It’s not unusual now for automotive design studios to design boats, aeroplanes and even starships or submarines, but when Alfonso Albaisa – now senior vice president for global design at Nissan – submitted his sketches for a yacht in the early '90s, it was quite a different project for a mainstream car company to take on.
Albaisa, the man responsible for the seminal Infiniti Essence and Emerg-E concepts, and Q60 and QX70 production cars, explains how Nissan’s Infiniti division was approached by Turkish boatbuilder Yonca in 1990 to design a 33-metre, three-storey luxury yacht for a client: "At Infiniti Design, we are inspired by the power and beauty of nature and the ocean in our car designs. Creating Motali was a chance to combine my lifelong passion with the job I love. It was too good an opportunity to pass up!"
“We received an elevation like an architect would have,” Albaisa recalls when we met him in Turkey this month – actually making his first-ever visit to Motali, the yacht he created. Car designers always need to negotiate packaging and powertrain requirements with engineers, he points out, but designing a boat brings a different set of considerations.
In cars, the customers sit in designated spaces, but “here it is people standing, walking around the boat; there are crew quarters required, sleeping quarters for the owners, guests, and additional crew quarters at the other end.”
It was a considerable challenge, especially given the taxing nature of the brief from his client: ‘Imagine Motali backing into its bay at Monaco. The rear view of this vessel should be like no other.’
“I’ve always been captivated by the look of yachts at rest,” says Albaisa, “so having the chance to create my own vessel was very exciting. I also enjoyed having to think beyond the design of the yacht itself. Unlike with cars, the views out of Motali’s windows are as important as its own appearance. I had to design something that would fit seamlessly into a range of majestic surroundings – from Monte Carlo Harbour to the open ocean or the bay of a deserted island.
“At the end of the day it is not the exterior of this yacht that is important, it is that view [through the curved cabin windows]. So you can’t allow a line, movement or shape to destroy a view that is worth a billion dollars. That is always the wrestling match, with me – probably for every designer; how to make sure that I create a wonderful place for people to be.”
The design process for yachts is very different to automotive projects, he notes: “Decisions are quick, but they are also very clear, and there is both a good and bad side to that clarity. Typically you design a car for a range of people who are more radical and open, where boat owners are typically ‘Type A’ personalities.”
For Motali, both the client and the captain had significant input into the project. “The captain is actually a major part of the design process for boats because he must validate that he is comfortable manoeuvring this multi-million dollar vessel, as well as take care of his owners, guests and crew,” Albaisa explains.
The coupé-inspired boat Albaisa sketched was pretty radical at the time, and, even now, it looks very distinctive. The interior space is defined by the open helm area and wide cabin area with low seating and an expanse of curved window.
To achieve this ‘capsule’ effect, Albaisa dispensed with the walkway and guardrail around the exterior, making the views from the primary socialising area in the cabin spectacular.
The exterior design has a bullet-like expression, with romantic tapering at the stern that tumbles inwards, similar to the Riva-type powerboats of the 1950s. In order to achieve that shape without an awkward parting line, the hull was handmade with planks and lofting. “I love that expression of lofting,” Albaisa says, “which is how they used to make wooden boats, except this uses high density foam and boards that are lofted and curved, and then e-glass and Kevlar – new materials at the time – are positioned over it.”
The original sketch of the boat was much more tapered. The initial designs also featured a walkway and guardrail, but that would have created a smaller cabin. “We fell in love with this whole idea that it should be a sanctuary, so it is a capsule, but that cabin is much wider than any other boat of this size would have,” he explains.
The tapering lines of the boat in front ¾ view give it a light touch on the water, and Albaisa designed reflection lines to reduce the visual weight of the hull.
The guardrail line, placement of the glass and accent details all work to make the proportions balanced and convey speed and performance (Motali’s fuselage has twin 1,400hp MTU diesel engines delivering a top speed of 35 knots).
The open helm was also an unusual feature on boats of the time, and still is now. “The exposed helm is not normal. They usually hide it, there is usually a wall around the dining area, and they block it off because they don’t want to show the electronics,” Albaisa says.
“But from the beginning, this one was driver-centric. The outside shape is very much like a torpedo, and we wanted to have the construction of the bulbous bow expressed.” Inside, by showing the shape of the area that houses the fuselage flowing through to the exposed structure of the helm station, the interior design emphasises the performance credentials of the boat.
So what was the biggest design challenge? “The sheer scale. Whereas a car can be treated as a single thought with one gesture supported by details, on a yacht of Motali’s size the gesture is dictated by the architecture. It was more like designing a building than a vehicle.”
Albaisa still has the scale model of Motali in his studio, and he notes that, on a car, a change of four or five millimetres on a scale model in a car results in only 10mm of difference to the final design, but on a boat with a 1:20 scale model, the difference is 3ft.
“It is very strange to see my creation after so many years for the first time. My feedback is about 26 years too late,” he jokes. As we were viewing the exterior of Motali from another vessel, he was reviewing the design, spotting areas he would do differently now, and thinking about the details of another boat he would design now if the chance came up.
Designing Motali was clearly a creatively challenging project for Albaisa, so are more projects like this likely for Nissan Design? “I feel that my team should do these things,” he says. “Because, especially at this size, it makes your brain change what it is doing.”
“Our passion is automobiles, but I feel that designers need a break, or they become too focused on cars and they lose life experience. These views, the spiral, the circle, the curve: you don’t get that in a car, and the challenge of that I like a lot.”