Founder and chief designer | Evan K Marshall / Usonia V
Known especially for his innovative approach to yacht design as well as his spectacular and lavish interiors, Evan K Marshall tells SB why he refuses to be pigeonholed.
Interviewed by Juliet Benning
Evan K Marshall’s design offices on the banks of the Thames have the impression of being the well-established habitat of a company with its roots firmly embedded. This sense of unwavering history flows throughout the offices seemingly stemming from the psyche of its founder, Evan K Marshall himself. Here is a man who likes to hang on to things — his office is a treasure trove of retro memorabilia that makes a physical account of his intricate and rich personal history. Gesturing at the old magazines, books and prints he laughs, “My wife wouldn’t allow me to keep this stuff in the house.”
The artifacts contribute to an office environment which, though vaguely cluttered, is at the same time homely and businesslike. Leading off from the main office of studious and industrious designers is a narrow steel coil of a staircase which leads to Marshall’s turret-like office. Warm and cosy, with the mellow sounds of Al Green being quietly piped in, one can easily understand why Marshall is attached to the place. Featured prominently in this affection is the closeness Marshall can enjoy with his family. Behind a door in his office lies a roof terrace connected to his family home. Two parallel roads access the fronts of the business property and the residential property respectively, which lie back to back. It’s an unusual set up, “These are the only ateliers in London I’ve come across like this” Marshall comments.
As much a family man as a businessman, Marshall seems committed to both in equal measure and enjoys the closeness to his family his office location allows. “The kids come running in during the holidays. They just grab a pencil and sketch away”. Evidently, the passion of creativity runs in the family. “My mother is a novelist so it seems quite natural to me for a parent to work from home — to have the discipline to separate what’s work life and what’s home life, even within the same building.”
Evan K Marshall’s design outfit moved to the unusual property in 1995, two years after the company’s initial establishment in 1993. “I was shopping in Sainsburys and I saw this place from across the river. I was curious as it was the only property on this side of the river. Everything else was just derelict.” Finding his way over the bridge and to the wharf buildings Marshall had located his new home.
Marshall’s credentials are firmly rooted in the great names of naval architecture and yacht design, enabling him to offer his clients a thoroughly tuned perspective and, unlike many other designers, his passion for boating was sparked at a very early age. “I grew up boating from the age of four. My father owned boats from the late ‘50s. I grew up feeling that it was very natural and normal to go cruising. I still hold onto that passion from those early days” he reminisces. Alongside the love of boating was the passion for drawing. “Although my father passed away in a boating accident at the age of 11, and I lost my connection to boating, I was hooked. I was already drawing boats and imagining myself to be a yacht designer. But I was still keeping in touch with yachting by maintaining the family’s subscription to Yachting magazine. I learned how to draw from the illustrations inside.” He unearths a stack of back issues dating back to 1963. “Every month there was the design section. I was able to pour through all the plans. I would look at them and pull out my sketch pad and start working on my ideas. That was how I taught myself to design, starting from the age of five.”
An architecture degree followed but, after five years of studying, Marshall found himself uninspired and applied to the Yacht Design Institute in Blue Hill, Maine. Completing the degree course in one year instead of two, he then took a job on the shop floor of Shannon Yachts. “As a designer it’s so important to have an opportunity to work in a yacht building environment to understand what it is you’re drawing.” But as someone in the lower ranks of the yard, it came as a surprise to his collegues when a call from Sparkman & Stephens summoned him to the office over the PA system. “I was just a grub sweeping up resin from the floor and I get this call and everyone was asking ‘Evan, what does Sparkman & Stephens want with you?’”
Following a successful interview, Marshall was taken onboard by the famous American yacht designers and cut his teeth “folding plans and getting drunk on ammonia from the old blue print machine” before being asked to lay out an engine room under the supervision of the chief designer, Bill Langan and chief engineer, Alan Gilbert. And although his time at S&S allowed the young Marshall to be exposed to great designers, after three years he was eager to move to Europe where he had seen a fresh approach to yacht design emerging.
“[In the US] we had seen what people like Jon Bannenberg were doing. It was totally different to the way we were designing — such elaborately designed powerboats. People like Rod Stephens [S&S chief designer] were saying this was not proper yacht design. For me, as an open minded yacht designer, I thought this looks exciting.”
But after visiting the Genoa boatshow in 1986 Marshall realised if he was to get a job designing in Europe he would have to seriously rethink his portfolio. “In Europe the power boats were sleeker. There was already a division between the stylist and the builder or the naval architect. In the US the engineers, with their pencils in their pockets, were still doing everything.” Elaborating more on the restrictions experienced he continues, “Quite often the aesthetics were limited because they came from the boatbuilders who had more of a conservative approach. S&S, headed up by Bill and Alan, was leading that conservative approach, but then a lot of boats, designed by the likes of Ron Holland and Doug Peterson, were beating S&S yachts because they were going lighter with their scantlings — things that S&S didn’t believe were safe enough to put their signature on. In the IOR series and other series the S&S boats were not faring as well, and S&S began to slowly move towards cruising sailing boats.”
Ignited and inspired by the activity going on in Europe, Marshall set to work on designing a series of yachts for a European flavoured portfolio. The project took eight months of discipline as Marshall shut himself away each evening to work on the drawings. It was this portfolio that later impressed Andrew Winch, landing Marshall a job with the fledgling design office. Winch proved extremely patient when getting Marshall’s UK work permit turned into a tricky operation, “In hindsight I’m almost astonished that they waited more than six months to hire me when they probably could have found a number of people to hire” he reminisces.
Spreading his wings
But after a three year stint with Winch a client gave Marshall the opportunity to spread his wings and set up alone. “I was very fortunate that I had that client. Then his business partner also employed me to design his house so I had two solid clients to hit the ground running with.” Toiling away in his Fulham flat, Marshall worked to establish and build on his name and earn referrals from satisfied clients.
The move in 1995, to the present Plantation Wharf property, saw Marshall cement the company with an official premises. At present there are six employees but this has risen to nine when more projects are undertaken. However, as the backbone of the company, Marshall isn’t tempted to extend this further, “Because of the way I work I’m still the primary concept developer. I’m the principal person who clients come to. On the different individual jobs I still have to be intimately involved and, if the client or shipyard
calls and needs to know anything about the smallest detail, I have to be aware of it. So there is a limit to how much I can take on. One of my project managers is going on a job to Italy because I can’t so it’s helpful
to have key members who are involved in one or two jobs but I have to have knowledge of them all. It’s how I prefer to do it. But we have daily catch up meetings.” Elaborating on the company’s work regimen, he continues, “We just have one email address so I see everything that comes in for every project. The project manager also sees it so I’m keeping abreast of all activity and that’s my passion and interest — not to be a figurehead, but to be more intimately involved from the initial concept through all aspects of the development.”
At the moment Marshall judges the company’s workload to be about half exterior and half to be interior design but he explains, “Our preferred project is to do the exterior and the interior. Creating the concept for both interior and exterior which is, for me, what I enjoy the most, so you can marry the two sides.”
In terms of style it would be easy to assume that the extravagant, high sheen interiors for yachts such as Diamonds Are Forever, Norwegian Queen and The World Is Not Enough are the signature of the Evan K Marshall style. But Marshall is keen to counter this assumption, “I would find it boring to be pigeonholed in terms of a particular look. It happens quite easily though. We do a very extravagant, lavish boat and we like to remind people that we can do other styles.”
Marshall reminisces on the shock of newly signed clients after a tour of the inimitable interior of Norwegian Queen. “I showed the clients the yacht as a courtesy and I could see my client and his wife exchanging looks and then when they got off the boat they said, ‘Evan, if we had seen this boat before we hired you we wouldn’t have hired you.’ Because it was so opposite to their tastes, but I had to explain that we create a result that’s tailored to each client and that’s why our designs are so different. We love doing the more lavish interiors like Diamonds are Forever — they get a lot of attention and we always enjoy working with clients who give us the reins to do something spectacular. At the same time, we enjoy doing production boats like the Ocean Alexander 120, where we have to think, not as an individual’s taste, but as a shipyard trying to create a model with broad appeal. We make sure nothing is too extreme or polarising. You have to inspire and push your clients, but you’re also collaborating with them as a partner.” Equally, more subdued and classic styling can be seen in the refined interior of Trinity’s New Horizon, a 74m yacht due for delivery in 2014 and designed for family cruising.
Pushing the envelope
The company prides itself on its ability to innovate, a habit which Marshall testifies, goes back a long way, “Even as a kid I always tried to push the envelope. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself and the yachtbuilders, so we’re not just repeating ourselves but we’re forward thinking and innovative. We’re trying to do that a little bit with IAG and the enclosed balcony onboard Serenity. With Trinity we introduced the split level master stateroom, the first being Zoom Zoom Zoom, and that was implemented in a number of yachts. Very early on we were the innovators of that particular lay out and now it’s quiet common. In terms of some of the ideas that have become commonplace in the industry it’s nice to see concepts that I initiated almost become standard.” The industry will be watching the ripples follow down the line as the next Evan K Marshall collaborated projects hit the water leaving imitation in their wake.