The world of superyacht design needs a good shake-up now and again. This relatively young industry sometime suffers from deep-pocketed clients not used to hearing the word 'no'. As a result, even the very best naval architects and interior designers discover their boats are shaped, steered and sculpted towards excess and ostentation thanks to the desire for biggest and best in the dockside bragging contest.
It's not all gin palace and gothic insanity. This year's Superyacht Design Symposium was sponsored by Swarovski, a sign that the industry is becoming more and more aware of the rest of the design community. Panellists included Piero Lissoni and Fredrikson Stallard, talking about what was often a very different approach to high-end design, while Swarovski commissioned American architect Greg Lynn to create a vast sail-like structure for the conference hall, as well as showing some shimmering interior finishes developed by Martin Francis, a legendary figure in the industry and former collaborator with Norman Foster and Peter Rice.
But mostly the annual get-together allows the industry to talk shop, pat backs and let their hair down in the folksy surroundings of one of Austria's finest mega-chalet resorts. Panels and workshops were convened to get a snapshot of new and future directions, while a clutch of awards - the kitschily nautical 'Neptunes' - were handed out to the best designs, inside and out, of the year at the Showboats Design Awards, the industry's Oscars.
The contemporary yacht is stuffed to bursting with new materials and new technologies, although the ends are rarely questioned. Perhaps this is just as well, as many of those lucky enough to write cheques of this size do so because they want to engage with the process and not simply turn up when everything is done. That's why a project can typically take up to five years, and billionaire-specific issues like political unrest, global market turmoil and legal shenanigans can stretch the process out to well over a decade. Nevertheless, there was something slightly masochistic about inviting Piero Lissoni to tell the assembled designers that his own clients were essentially 'victims' and that yacht designers should, in essence, try a little harder to get their own way. The laughter that followed was genuine but also slightly nervous.
The category winners trod the path between aesthetic overload and calm, contemporary modern, without ever really venturing too far into the unknown. The board was practically swept by Grace E, a handsome Picchiotti built 73m, which was considered the best looking inside and out, as well as the most environmentally friendly boat of the year. We also liked Ken Freivokh's SL Limousine, a sleek 9.6m tender, while the sailboat categories demonstrated a much-needed sense of style and grace, both in terms of naval architecture (the 46m Elfje, built by Royal Huisman and designed by Hoek Design), exterior design (Javier Jaudenes' beautiful Winwin, built by Baltic Yachts, which also rated highly with its chic, simple interior by Design Unlimited). The 40m and above category was owned by the classically styled Wisp, a traditional blue-hulled vessel (also by Hoek Design) with a richly crafted interior from Rhoades Young Design.
Perhaps it was the emphasis on packaging and space that set the sailboats apart. By way of illustration, an elderly Luca Brenta received a lifetime achievement award for a career that included a long-standing collaboration with Wally Yachts that took the aesthetic of the elegant sailboat to a whole new level. The shadow of the most world's high-profile superyacht client also fell across proceedings. Steve Jobs' Eve, a complex multi-layered collaboration still swathed in embargoes and gagging clauses, is perhaps the most radical boat design of the past few decades, yet very little is known about it outside the industry. We saw a tantalising glimpse of the interiors, and Jobs' go-to glass engineer, James O'Callaghan of Eckersley O'Callaghan, hinted at the great lengths the late Apple overlord would go to change the long-standing paradigms that shape the vast majority of superyachts. No doubt there are other clients of a similar calibre out there, building monuments to themselves under an impenetrable veil of secrecy. For now, the world of superyachts will always seem a little off kilter to the rest of the design industry, a place of intrigue, ostentation and, just occasionally, extraordinary things.