Boats

Take me to the Riva

An icon of 1960s Riviera glamour has been given 21st-century edge by star designer Marc Newson. And it’s being sold not in a boatyard or a showroom, but in a top Manhattan art gallery. Lucia van der Post reports.

July 30 2010
Lucia van der Post

A nippy little runabout boat merely 33ft long being sold in a limited edition in the hushed environs of one of the most famous art galleries in the world? Treated, in other words, as reverentially as if it were a rare canvas by one of the art world’s most famous names? It sounds an unlikely story but, if the boat is the iconic Aquariva and the designer charged with polishing it up for the 21st century is Marc Newson, then anything is possible.

It is Larry Gagosian who will be launching the Aquariva by Marc Newson (to give it its formal name) on September 14 by displaying one of the edition’s 22 models in his Manhattan gallery where its $1.5m price tag may perhaps seem a bargain when compared with the $2,098,500 Phillips de Pury got for Newson’s prototype Lockheed Lounge chaise longue in May.

But if the price doesn’t seem cheap to you, it’s worth reflecting that what Riva has done so brilliantly here is to bring together two very starry brands. On the one hand, we have the Aquariva, a descendant of the cult Aquarama boat, patently imbued with the same distinctive genes but in need of a dusting-down and a touch of modernity. On the other, we have Newson, a designer who seems to cast an air of supreme cool over almost everything he touches, whether it be Nike footwear, Moët Hennessy’s Dom Pérignon, Qantas beds, Falcon jets, Samsonite suitcases or a Ford concept car.

But first a little history. The great iconic Aquarama boat was first created by Carlo Riva in 1962. Back in those days, the boat seemed to embody in its chic little shape the glamour of the South of France. It was the essential accessory for the yachts on which Brigitte Bardot, Burton and Taylor, the Aga Khan, Prince Rainier, Roger Vadim and Gianni Agnelli sunned themselves. Just as a Ferrari is so much more than four motorised wheels to get you from A to B, so too the Riva is much, much more than a handy little boat that whisks you round the Med and takes you from yacht to shore.

Aquarama was, as Jeremy Clarkson wrote in I Know You Got Soul (Penguin, 2004), the “mahogany passport to the high life”. The Riva, like the Ferrari, is sui generis. It has mythic status. Clarkson, not a man given to sycophancy, describes the Riva Aquarama as “the most beautiful machine in the world”. He goes on, with all the passion of a besotted lover: “There’s something about the angle of its prow and the positioning of that wraparound windscreen...” He waxes on about the leatherwork, which in white and turquoise is so perfect with the polished mahogany hull, and the tail – “that tapers and flares just so”.

There are still a few Clarksons around who hanker after the authentic 1960s Aquarama – some occasionally come up for sale and if you were to find one it would set you back at least €250,000. But while it may be an icon, only a few eccentrics still long for a wooden boat. What most people crave is all the glamour, the aura and the history but with modern technology and know-how.

Enter Newson, who seems the perfect match for the job. Transport – cars, aeroplanes, bicycles – is, after all, one of his obsessions. And taking classic brands (Dom Pérignon, Boucheron, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Iittala) that have a distinctive DNA, then making them cooler and more appealing to the modern customer while retaining their essence, is what he thinks he does best. “Sometimes with great, established brands, it’s good for somebody from outside to take a cool, clear look at them,” he says.

Not that Riva had been thinking of launching a new version at all. It was the happy synchronicity of meeting Newson and discovering that he loved the brand that made them embark on the project in the first place. Newson, for his part, thought he “could attract a slightly new audience” and that he could see a way to retain the magic while adding something new.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “Riva is an iconic brand, and I knew I had to work within the parameters that had made it such a sought-after boat in the first place. I saw my job as mainly one of simplifying, of trying to identify what is the soul of the brand and then to find a way of enhancing it. I retained that distinctive silhouette that you can recognise from very, very far away – the retro curving hull that narrows towards the rear – but I streamlined it a bit. I changed the aft of the boat, fusing the typical Riva shape with my love of windows and holes to give it a Newson touch. The big picture was the easy part. After that it was detail, detail, detail.”

For most of the upper part of the boat, he replaced the old mahogany with Micarta, a textile-based laminate, which has much of the appeal of wood, with a grain, a fantastic colour – and it is longer lasting. Above all, it doesn’t look cheap. Then he rethought all those details that matter so much to those who use them – the handles, switches, portholes, rails, cleats. Most cleats are made from highly polished chrome but he used a dull aluminium (“it’s more modern, more sophisticated”), and he designed them so that when not in use they sit flat on the surface. The fairleads, too, are designed to lie flat when not in use. A table rises in front of the seating area when required and then pops back down to create an additional seat. The windscreen, which used to be made of three or four pieces, is now a single curving piece of glass.

These things don’t make the sort of dramatic visual statement that, for instance, Lockheed Lounge does, but that is not what this project is all about. “I wanted to keep it simple, sophisticated and understated,” says Newson. It’s about the carefully thought-out details, the reverential respect accorded to the brand, the small but critical improvements. Clearly, the hope is that those who loved the original Aquarama might be just as thrilled by its 21st-century reinterpretation.

If you want to see the boat in September you’ll have to go to the Gagosian Gallery in New York, where there will be an exhibition of Newson’s work (September 14 to October 23). “I always like to see things out of context,” he says, “such as the concept jet I designed for the Fondation Cartier in 2004 that was exhibited in the Fondation’s building. And, anyway, it makes a kind of sense, because the people who buy art and design are exactly the same sort of people who might well be in want of a boat.” Indeed, as I write, one has already been sold ahead of the exhibition. So, if you’re in the Med this summer, keep your eyes skinned and you might just see a bright new version of that distinctive curving silhouette whizzing its lucky owners from yacht to beach or trailing a water-skier or two in its wake.

I guess Marc Newson will be hoping that those who see this new, simplified, modified version will feel about it the way Ralph Haupter, CEO of Microsoft in Germany, did about the old Riva. When asked which artist he would be prepared to spend a fortune on, he was in no doubt – “for Pietro Riva, founder of Riva shipyard in Italy,” he replied. “This is what can be called art.” Quite an epitaph for what is, after all, just a small boat.