Sightlines - July 2017
A Mark in Time
Philippe Starck goes to the top of the class of yacht design.
One Monday morning I gleefully announced to my second-year architecture professor, “I designed an 80-foot yacht this weekend.”
To which he responded, “that just shows how much you still need to learn about design.” I hadn’t a clue that a simple profile drawing did not constitute design—it was the first major slap to my young design aspirations.
I would soon receive direct tutelage from perhaps the greatest designer of the 20th century, when I worked briefly for Charles Eames. While working on the Charles Lindbergh exhibit for the Smithsonian, he scolded me harshly for not listening to the established criteria and going off track on my own. The Eames mantra was that the “criteria” was the design and the execution was all about the details and connections. It was said 40 years ago that every person in the civilized world had sat in an Eames-designed chair, even if they didn’t know it.
So it is not without a legitimate design education and provenance that I just about threw up when I read an article about Philippe Starck designing the 390-foot motoryacht A in just two hours. How dare a man, known for the design of toilets and plastic chairs, be so dismissive about the profession of yacht design! My office had just completed 5,000 hours of design for the new Bertram 60, so I surmised I must be pretty inept by comparison. What a bunch of garbage spewed from Starck’s mouth as he claimed that, “a field of magma flowing just below the surface of his conscious mind...” I really had read enough about how it was just too easy for him, and that he felt “a little ashamed.” How could he so trivialize the thousands of hours put in by his team and the engineers at Blohm+Voss?
I decided to write a hit piece on this arrogant stylist posing as a yacht designer. Before tearing him apart, I conceded to read the rest of the article. It turns out he had a similar background to mine, and has loved the sea since he was a child when his father owned a big wooden sailing boat. And today Starck owns 15 boats, which he keeps at his disposal around Europe and is capable of sailing each of them single-handed. He speaks with passion of the sea, and he is clearly fascinated with boats. I began to see him differently, as a genuine boater. My opinion changed, and I began to like him. I understood that he gains an instant picture in his mind of the design to come, and after this flash, there is only the tedium of working out the details, which he seems to leave to others. His part is the revelation, and his job is keeping the vision clear.
As I began to realize his philosophy and method, I thought for sure this is not too different from many designers; that we can see the whole creation in our minds before it ever comes out on paper. I even thought, we are much alike; the disdain for too much input and distractions of modern technology. I don’t know if I have a fraction of his talent or vision, but I know one thing for sure: He has more balls. He seems to be willing to take giant risks in the face of his critics.
But not since Jon Bannenberg designed Carinthia V in the early 1970s has anyone moved the needle of yacht design as much as Philippe Starck. His motor and sailing yachts both named A and Steve Jobs’s Venus stand alone as the most controversial yachts of our time. While they are quite polarizing among yachtsmen and designers worldwide, all modern yachts will be judged against them from this time forward. The rest of the modern fleet is decidedly mundane by comparison.
As Jackson Pollock changed the art world and Frank Gehry ushered in a new era of architecture, I believe Philippe Starck has broken the ceiling of yacht design. No matter his claims to how quickly he masters his designs, there is true evidence of genius. At first I found Starck’s designs quite startling, but now I realize it was my resistance to change. I confess that I was jealous that a man from outside my profession could come in and go straight to the top of the class.
I now appreciate the genius of Philippe Starck, and regret it took me so long to welcome him aboard.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.