Designer 18 November 2018
Vittorio Garroni Carbonara offers us an interesting view on the development of nautical design. His disenchanted vision includes a number of criticisms, as well as being packed with areas for reflection
by Vittorio Garroni Carbonara*
The Great Financial Crisis spread across the world, from West to East, between 2007 and 2008. Triggered by the subprime phenomenon in America, it was like a spark in a gunpowder factory, expanding like an oil slick in a matter of moments and sparing no one, least of all the yachting industry, which is certainly not a primary asset.
It could be described as a financial “tsunami” of global proportions, which wiped out an infinite number of firms and untold expertise, skills and jobs without any possibility of appeal. Ten years have passed since then, during which clients have been scared of approaching the world of yachting: a fear of “standing out”, exposing themselves to persecutory financial consequences, undermining their family heritage, lingering uncertainty, and a fear of buying full-stop, due to the possibility of the yard going out of business in the interval between the order being placed and the boat being delivered. Meanwhile, yards were scared of producing as they struggled to plan for an increasingly uncertain future.
The only thing not to be scared was the sea itself, which the Genoans – its people – call “ö Mâ”, resembling the Italian words for “sea” (“mare”) and “evil” (“male”), which are sometimes closely linked for those whose livelihoods depend upon it.
As the crisis went on and many firms went under, the sea remained ever-inviting, almost mocking as it glistened under the sun. Spring after spring, it continued to be an object of desire for those who, driven either by inclination or necessity, now admired it sadly from the shore.
As we said, ten years have gone by, but the crisis has remained with us, even in our hearts that long for a carefreeness we will never enjoy again in quite the same way. Everything has changed. The world has changed, from its geography to its social and political balance. Even Yachting has undergone major changes, particularly in the way it is perceived and put forward. Later on we will see how and why. In the meantime, in order to learn about remedies for the crisis we need to examine the warning signs, recalling the precedents, from the causes to the outcomes. Above all, we need to gain an understanding of how we have emerged from it and what changes have taken place:
– Let’s start with an example from the late 1960s, with the student protests that reflected the social contrast produced by the post-war economic boom against the workers’ uprisings. Yachting, still in its infancy at the time, struggled to emerge from this and paid the price of a major transformation in terms of production: from the great craftsmanship of wood, destined for the elite, to serial production for the masses, linked to the advent of fibreglass.
– The next shake-up took place in the 1990s, when renewed industrial euphoria generated by the success of the “low-cost plastic boat” clashed with the social and economic crisis affecting the middle classes. Yachting went into an immediate recession, undergoing a break in production that only abated after fifteen years, when the stagnation was overcome at the price of major technological developments: processing fibreglass became industrially reliable, freed from problems of osmosis and delamination, making the time ripe for a Yachting industry that would grow both in terms of quality and dimensions. This growth proved to be constant, solid and seemingly unstoppable, albeit perhaps excessive.
– Once again, almost twenty years after the previous crisis (it almost seems to be a cyclical phenomenon), the magic bubble burst at the end of the first decade of the new millennium. Initially, Yachting seemed to be unaffected because the crisis was limited to finance and banking. Even the First World War was initially called the “drôle de guerre” because no one dared fire the first shot for months. When it came, the explosion was extremely strong and experts in the sector are still looking into their crystal balls, a decade later, in an attempt to understand whether the first timid signs of a revival will be consolidated without another little devil sticking its oar in.
We have already mentioned the fact that, for the Yachting industry, the change brought about by this new crisis was, and continues to be, very significant, but this time it has led to methodological rather than technological developments.
A comparison with the world of cars or the generic manufacturing industry is essential. Throughout the 20th century, quality and reliability were what made the difference. The higher the purchase price the more likely the product was to work well. In the 21st century, there is no longer any question about whether the purchased object will work. This aspect is taken for granted from the outset and is considered as fact. The decision is based on different criteria, which are not so easy to encode: perceived image, communicated image, evoked image, environmental image, socialised image. It’s all about image and its communication.
Today the real challenge involves DESIGN + MARKETING.
The way we conceive the boat on a creative level has changed and is continuing to change. In the space of a decade, NAUTICAL DESIGN has stopped being purely nautical, going from the British sense of the term “design”, which is all about substance, to encompass “conceptual creation” and abstraction. This abyssal change is reflected in the configuration of the products, in commercial customs and expectations.
In order to understand it better, let’s use our imaginations to step back in time, to well before the decade in question.
“In an architect’s room, in the Adriatic area.
– There’s a sudden crash on the floor, right near his foot. Carlo, absorbed in his work, jumps because something moved on the table at the same time. Like a brusque awakening from a dream; a dream created by his imagination, but one that is so repetitive it has accompanied him for a few weeks now.
It is so ever-resent that it has become reality and is almost tangible. The subject of the dream seems so real that, as well as seeing it, he is even able to caress its graceful, sinuous forms and its flexible slenderness. He even goes further: instead of admiring the sublime but abstract figure, he possesses it, he strokes it gently; the dream becomes tumultuous: she trembles at the touch of his hands, stiffens, sways, but he steers her skilfully while she indulges his every desire with docile ability. In his imagination, Carlo is already at the helm of the boat that is taking shape on his drawing table. Pleased yet critical, he examines it, assesses its behaviour, checks the manoeuvres and analyses the ergonomics of every movement. In the event of even the slightest doubt he stops and starts again from scratch. His feet travel up and down the deck while his hands grip the sheets and slacken the halyards: operations performed instinctively and repeated a thousand times, while his mind has already gone below and his eyes once again run over those spaces that have now become familiar. The boat virtually already exists and, idea after idea, it is updated, modified, perfected and transformed with those soft pencil marks that recur on the paper.
However, the crash on the floor has abruptly restored him to reality. Something has changed, but he doesn’t mind because the sinuous forms are still there on the table. However, one of the thin listels of wood has been overturned and broken, while the lead that held it in place has slipped to the floor, sticking its sharp nail into the parquet, just a few centimetres from his foot.
Carlo gives the hint of a smile, almost a grimace: it’s not the first time it’s happened, but his foot is safe because he is aware and, over many years of patient attention, he has learned that the drawing table has to remain perfectly level and that the template have to be very stable, supported but not forced in their curvature. The leads, therefore, preferably need to rest on the tapered, more flexible ends, where the waterlines tend to close up again… and the leads distance themselves from the architect’s feet.
However, it’s a pity that the thin core of the template did not withstand the involuntary shift of the lead, almost certainly caused by a slight touch of the elbow, sufficient to trigger a reaction that abruptly awoke Carlo from his creative reveries but, above all, led to the loss of one of his precious work tools. This was the last waterline template left on the rack. It was long but docile, with a tapered form that slimmed down perfectly gradually from the large “belly” to the very fine ends. They were made by lute makers, who worked with the wood, refining it so gradually as to not affect the flexion resistance, without ever cutting into the fibres of the external face, which had to ensure the continuity of the bend radiuses. It would be difficult to replace because there were almost no poor lute makers who resigned themselves to making template for architects left. Times were changing rapidly, just like the manual work tools. In fact, Carlo has never really loved template: his thorough self-taught cultural training had stimulated his artistic sensibility, enabling him to instinctively perceive the correctness of the forms without the need for using them. He preferred using wooden patterns or panels with a progressive curvature, whose skilful use made it possible to follow any curve, as the shipwrights did on a larger scale in the moulding room. Above all, they could be made by an astute user and didn’t need horrible, dangerous lead weights to hold their shape!” (*1)
This short extract from the life of a naval architect can be dated to the period of the first crisis in the 1960s. Many things have changed since then, although our everyday lives are almost the same. Television continues to accompany our evenings and even back then it showed us the first man on the Moon. The streets were packed with cars, the first Commodores appeared on the desks of designers, particularly engineers. Architects were excluded from this because “electronic processors” crunched numbers, not graphics.
Boat designs were still closely tied to what took place in the yard’s moulding room, to manual work with the materials, not to alphanumerical lucubrations. All the focus and concentration went on drafting the construction plan, matching up the intersecting points of the forms perfectly and linking them with harmoniously curved connection lines.
A little later, people would start to say that the route of a line gets off to a good start if “the expression of the upper degrees of its bend radiuses” can in turn by represented by a curve lacking in points or breaks… the functions of computational calculation were already taking over this sector too. The indispensable skill involved in drafting a construction plan could be replaced by a simple computer programme.
What was the work of a small number of masters for centuries, was brutally trivialised within the space of a few seasons. The naval engineer, whose design work resembles mechanics, saves himself by entrenching himself behind a curtain of mathematical and scientific disciplines able to scare the more inexperienced. Nautical design, on the other hand, which is more oriented towards formal growth, which can be performed using automated digital imaging tools, remains seemingly accessible to anyone able to use a computer, whatever their scientific background.
Story of a lost Battle
The technological and cultural revolution linked to design and image digitalisation coincides with the moment of greatest development in the nautical industry and the two phenomena are not unconnected. The mathematical moulding of the forms can also be easily transferred to the automated “numerical control” machines of industrial processes. The yard becomes an industry and the relationship with design focuses on transferring alphanumerical data, turned into physical forms by the machinery.
Up until this point there is nothing strange about it: a simple technological development that involves both the subjects, from the proponent to the recipient. Tools and methods change, but not the results. At least, that ought to be the case.
The problem is that, with the so-called computer programmes, the knowledge and cultural background needed to achieve the results have also been debased.
The way of thinking, acting, designing and creating changes radically.
“Carlo’s” occupation and focus consisted of defining the shape of the hull, which is difficult even just to draw out. It was a job that took weeks or even months; almost impossible when starting out with just a blank sheet. Education, background and experience were fundamental.
Every architect had his style because every one of his creations drew upon his previous projects, or the work of his teacher. As well as being “practical to make”, meaning that it could be transferred to the moulding room where the wood was shaped to match it, the boat, whose orthogonal projections were set out in the construction plan, also had to move in the right way, look good and, if possible, win regattas. It was a job for Merlin the wizard.
The shape of the deckhouse, the position of the portholes, the arrangement of the interiors, the finishes or ergonomics of the cockpit, albeit important to the owner, were the last of the architect’s concerns.
The construction plan can now be completed with a “click” and it is just as easy to manage and move shapes, volumes, lights and colours through virtual space: all hyper-complex mathematical operations that even a child could do on a mobile phone today. This is all performed in virtual reality. However, when the time comes to progress into the tangible world, to the actual boat that has to be usable, the scientific background of the nautical designer becomes necessary and complex, like that of the naval engineer.
In our world of images, the difficulty lies in being able to attribute the right values to expressions of serious professionalism and depictions of pure imagination.
Because of this, ever since the 1990s, Nautical Design has risen up the academic ranks (*2). Until the current crisis came about, it met with great success, filling the technical offices of almost all the shipyards in Italy and beyond with its graduates.
It was a question of providing students with knowledge of the facts and teaching them to create complex images of boats that, as well as being attractive, were also and above all practical to produce and suitable for use, as well as for receiving guests.
A complete cultural training, suited to the discipline it represents.
However, the crisis wiped out the technical offices of the shipyards and, with them, the possibilities for employment for qualified “Nautical Designers”. Instead, there was a proliferation of those who simply “design” boats or, better still, design forms that seemingly represent boats.
Sometimes the designs are stunning, packed with sculptural shapes, colours, hues and special effects. The best even manage to shape plausible, “seemingly” habitable volumes. They are real masters, but of the keyboard, not of design.
“At the Monaco Yacht Show, in the first decade of the 2000s.
– Adnan, oozing Middle-Eastern charm, is unstoppable: having just stepped ashore from a Sanlorenzo, he is already looking to gatecrash a Princess, directing streams of words in different languages at an attractive and well-educated hostess, who still refuses to let him pass because, before stepping onto the gangway, he has to present his credentials at the reception desk and make an appointment. This will be with the dealer for his area: which one, in his case? This is a fatal mistake because Adnan, as he spurts out a stream of words vaguely resembling famous names and places, overwhelms the poor girl with a toothy grin and disappears into the boat.
“He’s a bit of a rascal, but a nice one.
It’s probably not worth notifying security.” And, in fact, he reappears a few seconds later in friendly conversation with the captain, who is explaining all the technical details of the vessel to him.
Adnan is a deft youth, who grew up with a keyboard in his hands and an innate ability to download “hacked software”. What does the fact that it is illegal matter? In any case, he has nothing to lose, he doesn’t even have a permit to stay, he passes himself off for a wealthy tourist and goes out with society girls.
His day in Monaco was fruitful. He touched the boat of his dreams, he memorised and photographed every aspect, he obtained lots of very detailed information. A day like this is worth more than an entire university course and allows him to finalise a couple of designs/projects that he can use to put himself forward as a junior designer at an established studio. As he has already done in London where, for a few months on ridiculously low pay, he frequented the desks of a famous designer, storing a huge number of ideas, designs and construction details that might be useful for his career on a memory stick.”
This is another imagined tale, although it could be true. People like Adnan are commonplace in the world of yachting.
Some manage to get ahead, especially in the commercial side of things, but sometimes even in the field of design.
The term “designer” fluctuates within a space that is not very well defined by current rules and regulations. It is strongly influenced by attitudes from overseas, tending towards detachment from, if not abolition of the qualifying values of academic titles and replacing them with qualifications gained in the field. For good or bad, this represents an evident return to the traditional practice of workshop apprenticeships and more vagueness regarding product quality.
It is a return to the origins, given that in western culture of a Latin/Mediterranean stamp, social and scientific training has always been the domain of encoded structures, which became universities, while artistic training took place in the workshops of the great masters. Architecture and design draw upon both sources and the debate remains open.
“Rationalism” has certainly favoured scientific assonance that, in the world of design, has led to an analytical-type methodological approach, based on study and on the evaluation of previous phenomena, designed to perfect the product under development. Many, if not all languages of nautical expression have drawn upon this school of thought and training. This has been the case until now or, to be more precise, until the disruption caused by the Great Crisis.
Aesthetics is a philosophical “discipline”, but not pure abstraction of thought because it constantly looks to the physicality of the expressions of the intellect. Design, by definition, ought to sum up aesthetics with practicality.
Culture is its tool, offering a quantity of stylistic elements of proven efficacy and ongoing development that make it possible to qualify the product, improving its quality. Italian style, recognised as the highest expression of both nautical design and good taste in general constantly draws upon classical stylistic elements.
First and foremost we should cite the composition underlying classical architecture: the summation of “elementary components”that, when properly juxtaposed, are transformed into “complementary elements” (e.g. column, capital, plinth). In nautical language, this is interpreted as the right juxtaposition of the main compositional elements (hull, deck, deckhouse, steering gear, flying bridge), highlighting its identity. Great examples of this include the C66Tecnomarine / Picchiotti, designed in the early 1970s by Paolo Caliari, the archetypical Italian-style motor yacht, or the Akhir 18 from the Cantieri di Pisa, designed by Pierluigi Spadolini.
The same can be said for the compositional citation of forms evocative of function and consolidated in time, such as the peaked roof of carriages, particularly the Landau, a retractable fabric roof, which rests behind the seat backs and is pulled forward so as not to affect the driver’s use of the reins. Duly stylised, it is transformed into an elegant, tilted roof for sports cars, underscored by a ribbon of windows seemingly without uprights. This stylistic element spread across the globe, skilfully introduced by Pininfarina and interpreted on icons such as the Lancia Florida 2° / Flaminia Coupéand the Ferrari 400 America.
However, the balance between aesthetics and functionality has not remained unchanged over time. While technological maturity, which developed from the mid-20th century to the early 2000s, prioritized aesthetics over function, the Great Crisis has instead trivialised digital technological innovation to put looks before existence. Taking this concept to the extremes in the style of Orwell, we can even theorise about the existence of a society in the near future based on the abstract and governed by information flows.
More realistically, however, opinion leaders of the standing of Chris Bangle, a guru of automotive design, tell us that the relationship between “form and function” has simply been transformed into the relationship between “form and meaning”, abstracting the semantics of design from what is concrete and giving the “meaning of form” the role of communicative expression. This represents a development in our way of thinking, but it is not lacking in dangers.
A new profession is developing alongside and sometimes in the shadow of designers: “Graphic Communicators”, producers, managers and sharers of evocative images (*3). One might describe it as a service, because it is best used to complement other professions such as the Designer or Publicist, for whom it might become an aspect for further study or a transformation. It is a fascinating profession, but also one that is delicate to manage because it is able to make abstract configurations, which are purely the result of the imagination, seem real.
A useful tool for anticipating the perception of what does not yet exist, yet dangerous because of its capacity for viral sharing via social media and the ease with which it leads to decisions or behaviours that are too easy to manipulate. Having said that, we could be led to believe that even a child, as long as they are imaginative and creative, is able to access and influence the decision-making sphere of even more delicate situations of their albeit prolific imagination.
The reality is more complex because the social and environmental context poses a tangible limit to the digressions of the imagination and only real geniuses can successfully overcome these barriers. Philippe Starck is one example. A laid-back non-conformist, like many others, he is however more versatile and ingenious than all the rest (*4).
One of his first successes was a sailing boat, the Bénéteau First 38.5 designed in the late 1980s where, in the name of “plastic fantastic” and with one of his usual contradictions, he included fine natural materials, such as Carrara marble and mahogany, using them alongside the fibreglass treated to resemble faux-aluminium. I met him many years ago at the Paris Boat Show, introduced by Mme Roux, the steely owner of the Bénéteau Group and a client to us both. While everyone else was dressed in their finery for the opening ceremony, he was wearing a vest. I shook his hand, saying that I was honoured to meet him and he responded with a big smile and wanted to repeat the scene three times because he liked it so much.
This is Philippe. The same man who designed unlikely objects precipitated into the water of the sea, such as“A”motor yacht and “A sail”, proclaimed by the press to be the ugliest yacht in the world; the man who managed to fight with Steve Jobs over the development of Venus, the 70-metre De Vries that resembled a house, which the other genius – the man behind Apple – really disliked, despite being accustomed to innovation.
Remaining on the subject of personal “nautical” emotions for a moment, when evoking revolutionary design I can’t help but think of Luca Bassani, the Italian patron of the world’s boating revival. Wally yachts have left, and continue to leave, an indelible mark of quality on sailing and motor boat design. In the history of Nautical Design, we have the “pre” and the “post” Wally: ever since it appeared on the market, the change has been even more marked, and positive, compared to the change wrought by the Great Crisis.
Having had the opportunity, I pride myself on having awarded him the “Honorary Degree” in Nautical Design (Genoa 1994, World Capital of Culture).
Luca Bassani and Philippe Starck, two giants of yachting, and the complete opposites of one another. The former is far more rational than Rationalism; the latter is irrational beyond all logic, while still a supreme shaper of meanings.
Maybe the real story of Nautical Design has not yet been written, just as there is no line marking out the border between fantasy and reality, realism and symbolism. Our culture has always been steeped in it. By signing his work “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic”, perhaps the greatest Flemish artist of the Renaissance reminds us of this in his domestic depiction of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, shown in their slippers but also their finery as they hold one another’s hand in the bedroom. He was there in that moment projected into infinity, not in order to paint them, but so as to present them to us, introducing us into the scene at the threshold, just as we appear, barely perceptible in the reflection of our image in the typical round convex mirror, with its lobate frame, also packed with significance.
(*1) Carlo is an imaginary figure, like the other characters who populate this short tale. However, the reference to Carlo Sciarrelli is not coincidental and aims to pay tribute to his memory. A simple, ingenious master of Italian yachting, he influenced its early years, raising it to the highest level, that is to say the level of the British seafaring culture.
(*2) In 1990, on the request of the Ministry of Shipping with a view to assisting with the implementation of Law 50/1971, the Boating Law that provided for the institution of the professional figure of the Nautical Designer, the University of Genoa gave me the task of developing a specific Diploma Course, establishing the Scuola Diretta a Fini Speciali in Progettazione per la Nautica da Diporto [Special School for Yachting Design]. Based in La Spezia and supported by a Consortium of Local Institutions – Municipality, Province, Chamber of Commerce, Fondazione della Cassa di Risparmio – it began working with the Politecnico di Milano in the early 2000s and was transformed and broken up into a Degree in Nautical Engineering and a Degree in Ship and Nautical Design.
(*3) from the Dizionario di Repubblica: “Communicator: a person who manages to be convincing, speaking to the mass public through the mass media”
(*4) Starck’s ideas about the future are disturbing: “If I have to think what we will be like, I think of being naked in a white bubble, surrounded by the necessary commodities. Everything we know will dissolve in favour of emotive choices such as flowers or a sculpture.” His favourite word at the moment is “dematerialisation”. – La Repubblica, April 2017
(The nautical design according to Vittorio Garroni Carbonara – Barchemagazine.com – September 2018)