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Trends in Yacht Interiors
The '70s and '80s: A time of excess Part I
By: Dee Robinson
Jul. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
In the beginning, large boats were for the privileged few, then for the military. It wasn't until the rise of pleasure boating that they set the course of the American yachting industry. In the first of a two-part series, well-known yacht interior designer Dee Robinson comments on a quarter century of lessons learned.
When I was asked to write an article about trends in yacht interiors, I was very hesitant. By no means do I consider myself an authority, or even an historian, but after realizing it has been nearly 30 years since I decorated my first boat, I guess I've seen enough to document a few observations. In this, the first of two articles, I'll take you from the mid-'70s through the '80s.
Unlike a number of protégés who have worked for me through the years, I never had any aspirations of being a yacht interior designer. It just happened. I was raised in New York City, not exactly a yachting capital. We had big freighters, big ferryboats, big Navy boats, and big cruise liners, but if there were big yachts in the harbor, I never noticed them. After a couple of tours in the Navy, I trailered my Harley down to Florida to live with my grandparents and finish my education in interior design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
While preparing for a career in residential interior design in the mid-'70s, I was given the opportunity to do some decorative work on the interior of a 120ft Feadship. The story has been documented in the trade magazines many times, but the end result is that after getting into something that I had absolutely no experience in, I have enjoyed a specialty career in yacht interiors for over 25 years.
My First Commission
Keep in mind now, it was a Feadship. I soon found out that this meant it was the queen of all European yachts, built in Holland, but it really didn't matter because it was the first yacht I had ever been on. I will never forget how the captain laughed, while taking movies with his 8mm camera, as we tried to figure out how to get an oversized mattress on board and down the narrow staircase. Somehow, some way, I made it through the project, but it wasn't long after we had completely remodeled the interior that I found out that Evel was only chartering the yacht, with no intention of buying it!
I went back to school to pick up where I left off, but I soon received a call from the actual owner of the yacht. He hired me back to rip out everything we had done and make it look like I had never been there. By this time I had befriended the captain, Mike Anderson, a world-class professional who became a lifelong friend and who has introduced me to many people in the industry. The rest is history, as they say, except this wasn't the last time I was to work on this boat - but not for him. More about that in Part 2.
The Dawn of American Motoryachts
I did some work on a 165ft motoryacht in my early years, but it was built in Bath, Maine in 1931 so it was almost 50 years old when I got on board. I had no idea at the time that I would be almost 50 years old by the time I was given the opportunity to design a new 165ft yacht. The budget I was given to do the entire "fluff and puff" was not quite what I recently spent on silk floral arrangements for a new 150ft Trinity.
Attempting to follow any fashion trend of the time was out of the question on a boat this old and with inadequate funding. In fact, I remember the carpet was so cheap that in order to figure out which side was which, I told the installer to put the fuzzy side up. I don't know that there even were any trends back then. We were all just getting started. I did learn about staying on time and on budget, though... the hard way. These were lessons that have lasted an entire career.
The Rise of 'Pleasure Boating'
Production-line vessels all had standard interior woods and fabrics. They really weren't large enough to have much in the way of loose furniture, so everything was done at the factory. Teak and mahogany were the woods of choice because they are known for their hardness and resilience to marine environments. Red, white, and blue nautical themes and plaids seemed to dominate.
Mary Reed was the coordinator for Hatteras Yachts, a production line of boats manufactured in New Bern, North Carolina. During this time, they were mostly sporty boats used for leisure. Times were changing though. Builders like Hatteras and Bertram made it affordable for more people to join the fun, and soon yachting was also known as "pleasure boating."
Times Were Changing
By the mid '80s they were bigger. If Mary Reed was the godmother of production boat interiors, I consider Gertrude Denison of Broward Marine to be the matriarch of custom yacht interiors in the U.S. The Browards were among the first American shipbuilders to bring exciting new contemporary ideas to American yachting. We all looked forward to the next one and the next. Their slick, swift exterior lines blew the competition "out of the water" and their interiors had a residential feeling with all the amenities of home. Mrs. D, as she was called, is responsible for a long legacy of beautiful interiors that the rest us wanted to emulate. There were, of course, the more traditional boat builders like Chris Craft and Burger, but the new look was attracting new buyers. Shona Boy, a 103ft Broward, was one of the first big boats to feature an edge-lit carved glass partition, a feature to appear on many more boats to follow. Carla Elena, a 103ft Broward that was one of the first to have a completely trendy interior, came out in 1984 and turned the industry on its ear. Custom became a commonplace word on a semiproduction yacht.
Ready for Change
With a new administration, the economy had come back with a vengeance and people were buying and building yachts. In 1983 I took a position with Hatteras of Lauderdale as the director of design to expand my contacts and learn more about the industry as a whole, the technical applications, and the construction and build process. We delivered a dozen or so boats that all seemed to have a common thread. Let's call it a trend.
Customizing the interiors was becoming important to the customers, and the Hatteras factory could do only so much on the production line. This dealership began ordering their boats stripped out and we designed, fabricated, and installed entire yachts turnkey with a flare! Bronze mirror, lots of indirect lighting, beautiful marbles, and custom Lucite hi-low tables were in. Black and cream, cream on cream, and lots and lots of gold prevailed. We gold-plated everything from the door hinges and screws to the shower frames. What we couldn't plate gold, we painted gold. The silk florals were gold. The fabrics were gold. I even found gold toothbrushes. We used bronze mirror instead of the clear mirror because it was a little less garish and also because we used so much of it you could and did bounce off the reflections. To cover up the teak that was still being used by the factory, we bleached, painted, papered, upholstered, and mirrored it. After we got done doing all this, somebody came up with the idea of calling the look "understated elegance." I have never understood that expression. Frankly, I don't see anything understated about a yacht.
New products, like Ultrasuede, Corian, and Avonite, were everywhere. Fiber optics, neon, and rope lighting added ambiance. Mitsubishi-mirrored overheads made the rooms "look even bigger." We experimented with everything. Lots and lots of color was evident from fashion-generated jewel tones to the pastels of "Miami Vice." Our carpets were carved and inlaid with undulating patterns reminiscent of ribbons traveling throughout. Again, we thought it made the whole boat "look bigger."
Are you getting the idea? Until the American production yacht builders developed the engineering necessary to give us something bigger on the outside, it was our job to make them look bigger on the inside - or at least I thought so at the time. Every day was a challenge and the reward for meeting that challenge was the encouragement to continue. We were all learning and growing everyday. The 56ft motoryacht became a 58ft, which became a 61ft, which became a 65ft, which became a 72ft etc. This was the builder's job and it was the owner's job to keep up. We were all pushing toward building more 100+ footers so we could catch up with what the European market was offering.
While we were all anxious to have the production builders increase the lengths, some went the course on their own. There was a time when boats were being extended in the service yards. It scares me now to think about how we "added" extensions and cockpits. In some cases boats were sectioned and additions were added in the middle. We did some real "morphodites." Knowing now that size does matter, it can be successfully achieved only when integration of the systems and structure are professionally engineered to work together. I wonder how, in some cases, we pulled it off. It's kind of like with all that we know now and how little we knew then, how did we ever walk on the moon? Fortunately, the industry caught up with itself and sensibility finally overruled our anxiety for bigger boats.
The Industry Takes Off
We never had any aristocracy or royalty on our clientele list. For the most part, our clients have all been extremely hard-working venture capitalists, developers, and businessmen who have a passion for life. They work hard, live hard, and play hard. I don't think some of them even sleep at night. It's full bore, all ahead full throttle, and that's what they consider to be fun in life until they get to take a break on their yacht and regenerate their mental and physical fuel tanks to go at it again.
A friend of mine, Robert Perrotti, who started out as a carpenter for Broward Marine and is now the president of Hollywood Millwork, once said "...to be in yachting, you've got to love it and be a bit crazy." I don't think I know an owner, builder, or contractor that isn't just a little bit nuts to be involved in a business that Murphy's Law was written for. If it can break, crack, slip, fall off, not fit, tear, or just plain wear out, it can and will on a yacht if you don't know what you're doing. Sometimes I wonder how life as a "condo commando" would have been, but then I shrug it off because the people I've met, the friendships I've forged, and the experiences I've had through the years are truly priceless.
In 1985 I left the dealership to go back out on my own. With the help of a venture capitalist, Peter Kugler, and my husband, Phil, I started up the business that we have today, Dee Robinson Interiors. Because I had come out of a corporation, I could not claim any of the boats I did for them in my portfolio. The closest thing we could do was decorate our showroom in the décor trends of the day. It helped that Peter bought the building that our office was in because it came with a dock out back and we could bring our jobs right to our back door.
By the time we got through redesigning our office, there was mirror on the walls and ceiling and lots of carved glass that was edge-lit with neon. The carpet was carved and it was infused with fiber optics. The furniture was upholstered in Novasuede. My desk was peach bird's-eye maple with gold, copper, and silver accents. I also had two big, black carved mirror cats behind my desk, mounted on peach-colored mirror. This is the only feature that I still have in my current office. Even the conference room was in vogue with an Alcan ceiling and a combination of bronze mirror and upholstered walls. The table was carved glass, of course and the colors du jour were peach, teal, raspberry, and black. For some reason, nobody noticed that there weren't any pictures of yachts on my office walls. They were too busy asking if they could refit their yacht with many of the features that were in our office. It worked and we took off again, but this time it lasted.
One of the boats I did a refit on during this time was Protocol, an 85ft Broward that was featured on "Miami Vice." Sonny Crockett did an undercover drug deal in the main salon. When Don Johnson came on board for the shoot, he used one of our handpainted pastel throw pillows to prop himself up while sitting on the Ultrasuede sofa. It was when he put his feet up on the Lucite cocktail table that I got a bit feisty. I wanted to say something, but the grip convinced me not to. It's a good thing he didn't mess with my Tivoli lights and beveled mirrored strips in the stairwell!
It was a time of excess and the yachts were no exception. The industry was growing by leaps and bounds. There began to be so much work on the yachts that good vendors began to specialize. We needed soft décor specialists who could make window treatments and bedding to fit odd-shaped spaces; carpet installers who knew they couldn't nail tack stripping to a deck on top of a fuel tank; and mirror installers who figured out how to polish and seal the edges so they wouldn't turn black from salt exposure. The list goes on to include electricians, carpenters, and furniture makers too. Many of the same people I learned with still work with us today and I credit much of our early success to them. Their skill and ingenuity made us look good.
I think that was about the time I noticed we had a special listing in the Yellow Pages. Designers like Susan Puelo and Paola Smith had earned well-deserved reputations as yacht divas of design. While they were specializing in new construction, primarily in Europe, I was very busy in the Florida boatyards doing refits of all shapes and sizes. I wouldn't trade those early years for anything in the world. It took more than a decade of tearing things apart and rebuilding them over and over again to learn what to do given the opportunity to design a yacht from scratch. I knew I was part of something much bigger than myself that had unlimited potential for growth and development - the American yachting industry.
By the early '90s the craftsmanship, materials, and quality control had skyrocketed. 100+ foot American yachts were commonplace. We all thought we could do anything... and we did. There was another trend coming soon, though that would completely change the look of yacht interiors again, full circle.
In Part 2, I'll take you through some of our extreme makeovers of the early '90s and into the millennium of new construction that has placed the American yachting industry in competition with the world's best.
In the Next Issue, Part 2:
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