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Insight: A conversation with Terence Disdale

Design Business
Written by
Gemma Fottles

It’s a fair, late-spring London morning and I’m making way through the hordes of overly-determined rush-hour commuters. Lugging an outrageously heavy suitcase whilst going over my interview questions, I’m frantically checking Google Maps to find the renowned design studio nestled away in Richmond. Needless to say, a few minutes later, I’m relieved to find myself off the London Underground and sat comfortably with a cup of tea at the meeting table of the Terence Disdale Design studio. Ecplipse's fire pitI was prepared to feel a little on edge… this is, after all, the studio of the world-renowned designer who has penned such iconic designs as the 81-metre Abeking & Rasmussen yacht Kibo, the 147.25-metre Lürssen-built Topaz, and, of course, the largest yacht in the world at the time of her launch: the 162.5-metre Eclipse built by Blohm + Voss. Instead, I feel at ease. Surrounded by beautifully intriguing furniture, pieces of strange, exotic and wildly expensive materials and, of course, a couple of tables full of shining Neptune trophies... This place is sophisticated but homey, and reassuringly cool. But I’m not here to merely admire Terence Disdale’s office, I’m here to sit down with Terence Disdale. And soon enough the man himself comes in and warmly greets me. 

Starting out in the business working under Jon Bannenberg in the late 60s (hired on the spot after turning up unannounced, politely refusing to make an appointment and instead wait patiently for a moment with Bannenberg!), Disdale broke off on his own in 1973 and is today one of the most celebrated icons of superyacht design. He points out a couple of sketches on the wall here and there as we make our way down to his studio, and stops to take me briefly through some of the gigantic superyacht models dotted around the walls. These projects are so bespoke, so private, that even though I know the names of the models in front of me, I’ve never had the chance to study them in such detail. In fact, much of Disdales best works may never be seen - at least not to the 99.9%. “Confidentiality is everything,” he tells me. “When you get to the level we are at now, our work is never published. The world probably thinks we retired years ago! You know, someone once asked me if I had made all the awards we have in our greeting room which I found quite funny… But our latest projects are so confidential that in the end we’ll probably have to make our own!” he laughs.

We enter his studio, filled with light and overlooking a small, green garden. Very much living up to his ‘rockstar’ title, he immediately turns down the classic rock album blaring out of his old-school CD player in the corner of the room. Not quite living up to the rock star image in the same way, two adorable tiny dogs are also pretty excited to join us for the interview. “So,” I start, Chihuahua on knee. “Where did it all begin?” 

I was born and bred in London and left school at 15 with little idea of what career path I would take,” he starts. “I’m only a yacht designer by accident - I really just wanted to be a designer, period. At first I worked at an engineering company as a junior engineering draughtsman - basically the tea boy - and was soon promoted when they realised I could actually draw. In the very early days, I was involved in film set design. You’re designing something to do with the Roman Empire one day, and the next you’re moving on to a sci-fi set. It’s brilliant! It’s really phenomenal how they can encompass all of these details, it takes a lot of talent. If I had have gone to work for someone other than Jon Bannenberg, I would have probably done something else.Terence DisdalePhoto: Terence DisdaleYou’re constantly described as the rockstar of superyacht design. Why? 

I only get called that because I’ve got long hair and wear cowboy boots! I guess I do also manage a rock band of a friend of mine, too. I’ve done that for about 20 years now. I did think once upon a time that if the band got successful I would travel the world with them, but you go where the wind blows you. I’m pretty entrenched in what I do with design… I’m not really a band manager. It was one of those dreams, you know. I like cars, but I never really thought about getting into car design. 

...

Rock star status, the accidental journey to superyacht design and small talk covered, the conversation inevitably turns to superyachts. An expert of both exterior and interior design, it isn’t the general talk of how impressive, how large, or how luxurious any of the 70+ Disdale-designed vessels are that make his eyes light up. It’s quickly apparent that Disdale’s passion is in the small details: the seemingly inconsequential placement of a precious stone on a colossal bespoke piece of wall art, the creation of an opulent cabinet around a Zulu bracelet procured from the depths of Southern Africa, or the positioning of a fistfull of 17th century Dutch East India Trading Company coins floating in resin and acting as a table top. 

As we delve into the intricacies of design and the significance of interior decoration, Disdale heaves three hefty books to the table to pore over the unique nuances from yacht to yacht in more detail. We flick from page to page, with a story to tell for every image. “Which is your favourite?” I ask. Without a second's hesitation comes the answer. “It has to be Eclipse. She just is. Talk about carte blanche? She is carte blanche to the extreme.”Kibo anchored With such custom projects, where do you start? Are you working around a particular wow factor? 

I start with designing something that you won’t get bored to death of. The ‘wow factor’ is the most boring thing in the world. So how do you make something that’s interesting, but that doesn’t aim to knock your eyes out? Where do you draw this line of restraint? I see it as it’s happening. It’s a process. I didn’t have any formal design training, but it’s not like you open a book and can learn these things… it’s what you see and what you feel. 

Can you give me a couple of examples of particularly bespoke features?

I did a boat that was to do 50 knots at 50-metres, with so much unusual stuff on board. I found a company who could make a particular type of bamboo walling at a furniture fair in Manila, so the yard sent all of these aluminium honeycomb panels to the Philippines, the guy covered them in bamboo, then they came back. The import charge to bring the panels in was 10 times more than what the job was worth - but this company was the only one who could do it right. If you talk about bespoke, we’re probably more bespoke than most people. It’s what gives all of our projects their uniqueness. You can’t go out and buy these things, you have to dream it up and make it happen.

We also have to make sure we consider the human element when we are designing. The thick, seascape oil painting at the head of the meeting table in one of my most important projects, for example, is behind the head of the owner. We commissioned that specifically. You cannot put a Picasso behind the main-man, he needs to be the most powerful in the room. It’s not just decorative, it’s much more than that. There is a balance in keeping all of these things together. 

There are currently 8 Disdale-designed 90+ metre superyachts in the global fleet. Are there any challenges involved in these large projects that do not appear on the smaller side of the scale?

A key challenge is working to the fire regs that these big boats have to comply with. On a boat of a certain size you have to have a handrail on each side of the wide passageways. You can end up looking like a cruise ship very quickly, so on one of our projects we carved the handrail into the furniture along the wall. You can probably argue that this piece of handrail is the most expensive in the whole world. I mean, it’s made of semi-precious stone. It was not an easy thing to execute! 

No matter what the size, considering that human element of the design is always a challenge. Not just the aesthetic or the functionality, but the human response. Things like creating a passing space on stairs or in hallways, so the guests will not be faced with crew retracing their steps down the stairs to pass. It’s all of this stuff that makes or breaks a boat. Kibo InteriorWhere do you get your inspiration? 

Inspiration is everywhere. It depends where you look. I took a photograph in India of a hut made of palm trees, and I thought that would be a fantastic window frame on board one of my projects. I’ve spent a lot of my life fishing and camping, and it’s a lovely, enchanting thing to sit around a fire in the evening. That inspired the fire pit on one of my largest projects. I don’t think anyone had tried putting a fire pit on a boat before!

But things also come from experimenting, and I learned a lot from my boss in one of my first jobs after an engineering draughtsman. We would take over what was a butcher’s shop, and he would turn it into a man’s clothes shop on a budget. He would know what to keep, what you could exploit, what needed to change, in short, how to make everything look fantastic with no money. He was my education. 

Do you also find inspiration from other yacht designers?

No, not really... I don’t really like looking at other people’s boats. And working alongside other designers is a bit of pain, isn’t it? We’re a bunch of prima donnas. It’s me too, but I’m always going to be the loser on the interior if the other is doing the exterior. There is often a bit of conflict. The space planning is the first thing that happens, so if I’m designing a dining room, it would be nice if the table was in the middle of the room facing a window. But if someone gives you their plan, with a dining room without a window in the middle of the room, what can you do? I ask, but the answer is usually no because it ruins whatever schematic theme or form flowing through the superstructure. Quite often it’s a compromise. Interior onboard RomeaThe 90-metre project currently in build at Oceanco is designed with an Espen Øeino exterior, with yourself undertaking the interior. Due for delivery next year, she was started on speculation. What was the brief? 

The original brief for the 90m was that this boat was my boat. So basically, there was no brief! Oceanco completed the 85.5-metre Sunrays which featured my interior design. They told me that they loved Sunrays, and they want to move on to the next one with me. So we did. 

Working to my own brief meant we were able to do it much quicker. There was no client to go back and forth with, and I didn’t have to present my scheme to anyone. Eventually a client did come along before completion and I do have a brief now, which is to carry on creating a Disdale boat!

When we did the Tigre D’Or series of boats with Amels, the owner of those projects had a completely different idea. He wouldn’t put those on the market until the pictures were on the wall and the china was in the cupboard. Then you can charge your premium, because people either love it or hate it. That was a successful way to do it, but a lot of these speculative builders want to take the job so far and then get a client in to take over the costs. Eclipse cruisingHow often do you get that opportunity for free reign?

There’s no such thing as free reign in terms of general arrangement… When it comes to decoration, yes, but every client has his or her lifestyle story. I can come up with a suggestion, with my interpretation of what they want, but it’s not total free reign. 

Though the level of full control over the design is of course determined by the owner, when you are as a prolific designer as Disdale, it’s safe to say those most clients trust their chosen designer to translate their personality into the design with little to no guidance. With one of Disdale’s most high-profile projects, the client “didn’t see it until the fire was lit. ”Was that scary," I ask? “I was nervous, yeah,” he grins. “But he was happy with it.” A true testament to the skills Disdale has honed over the past 45 years as a yacht designer. 

On that note, what’s next for the studio of Terence Disdale Design? Will Disdale be handing his pencil to someone else in the near future? “At the moment the origin of all of our designs comes from that drawing board right there,” he answers, gesturing to the window-facing drawing board littered with huge sketches. “But I have a talented team which helps me to make all my visions a reality with commitment and new creativity. I cannot predict the future but I see no reason to hang up my pencil anytime soon. In the future it’s a bit of a dream to start up a bespoke furniture company, and in an ideal world it would be nice to have a total production boat with a yard, with a series of 12 or so, which I have generally avoided throughout my career. But for now, we are very proud of the projects we have on board which will keep us busy for the next few years.”
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