Born and bred in Norway and departing as a teenager to study in Normandy, it’s apparent as soon as I sit down in Espen Øino’s Monegasque office that Øino’s Scandinavian motherland is at the heart of everything close to him. “Five generations of wooden boatbuilding on my father’s side in the mountains of Norway,” he tells me, “and on my mother’s side, my family had a maintenance shipyard and were involved with building engines. But I’m not unique, many people have this heritage in Norway.” Unique or not, Norway is the root of his natural enthusiasm for the water, for boats, for nature, the environment, and, actually, is the real reason behind his aforementioned modest demeanour.
Photo: Guillaume PlissonPhoto by Guillaume Plisson
This humility is one of the most interesting characteristics of Espen Øino. It’s not that it is expected of successful figures to be overly confident, self congratulatory, or even egotistical - but Øino is the polar opposite. Though certainly self-assured, he actively shirks away from showering himself with praise and is downright uncomfortable when others try to do so (I don’t know,” he quickly shrugs off as I pose his reputation to him, “I just forget about all that stuff. It’s very embarrassing to read it about yourself.”). This discomfort is quickly attributed to Janteloven, or the Law of Jante - a Scandinavian ideology that encourages putting society before the individual, discouraging putting your head and shoulders above anyone else. “The Law of Jante can be summarised as ‘Don’t think you’re better than anyone else’,” Øino explains. “Do your stuff, do it well, but don’t go out and brag about it. So there is something inherently within me that means I have a problem with highlighting myself or showing off and saying that we’re the best.”
This deep-rooted societal philosophy is not limited to personal encounters with Øino and is also the justification behind the studio’s distinct lack of online presence. In fact, anybody eager to learn more about Espen Øino International on the world wide web will be surprised to find nought but a static homepage at the company’s website completed simply with an address, telephone number and logo. “I don’t want to shout from the rooftops that everyone should look at us. And so many of our projects are confidential, so we can’t really talk about anything anyway. I made an executive decision not to do the website many years ago and have stuck to that… I was, however, recently in Australia with Guillaume Plisson, and we were shooting one of the Silver boats. He introduced me to Instagram and I have been hooked since. But the Law of Jante is deeply rooted in the Scandinavian mind, and that is at least my own analysis of the lack of website and general digital presence.”
Whether or not Janteloven is a valid excuse for a lack of online presence in an increasingly digital world aside, the theme of modesty is not one that usually goes hand in hand with the superyacht industry… and neither is Monaco and an aversion to the luxury lifestyle. But somehow, Øino proves that both of these things can be true in one capacity or another: “I instantly felt that this was the place for me when I came to Monaco,” he remembers. “Not for the glamour - I couldn’t care less about that side of things - but the proximity to the sea and the mountains. I had never seen so many boats in my life back in ‘81.”
Being told that the person in front of you is not interested in glamour and wealth is a hard pill to swallow when you’re sat eating lunch together at the Yacht Club de Monaco, the conversation constantly veering off on rather spectacular tangents of exclusive Dolce & Gabbana weekend events and hanging out with Hollywood’s most celebrated movie producers… and of course, it’s true that Espen Øino is fully part of the luxury lifestyle. From dining in the world’s finest restaurants with some of the planet’s wealthiest people to enjoying plenty of time onboard his own designed superyachts, to even just living in Monaco… he is part of it. But what is interesting is that though this lifestyle is what, undoubtedly, attracts many to the world of superyachts, it’s hard not to believe Øino when he says that, genuinely, he is just a hardworking guy passionate about boats, the sea and design. “The pleasure is being on the water. Of course, it’s great to be on a 70-metre superyacht, but it can also be a sea kayak, a stand-up paddleboard, a 4-metre boat with a little outboard - I don’t care. I’ve spent a lot of time on the water and I always find pleasure in it - luxurious or not.”
It’s one thing to say you’re passionate about boats no matter the size, but Øino designs superyachts. The millionaire's plaything, the floating palaces on the sea: the epitome of luxury. However, luxury, he persists, is something that doesn’t necessarily have to be at the heart of superyachting and, so he says, the industry is shooting itself in the foot by providing only one real option for superyacht owners. “One of the problems people have with yachting is rather self-inflicted,” he muses. “We think of our industry as luxurious, but it does not have to be that way: a yacht does not have to be pretentious. When you see the level of detailing and finishing that you see onboard yachts, you very rarely see that in the same clients’ homes and offices. They are not as demanding with these assets as they are with their yachts. The price per square metre on board a yacht is incredible. We’re at the risk of killing our own industry here. Some people have started thinking that this is crazy - and it is.”
Though the uber-opulent state of superyachting has never been Øino’s main attraction to designing boats - (“Growing up in Norway, my idea of what I would be designing was more focused on the small motor boats and sailing yachts. Designing these big yachts that we do here… that was kind of accidental.”) - the success that has followed every Øino-stamped project from his first superyacht project, the 74.5-metre ECO designed by Martin Francis, to one of his latest, the 106-metre Lürssen-built Amadea, has allowed him the freedom in his career to follow his true passions 25+ years down the line. “We’re doing a lot of tenders and small boats now,” he says. “I like doing less glamorous boats. I’m in the fortunate position where I can do more of what I like, and I like these boats. They’re more relatable. You can buy them and drive them yourself. So, the next thing is small production boats - we’re starting now with a Norwegian manufacturer.”
“Many people tell me that I shouldn’t do it,” he continues, setting himself apart once more from the typical expectations of a Monegasque-living superyacht designer, “That I’m diluting my ‘brand’. But I don’t care! I like this. I’ve always been fascinated by ships, and if I think there’s something in this tender or on a cruise ship that I can improve, then why not do it? My philosophy is do something because you like to do it, and never do it for the money.”
Smaller boats, tenders and cruise ships aside, one of the most exciting projects to be revealed by Espen Øino International - and one that is also certainly something different to the Øino vessels we are used to - is the REV project. Measuring 181.6-metres and with a heavy focus on the environment, the REV project will be built by the commercial shipbuilder VARD and is the result of a close collaboration between Espen Øino International and the project’s Norwegian owner, Kjell Inge Røkke. “We’ve been working on the REV project for around a year and honestly, in the beginning, it wasn’t this big. The owner is a very competitive guy and a very interesting character, and he’s pushing the boundaries a lot. He is somebody that is extremely practical with serious knowledge of boats, ships and nautical industries - he’s made all of his money through the sea in one way or another, from fishing to shipping to oil and gas. So he knows his stuff. He is somebody who is a perfect example of someone who loves to be involved in the project.
“For us and for him, it’s a very different project because a lot of it is about giving back. He has signed the Just Giving pledge with Bill Gates, and this is part of it. So the boat is for scientists, for school children, for classes, to go and do research expeditions. He understands that we need to do something about the environment… This project goes beyond what we usually do.” Construction of the vessel will take place in several stages, with the hull to be built at VARD’s Tulcea facility in Romania. It will then be towed to the company’s shipyard in Brattvaag, Norway, for outfitting, and following hand over to her owner in Norway in the summer of 2020, the ship will be returned to Romania where fairing, deck-laying and finalisation of the accommodation areas will take place.
Another clear indicator of his passion and almost disconnect with the hyper-lux world he finds himself in is that, for several years now, Øino has been developing a true passion project for himself. Talking of the project whilst showing me the erratic Fjord-invaded coastline of Norway, he says: “I have a personal project to go and cruise the entire coast of Norway on a small boat, but that will be in a couple of years. I have my own design for a boat for myself to actually go and do this. It’s a 14-metre boat which has been on the backburner for the past six or seven years - a fast, fast, fast boat designed specifically to go around the Norwegian coast.” Though he is, indeed, in a position to do what he wants - why hasn’t this boat come to fruition yet? “The thing that holds me back from making this thing a reality is time. I have obligations to my clients, and life is all about priorities... but hopefully, this will get built one day.” It’s almost a bit comforting to know that even some of the world’s most successful people have dreams on the backburner.
So what’s the next for Espen Øino International? Inevitably, confidentiality clauses prevent Øino from spilling even one drop of information regarding the doubtless cool projects in the pipeline so, aside from the REV project and a small cruise ship for a Norwegian builder, time will have to tell. Perhaps we will spot Øino happily cruising the extensive coast of his motherland sometime soon, perhaps not. For now, at least, all that’s left is to continue to be the one, the only, Espen Øino.
SuperYacht Times - The State of Yachting 2020
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