Insight: What is American superyacht style?

Written by Georgia Tindale

What comes to mind when you think of American style in superyachts? Some words which may crop up include ‘traditional’, ‘sportfishers’ and ‘classic’ for the exteriors and words like ‘warm’, ‘mahogany’, ‘practical’, and ‘formal’ for the interiors. In any case, the chances are, when you are asked to visualise an American-style yacht, you will have a clear picture in mind. 

American flag from article in SuperYacht Times newspaper issue 19

Traditionally, there has been a clear distinction made between American and European tastes, with US owners preferring a more classic design aesthetic in comparison to the airy, glass and reflective surface-filled interiors of European yachts. But, it is worth asking the question, can this old adage still be seen to be true today with an increasingly globalised market and superyacht clients travelling both from the USA to purchase European yachts and vice versa? In fact, is making claims about a distinctive ‘American style’ a helpful generalisation at all, or is it simply a misleading sweeping statement? 

Asking representatives from American yards and design studios whether there is a particular style which can be characterised as ‘American’, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. As Ron Nugent, Director of Marketing at the Washington-based yard, Westport, explains, “Although the yacht market is increasingly globalised and can be described as a melting pot, there is definitely a distinct American style.” For Nugent, it is about marrying practicality with design durability. As he explains, “In American yacht design, functionality is key and we try to maintain timeless designs at Westport.

W Westport 130This sentiment is shared by Greg Marshall from the Canadian studio, Gregory C. Marshall Naval Architects, based in British Columbia. As Marshall describes it, “At my studio, we often jokingly describe North American design as ‘Cutting Edge Vanilla’ and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. North American yachts are typically more conservative and practical, certainly for the way that they are used in these parts. Lower maintenance drives a lot of the design so there is typically less bright work, polished items and lower maintenance fabrics and finishes.”

This angling towards functionality is an integral part of American yacht design history and was embodied in the work of the late, great American yacht designer J.B Hargrave. Hargrave’s design office was responsible for more than 300 designs and around 7,000 fully built boats, ships and yachts between the late 1950s-1990s for major US yards at the time, including Burger Boat Company, Palmer Johnson and Hatteras, as well as foreign builders such as Amels and the Chinese yard Cheoy Lee. Hargrave, nicknamed the ‘dean of American yacht design’, made yachts to last - some of which are still cruising today - bringing together smart engineering, time-tested styling and pragmatic design arrangements. This legacy stuck around: as Greg Marshall explains, Hargrave, “set the ‘American’ Design trend for many decades and his extensive design work for Hatteras and Burger still influences many designers working today.

More generally too, American style in yachting has also had an undeniably large global impact. As Marshall puts it, “approximately 60% of the buyers for large yachts in the world are American, so it cannot help but influence the style of yachts worldwide. It is pretty easy to spot the influence: pick the more conservative design and chances are it is American.” He continues, “In particular, it has been interesting watching the Northwest Explorer Yacht spread throughout the yachting world. A lot of the European builders have been adopting the kind of yachts that West Coast owners have been building for decades now. Even from very style-driven builders such as Riva and Sanlorenzo.

Winning Drive in the Caribbean Photo: Benoit DonneBut, if American superyachts have proven to be a global success, this begs the question, what exactly does an American-style yacht look like anyway? Speaking to the Fort Lauderdale based designer, Patrick Knowles, from the eponymous studio, Patrick Knowles Designs, he identifies very clear differences between the traditional European superyacht interior and the American interior. “When you look at the interior of a European vessel in comparison to an American, you first notice that, aesthetically, it’s usually very clean, light, bright, and austere to a certain degree. The American interior is warmer, whether that’s by colours or by lighting... there are more layers of detail, and there is more of a sense of ‘home’ as opposed to a space that is less intimate. I’m speaking from experience here: Americans transpose their residential sentiments onto the yacht.

In addition, as Knowles explains, American yacht interiors feature far more ‘formal’ rooms than European yachts, due to the ubiquitous presence of these formal spaces in American homes on dry land. “Whether we ever really use those spaces or not, we have to have them! They are part of what Americans grow up with. We have these formalities in our culture, and typically speaking, they are usually traditional. So how do you express that? With lots of crown moulding, applied trim, raised panel, floor inlays, ceiling inlays, trims on the sofa… all of the details you know to be very American. That has become a real identity for the American yacht interior.” 

For Knowles, these stylistic differences between American and European yachts are rooted in the history and culture of the USA as a nation. “Europe has always had long traditions, Ancient cities were built in Europe hundreds of years ago, and you can see these details on those buildings: that heritage and pedigree has been there for a long time - generation after generation. But, mid-last century, the Europeans said ‘enough is enough, we’ve been looking at this for centuries, build me a square building, a flat roof, a building without embellishments,’ and then of course you see the modern age. Europe is confident in that direction they took because they have such a strong foundation, heritage and legacy of tradition. Europeans now fully embrace, almost to an extreme degree, contemporary design.

Trinity superyacht SKYFALLWhen it comes to design in the States, it is a different story. As Knowles puts it, “When the Americas were colonised a couple of hundred years ago, it created a gap in tradition and heritage in the US. It’s very new, the depth is not there. When the US became the US, that same principle or philosophy came with it: traditional society. America is still realizing the depth of its heritage and legacy, and that is spoken to our communities in the language of design, architecture, cuisine, the arts… all of these things! So for the Americans, that foundation is smaller than Europe. To abandon that and go full throttle into contemporary culture would be like letting go before we have fully matured.

That said, as both Knowles and Marshall acknowledge, these truisms about American style are never as straightforward as they may initially seem for two main reasons. Firstly, making any statement about one ‘American Style’ is problematic, when there are really many American ‘styles’ in existence, with general trends visible within them. As the Florida-based designer, Ward Setzer explains, what an ‘American-style’ superyacht looks like varies hugely depending on the area of the US. “If you grew up in Maine then you would see Lobster boats with classic sheer lines, if we grew up in the Pacific Northwest you might see aluminium boats… it’s amazing how this influences how somebody pictures a yacht. So there are a lot of culturally ingrained differences when it comes to yachts.

Secondly, making these generalisations about American style is doubly problematic, since, in recent years, younger American superyacht owners have been changing the game. When asked whether the under-40s would steer away from the traditional interiors described earlier, Patrick Knowles answers to the affirmative. “Most American buyers have now embraced that more modern clean look. The younger generation on a whole has no interest in replicating what their parents or grandparents did, none whatsoever. This generation and the generation before them are the ones that are carving their own ways, and not standing on the back of tradition. With that in mind, they are not sacrificing anything to go fully modern, but they have no allegiance to the notion of a pedigree that is expressed by means of traditional design.” 

Burger’s 32m superyacht NorthlandFinally, as Greg Marshall describes, recent years have also seen an increasing shift towards hybridisation in American style. “In years past, we saw the more style-driven owners go over to Europe to buy a racy Italian yacht. This has caused the American builders to step up their game in order to compete. In many ways the result is a very successful hybrid of design trends. North American yachts are trending more towards a world-class styling, and, in a few rare cases, might even set some world class trends themselves.

Looking to the future then, whatever these ‘world-class trends’ set by American yachts in the future might look like, it is clear that the American styles - in their plurality - will remain a major influence in the superyacht world: whether they’re traditional, contemporary, practical, or, as is increasingly the case in 2018, hybrid styles, bringing together the best aspects of both American and European superyachts to suit the owners of tomorrow.

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