A 1930s yacht with a glamorous past is back on the high seas with stunning art deco-inspired interiors
Photography courtesy of Oliver Laws
Words Gillian Welsh
Before the super-yachts of today’s super-rich – those big, chunky, shiny-white boats that clog up chic Med ports from Monte Carlo to the Costa Smeralda – ocean-going yachts were a lot more elegant. The 165ft Malahne, sleek, beautiful and utterly desirable, is from another era, but easily leaves more modern rivals in her wake. The vessel that once welcomed aboard the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra has been on quite the voyage in recent years, and one man who has done more than most to steer a course through choppy waters is Guy Oliver. The Scotland-born, London-based designer was commissioned in 2012 to help rescue her by creating magnificent new interiors that would reflect the spirit of the 1930s. His brief, which he describes as one of the nicest he’s ever been given, was “to make her look like she has been in continuous ownership since she was built in 1937”. Considering the client introduced the vessel as “a loose association of rust held together with air”, that was quite a tall order.
Oliver (with his studio, Oliver Laws) has refurbished many distinguished hotels and restaurants, including the Connaught in Mayfair and Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, as well as embassies and private houses. An expert on historic furniture and decoration (he is a trustee of Save Britain’s Heritage and a patron of Sir John Soane’s Museum), he is able to refresh tired interiors so skilfully you’d never even know they’d been worked on. Here, the aim was to make it feel like a historically accurate interior, although it’s actually all new rooms – it’s so authentic, well crafted and characterful that it feels original.
The client, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, was so impressed by the way Claridge’s had been upgraded that he asked to meet the designer. “We had a very frank, very honest conversation that became the foundation of an excellent working relationship,” recalls Oliver. Later, when he was asked to take on the Malahne, “It very much felt like the stars had aligned,” he smiles. “I’d always wanted to work on a vintage yacht – it represents all of my interests, my love of design and my love of the sea.”
He began swotting in earnest, immersing himself in the vessel’s history. It was launched in 1937 when Britain’s confidence was high. The empire was at its peak, and the country was at the forefront of technology; the Mallard steam locomotive, for instance, had just broken the world speed record. Malahne was conceived as the private jet of her day, her first owner, Woolworth chairman William Lawrence Stephenson, using her to commute across the Atlantic for meetings in New York.
In 1940, the yacht helped with the Dunkirk evacuation, rescuing Allied troops from France. A member of the crew during the war was a certain Able Seaman Jim Callaghan, who would go on to become prime minister.
A more glamorous role awaited in the early 1960s, when movie mogul Sam Spiegel purchased the ship to accommodate the cast of Lawrence of Arabia during filming. “He found that owning a yacht was such a magnet for pretty women that he kept her!”
Oliver’s research was not restricted to books. He also spent a lot of time exploring 1930s buildings. One of his favourites is Tokyo’s Teien Art Museum, whose Art Deco interiors date from 1933. “I know it well – it has influenced me over my lifetime and certainly influenced me here.”
His knowledge of the sea was earned the hard way: real life. He spent his childhood in Stirling trawling antiques fairs with his mum and reading about decorative arts, but at the age of 17 he left home to join the Royal Navy. Even there, though, any spare time during his eight years of service was devoted to devouring World of Interiors. “Unwittingly, that period of my life gave me an insight into nautical interiors and how to store everything from clothing and porcelain to helicopters and missiles,” he says. “A yacht is basically a floating home, after all. Super-yachts are more luxurious than warships, of course, but the principles are the same. Placing furniture in a space that is constantly moving, so that it looks effortlessly free-standing while fixed to the deck, is challenging.”
Small details, like ‘fiddle rails’ to stop things from sliding, and specially made stowage become second nature. Insulating storage, so there are no annoying vibrations, is especially important. Oliver is particularly proud of the glass cabinet in Malahne’s dining room, one of the many individual mini-challenges that formed this project.
The client had requested wood veneers, as a homage to the original yacht, which set off another quest. “When a designer looks at veneers, the patterning of the wood is of the utmost importance,” explains Oliver. “You don’t just specify a wood veneer and leave it to luck.” Each had to be inspected and mapped out across a panelled room to bookmatch the patterns perfectly.
This was also the case for stone and marble. “For the most part, the bathroom stones are British, because the yacht was a British build.” The chimney piece in the saloon, which Oliver designed, is Connemara marble, “the colour of which can vary from a sickly lime/snot to a deep rich classic green, which is what we used on board.”
His task was also to supply all the furnishings – lighting, crockery and everything else. So, fine Jensen silver cutlery from 1937 was collected. A wonderful lamp by Art Deco designer Edgar Brandt was placed in the main saloon; Oliver had its glass shade copied then he put the original safely in storage – a fortuitous move, as it happens, as the duplicate shade was broken by a guest on the maiden voyage. There are many original items throughout, but among his favourites are a series of metal astrological panels made for the lifts in Selfridge’s department store in 1928. These are now set into cabinets in the library, where they sit alongside a prototype desk by Russian-born architect Serge Chermayeff from around 1930.
It wasn’t just the yacht’s accommodation that was refreshed; while the interiors were being constructed in the Netherlands at a facility belonging to yacht specialists Joop de Ruiter, the hull was being restored and fitted with new engineering and systems at the Pendennis shipyard in Cornwall. Why the split? “If the interiors had been built in the yacht after the hull was restored and the systems installed, the project would have taken twice as long,” says the designer. As it was, they were built in a 1:1 plywood replica of the hull, then disassembled and sent to Cornwall to be installed in the yard. Absolutely nothing was left to chance. “Every inch on board a boat is crucial,” explains Oliver. In fact, before any of the decoration or furniture was made, each of the rooms had to be mocked up and fitted with scale models so the proportions and style could be checked.
As if all of this wasn’t exacting enough, there was another crucial factor to take into consideration: fire safety regulations at sea are much stricter than they are on dry land, so every piece of fabric and every stick of furniture had to be made or treated with this in mind.
Does Oliver still love the sea, now that this mammoth three-year project is complete? “Oh, yes – I love being on the water,” he says. “There’s nothing like watching a sunrise or sunset in the middle of the ocean, seeing dolphins and whales ride the bow wave of a ship, then diving into the Mediterranean at night when the water phosphoresces.”
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