioned where an anchor pocket should be. “Who thinks this is appealing? Who designs these? Who buys these? To whom will they possibly appeal in the used boat market in five, 10 or 20 years?”
So many questions.
“Yeah, some boats are getting uglier,” I allowed. “But not all of them! You see, the market share of new yachts sold by American builders to American buyers has been diluted. We have fewer American builders than before, and more imported boats from every corner of Europe. Many of them are absolutely hideous; their surface shapes are not only devoid of appealing form but are downright detrimental to their function as boats. It’s the brutalism school of design,” I offered. So that’s what the hell is going on, to answer her first question.
The answers to questions two and three lie in the Far East, and they have a lot to do with car design.
Because styling trends in the yachting world tend to follow automotive trends by a few years, we can assign some of the blame to the kids coming out of ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena who are competing to appeal to the tastes of the massive Chinese auto market. Have you seen a new BMW lately? Their famous, elegant kidney-shaped grill has morphed into a grotesque maw. Elegance is all but forgotten in the automotive styling world except at the highest echelons, but elegance is not what Chinese car -buyers demand. Even BMW’s Design Chief Adrian van Hooydonk has had to answer critics who bemoan the brutal ugliness of a new BMW for the sake of “making a car that will stand out in China.”
“Have you seen a Toyota Avalon?” I asked my friend, reinforcing my point. “The front end looks like a blue whale. The abandonment of elegance in automotive design has trickled down to yacht design, and the result is this,” I gestured to the offending pockmarked Italian whale displayed next to us.
Brutalism has replaced elegance, specifically in the unfortunate look of some of the European production boats. “This is particularly true if the boat’s model name consists of a number accompanied by the letter X,” I offered. Perhaps the X is what should have been drawn over the preliminary profile sketch before so many euros were sunk into the cost of building the hull and deck molds.
Fortunately, most of the remaining American builders have avoided this plague. The styling of the new Vikings is as distilled as ever, without a single nod to the brutal baubles forcibly adorned to many Euro cruisers. A new Viking 54 will look respectable and purpose-built, if a little bland, in 20 years. Tiaras, Grady-Whites and the Down East fleet seem like bank vaults of clean design compared to some of the lesser stuff from across the pond. The boats coming out of Australia have also developed an immunity to brutalism, at least for now. The leading builders from Down Under are producing modern, crisp and clean designs. Good design serves the owner well at sea and when it’s time to sell.
As to the question of “Who buys these?” Look for the guy in the new BMW 4 Series in the marina parking lot.
My friend sighed and shook her head, and we walked down the next dock past the traditional pilothouse cruisers. You know, those boats with the anchor pockets where the anchor pockets should be.