Stormin’ Norman Foster

What happens when an architect dreams up a boat?

Foster’s yacht

A couple of weeks ago, the weekend “House & Home” section of the Financial Times, which usually features villas in the Crimea or the latest condo development in Barcelona, devoted a whole page to a holiday residence designed by Norman Foster: a $16 million motor yacht. I’ve heard of architects designing tea kettles and salt shakers, but a boat?

Walter Gropius, who was once commissioned to design a car—the 1931 Adler limousine—proclaimed that an architect should be able to design anything, “from a teacup to a city.” (This was before the advent of the industrial-design profession, in the days when architects such as Peter Behrens designed not only factories, but also the electric kettles and fans they manufactured.) Gropius integrated product design into the curriculum of his famous Bauhaus school; even earlier, architects such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Josef Hoffmann were designing a range of domestic objects, especially furniture. The early Modern period produced a number of classic chairs, although I find Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair and Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort series to be less than satisfactory as seating. Much superior are the later chair designs of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, and, of course, the great Charles and Ray Eames.

A stateroom aboard

Contemporary architects have not done as well. Robert Venturi’s cartoonish Queen Anne chair only proves that mannerism and ergonomics don’t mix; Robert A.M. Stern’s Neoclassical furniture is handsome but hardly breaks new ground; Frank Gehry’s Hat Trick chair, which resembles a bushel basket, is lightweight, interesting-looking, and comfortable, but at $1,300 it is unclear exactly what problem it’s solving. You’re better off getting a classic Thonet bentwood chair. Made of beech and woven cane, it’s just as light, equally comfortable, and a fraction of the price.

I once asked the architect Marcel Breuer, who designed the widely imitated tubular-steel-and-cane Cesca dining chair in 1928 (when he was 26), why he had not continued to design furniture. “I knew that I could never do anything as good,” he answered. It’s not easy to innovate with something as tried-and-true as a chair, which may be why most architects today don’t even try—the best recent seating and office systems have been the work of industrial designers such as Bill Stumpf (the Aeron chair) and Andrew Morrison (Knoll’s Morrison Network). Architects seem to prefer to concentrate on kitchen appliances (Michael Graves), silverware (Richard Meier), and jewelry (Frank Gehry). In most cases, styling—making it look nicer—takes precedence over improved design—making it work better.

Norman Foster, or rather, Foster & Partners, a design firm that now numbers more than 800, is different. Some years ago, Foster branched out from buildings to engineering structures such as glass roofs (over the central court of the British Museum in London, and soon over the court of the old Patent Office in Washington, D.C.), a communications tower in Spain, the Bilbao Metro, and the extraordinary Millau Viaduct in southern France. There is also the notorious Millennium Bridge in London, an unusual suspension structure which developed considerable swaying, due to a combination of wind and pedestrian behavior that the engineers’ computer program had failed to anticipate. (The swaying has since been fixed, although it produced a memorable nickname for Foster, a life peer: Lord Wobbly.)

Foster & Partners has also designed objects as diverse as airport seating, bathroom fixtures, wind turbines, and an office desk that looks as if a drafting table had mated with a moon-landing module. The originality of these products is a result of the way they address practical problems: minimizing materials, optimizing energy use, reducing weight. So, too, the 131-foot luxury yacht. The mass of the superstructure is moved to the front, there is more outdoor space than you’d find in a traditional design, and the greatly expanded glazing maximizes views and creates a brighter interior. The Italian-built yacht—to be delivered in 2008—will be “fractionally owned” by as many as eight buyers, a sort of floating time-share. “We would produce more radical concepts for commissions from private individuals,” Foster told FT, “but here we have to appeal across a wide cross-section of owners with differing tastes, so we are aiming for a contemporary nautical interior with a timeless quality.” Now that Foster & Partners has designed a yacht that actually resembles an oversized Prius, maybe it could turn its talents to producing something for the rest of us: a better, cheaper hybrid car.