THE MAN BEHIND SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST PIONEERING YACHTS SPEAKS TO BRIAN NOONE ABOUT HIS DECADES-LONG CAREER, HIS CURRENT AND FUTURE PROJECTS AND THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
“My career has always been mixing the disciplines,” says Martin Francis, a designer for whom eclecticism is not merely a buzzword but a way of life. Now approaching 50 years in the industry, the London-born jack-of-all-trades has something like the Midas touch, transforming every venture into a forward-looking masterstroke that leaves his peers grasping for his coattails. The latest launch is rumoured to be a 123m yacht Golden Odyssey built by Lürssen about which Francis is unable to reveal any details other than she has been delivered and is on her maiden voyage, and he his currently working, he says, “on a number of new projects for very large vessels” as well as the entirely land-based headquarters for the design firm Vitsœ in Britain.
Part of Francis’s continued success is project selection – he chooses only opportunities that grab his interest – but his groundbreaking innovations are principally a result of his childlike curiosity and supernatural talent for solving spatial puzzles. Coming out of London’s Central St Martins in the 1960s, Francis first crafted furniture and then worked on an building with a young architect named Norman Foster: the outcome was the Willis Building in Ipswich, one of the early high tech buildings that in 1991 was Britain’s youngest to receive Grade I listing. Francis was a production manager for the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s and while assisting on other architecture proposals was involved with a roster of young designers that include Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Jean Prouvé. His best-known terrestrial work was done with Peter Rice in devising the cable-stayed glass walls at France’s largest science museum, the Cité des Sciences in Paris, a building whose influence can still be seen in glass-fronted buildings round the globe.
Yet for all this variation – and there’s much more, including teaming up with American artist Frank Stella, aiding on the Louvre pyramid and now collaborating with Swarovksi on jewel-encrusted surfaces that defy all expectations – Francis’s renown comes primarily from his yachts. “Compared to my peer group, I have actually built very few megayachts,” he says, and it is true, but the yachts he has built, as well as concepts such as Sultan and Crystal Ball, have changed the industry in unparalleled ways.
His first boat, a 14m sloop, was built in the south of France with the intention of cruising round the world with his young family. “It was very light and went rather fast,” he remembers – so fast that while testing it in the Mediterranean, other sailors were so impressed by that “I had six boats commissioned on the strength of this one,” he says. The commissions grew is size and scope and in 1981, Francis recalls, “I had the two largest sloops in the world match racing in Sardinia – and those boats are still sailing with the same rig, the same masts that I designed.”
The boat he’s best known for is one of the most influential motor yachts ever made: Eco. Mexican businessman Emilio Azcárraga’s approached him for a motor yacht design, a first for Francis. Azcárraga rejected the initial idea immediately and pushed Francis to create something truly new. The 73.5m result, since renamed Enigma by its current owner, was so remarkably cutting edge, with its needle-nose bow and what Francis calls its “bug-eyed windows”, that Francis “had no other inquires about a similar motor yacht for eight years”.
And then the industry caught up, and his inbox has been flooded with requests ever since. He created Senses, the 59m explorer yacht owned by Larry Page of Google. He designed the eye-catching, angular 315m cruise ship, Celebrity Solstice, and he was naval architect for 119m A, whose inverted bow and extraordinary lines make it one of most distinctive yachts of this century.
Looking toward the future, Francis notes that builders of boats under 50m were “hit very hard”, while “the very big market is full. Lürssen has a very large order book: I’ve been discussing with them recently and they’re talking about a 2021 delivery.”
But as the boats get bigger – or much smaller – Francis sees significant areas for improvement: “I don’t think there’s much revolutionary likely to happen,” he says, “but there are incremental changes.” Above all, “most yachts have pretty inefficient hulls, like comparing a Cessna to a modern glider.” It doesn’t need to be so drastic. In the case of the largest yachts, “clients are often poorly advised,” he says. “You can spend $1m on tank testing and you could very well save that in one year, maybe two, on fuel economy.”
Cleaner engines, too, are on the horizon and, like his already well-established and diversified career, perhaps Francis will find further ways to intermingle his various experiences into new designs. If history is any guide, he surely will.
Centurion Magazine, 2015