Founder | Bannenberg & Rowell Design
Born into a design dynasty and inheriting a hefty dose of creative DNA from his father, the renowned Jon Bannenberg, Dickie Bannenberg has consolidated his father’s vision with a studio that is fresh and vigorous
Interviewed by Juliet Benning
Nailing down Dickie Bannenberg for an interview and photoshoot proves to be refreshingly simple. Accessible and responsive, Dickie himself is easy to reach, the normal PR, or indeed PA, wall being absent. Dickie is a man who apparently does not stand on ceremony — emails are brief and businesslike, swiftly getting to the point. So it’s not long before I find myself sitting in Bannenberg & Rowell Design’s boardroom, a stone’s throw from Jon Bannenberg’s original studio, which began in the basement of his Chelsea home.The boardroom walls pay tribute to the studio’s inheritance, with framed renderings of Jon’s from the early days. Also in evidence are the awards the studio has earned, which sit randomly around the space — a small and naked silver Neptune stares down from a shelf, brandishing his trident. The room has a ship-like quality with portholes through doors and rivets dotted along exposed steel roof beams. Dickie appears suddenly, dressed in jeans, Converse and a navy blue printed shirt. He greets me with vigour and a welcoming enthusiasm.
Dickie describes how the studio came to adopt its current identity. With his father — the founder of the original studio — being so discreet about his illness since its diagnosis in 2001, Jon Bannenberg’s death
came as something of a shock to many. Suddenly the company was without its figurehead. “Not surprisingly, people in the industry took a step back just to wait and see what, if anything, was going to happen,” Dickie explains. In 2003, Dickie tracked down Simon Rowell, who had a design background in residential and hotel design, and made him the company’s creative director. In 2008, to reflect Simon’s huge contribution to the company, and clearing up a rather confused identity, the studio was rebranded as Bannenberg & Rowell Design, “This gave us the opportunity to stamp a new identity on the studio — we gave it some new branding and a new look”.
Work in the studio, which employs a team of 12, follows a natural flow, “The studio has a very organic, democratic setup. We’ve taken a conscious decision to have a very interconnected setup. To one degree or another almost everyone is involved in every job and aware of how every job is going. We don’t hive off jobs
to a particular project manager or a particular team.” Dickie Bannenberg’s DNA, and having worked for 15 years with his father, has afforded him a well-rounded view, “Having worked with my dad for as long as I did,
I have a sense of knowing what the look and feel and manner of things I want to come out of the studio should be, and yes, I do drill down into the individual things — but I’m not, and haven’t pretended to be, someone who is sitting there creating from scratch.”
Dickie describes his father as a “livewire creative magpie” with influencing powers that “seeped” into his son. “Home was always surrounded in amazing things — whether it was an old piece of furniture or sitting next to some scarlet lacquer screen that he’d designed. He used to love collecting Polynesian art. There were three or four family holiday trips back to Australia, at least one of which was via the Pacific. So all of that was incredibly spoiling, although I hope I’ve kept my head screwed on properly. The memories are only of an amazing, creative, privileged time.”
Keeping his head screwed on properly is something that Dickie does remarkably well, given the childhood he describes. He appears to halt his thought process before continuing with any answer that may appear too lofty or self-involved. His personality somehow seems as finely tuned as the designs his studio turns out, and his total lack of presumption echoes the more heavily quoted thoughts of his father, who often emphasised that a yacht is not a necessity. One senses that Dickie’s mentality is to assume nothing, take nothing for granted, and adopt an almost humble approach to the industry — still finding awe in the endless possibilities extreme wealth can bring.
The studio is currently enjoying a period of high productivity with a particularly Dutch flavour. “We have two projects at the moment which are in the process of being delivered — a 57m at Feadship and a 65m at Heesen, and we have another 53m very close to delivery at Benetti. Those are coming to the end of the cycle, and then we have another 47m underway at Heesen.”
The studio’s bread and butter is interior work, but it has also been working with a number of yards on exterior designs, such as the Lürssen 60 concept. The studio has also done exterior design work for Abeking, Benetti, CMN and Oceanco. “[Work] ebbs and flows. We’ve got a couple of projects under development for something in America and some residential stuff — so quite a mix. Even in my dad’s day the split was about 80 per cent yachts to 20 per cent other projects, and that split has remained with us. Often it’s residential — it’s sometimes a bit of furniture, it’s sometimes a hotel or a train or a plane.”
The studio has no specific plan for attracting UHNWI clients. “It would be nice to say there’s a very structured method going on, but it’s unpredictable where work comes from. The overriding thing is based on word of mouth. Our best calling card is our last successful project.” Other than limited edition company books, the company has a web presence, which it is updating. “Within the next three weeks our rebuilt website will appear, so we’ll finally
be visible to iPhones and iPads, which has been a shocking omission for a few years! We work hard to make sure that the visual message we’re putting out is pretty strong, consistent and impressive — and of course I’m out there seeing people, following things up and hunting for new business.”
The clients themselves are a vastly varied selection of individuals, each of whom requires a unique approach. “We’ve had a run of projects over the past three or four years, particularly with clients from Eastern Europe, who you only see maybe, at the lowest point, four times over the three year period. That said, we’ve had a few clients who are shaping up to be much the opposite, and they’re here for a day once every four weeks, and we get to see their house and the real intimate stuff as to how they live their life. You can spend a lot of time with them or you can get to know them with a lot of questions, teasing information out of them.”
By and large, the studio’s clients appear to be commissioning yachts for the relaxation of friends and family. “Of course, there are some rich people who’ve got businesses to run,” Dickie concedes, “But it’s by no means the driver of how the yacht is designed. They want a space or a study at most, where they can do work and have the occasional meeting, but they’re pretty much friend and family spaces we are designing — some of which are being made available for charter, but I certainly don’t think that’s the be all and end all, and yachts are not starting life from that point of view.”
The human factor
Dickie Bannenberg is clearly a sociable individual, citing human interest as the primary factor underpinng his absolute fantasy commission. “[The commissions are] all human driven ultimately -— you can’t be blinded by the whole design process. Anything which is a three or four year project, whether it’s good or bad or fun, is essentially a human factor with the client. So the ideal commission is from somebody pretty engaged and switched on from a design point of view. I’m very happy for them to have a challenging nature. It certainly helps if they’re an amusing, interesting, amenable kind of character in the first place. We’re happy to be pushed and stretched, but you want somebody who, underneath all of that, has got a good dose of humanity and, let’s face it, a bit of appreciation stirred in there too.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the refit market has not represented a huge source of work for Bannenberg & Rowell Design. “We’re doing a refit at the moment and we’ve done a couple of refits in the past but, by and large, a significant size refit only seems to crop up one in every 15 to 20 projects. It’s funny because we quite like doing them. We did a very successful one a couple of years ago for Illusion— a charter Feadship yacht. But refits are problematic by their nature. They are a bit of an unknown, and it’s hard to accurately forecast what sort of time it’s going to involve. That said, it can be an immensely satisfying thing to inject a whole new design life and identity into a tired old boat. But there doesn’t seem to be as much of it around as you might guess.”
Of course, with the MARPOL regulation amendments looming on the horizon no interview would be complete without touching upon the environment — but more pertinent for a designer are issues of sustainability, particularly when it comes to sourcing materials. Dickie admits, “I’d like clients to be more environmentally aware. I’m not a super eco-warrior but in my home life and here in the office we do have a pretty good go. I think anyone creating a yacht is beholden to at least give it a go in terms of building to even the most straightforward environmental classification or notation, if not more.” Demonstrating once again his self-awareness, Dickie checks himself before continuing, “I can’t preach to anyone, being in the yachting industry with its excesses, but I think people should try a bit harder. Once or twice I’ve managed to persuade an owner to build to Lloyds notation. I just think it’s the least you can do really.”
Musing further on the theme of conservation, Dickie adds, “I’m not particularly comfortable about Macassar ebony becoming harder and harder to source. A very respected supplier once sent an excited email saying how he’d found the last six Macassar ebony logs and how wonderful it was. I felt a bit uncomfortable about that. I’m waiting for the first brave client to say I don’t want to do teak decks, let’s use one of those synthetics.
I think it’ll happen but it’s a very slow journey.”
Looking through the Bannenberg & Rowell interior back catalogue a distinct style is discernible — despite the wide variety of briefs, the design language is unfussy, lacking in ostentation and characterised by beautifully made furniture and carpets; form following function above all, with clean, uncluttered lines. In keeping with the original stylings of Jon Bannenberg, design references to the ’60s and ’70s creep into the aesthetics. Upstairs in the studio one designer is creating an aircraft interior drawing inspiration from Ken Adam’s James Bond sets from the ’60s.
But equally, the team is constantly searching for new materials and architectural ideas. A sample library with timbers, fabrics and catalogues is found at the back of the studio building. “We’re always on the look out for new stuff and we’re close to Chelsea Harbour and the Design Centre, which is an easy and useful base point,” Dickie explains. “You won’t last long in terms of being perceived as an exciting designer if people are saying ‘There’s that lamp fitting and there’s that fabric again.’ We’ve often got things we’ve stumbled across.” He gestures towards a fretwork drilled out screen. “We’re always trying to source something new that we may have found on our travels or read about.”
Dickie’s own approach to creation comes from varied sources of inspiration. “In a more organic photosynthesis sense I’m just influenced by things around me — whether it’s car design, music or art.” He also acknowledges that total originality in yacht design has become more difficult to attain following Jon Bannenberg’s masterful levels of creative daring. “I don’t want to lead everything back to my dad — but it’s well known and accepted that, whether it’s his big round windows, or certain lines, or a way of treating wings on a superstructure, they all inspired many people and I think that’s fair game. I think all people’s design processes, whether subliminal or not, are recalling something — whether it’s something that’s stirred, or triggered something, or sparked an idea, or an unintentional homage to someone.” As for homage to his father, and keeping the Bannenberg name buoyant and resonant within the industry, Dickie and the studio have surpassed all expectations.