‘Happy families are all alike,’ Tolstoy famously began, but there are always exceptions to the great rules of literature and the Zuccons are definitely that: not all happy families are yacht designers of distinction, a superyacht design dynasty.
But a happy family – comprising Giovanni (Gianni) Zuccon and his wife Paola Galeazzi, who started working as yacht designers in 1976 and founded Zuccon International Project in 1984, and their children Bernardo and Martina – they definitely are. When I ask how they deal with creative differences in the Zuccon household, Gianni starts to answer thoughtfully: “There are just the standard differences that all families have, but there are many positive aspects to working this closely together.” There’s a pause, and the family banter starts: “Although I have to say that Bernardo wants to lead. He’s just waiting for my retirement! Martina is much more reasonable. She thinks she can learn from us, whereas Bernardo thinks we have to learn from him!”
“This is not true!” says Bernardo with faux outrage. “Although I like the headline ‘Bernardo wants to lead’! We have different behaviours, of course, but we are very close and we have the same wish to work to the best of our ability.”
Working to the best of their ability is something the Zuccons have being doing rather well in a superyacht career that started with the 46-metre Baglietto Al Fahed in 1986, and has reached the launch in January of the magnificent 80-metre CRN Chopi Chopi. Now, they’ve established Zuccon Superyacht Design, a separate division under the responsibility of Martina and Bernardo, focusing on big yachts and clients from inside and outside the Ferretti group (with whom the Zuccons have had a close association for two decades).
The Zuccon’s Roman studio employs 25 people, covering the nautical sector from ten-metre boats to megayachts, as well as architectural projects. “We are working on 33ft, 45ft, 55ft, 69ft, 76ft, 87ft, 112ft, 96ft, 39 metres, 34 metres, 60 metres, and 74 metres… and there’s a 90-metre concept. It’s a characteristic of our studio that we can manage so many different projects. We have never believed in specialisation. A designer has to have an open mind,” says Gianni. “You have to think from a spoon to a city!” is how Bernardo puts it.
Gianni and Paola met as students of architecture at La Sapienza University in Rome, marrying in 1973. An early commission for a 57ft motor boat for Posillipo set them on their way in the nautical sector, although the successful Zuccon model has not been limited to yachts: in 1984 they developed facilities for the European Space Agency in Italy, a commission that continues to this day. The tie-up with Ferretti came about in 1991, starting with the innovative Ferretti 53, which set out the precepts of the Zuccon philosophy – an athletic exterior that created a dramatic impression on the water and a rethinking of how space is used. In the boxy early 1990s, it was a bold and radical design that worked. “Small-boat experience helped when it came to superyachts,” says Gianni. “This attention to every centimetre is in our DNA.”
The move to bigger yachts came when Ferretti established the Custom Line range of semi-production superyachts in composite, with a 94 and 112 produced in 1998 and the Navetta 30 in 2002. Then came a series of projects for CRN, including the 60-metre Givi in 2006 and the 60-metre Darlings Danama in 2011.
Gianni has written about a key moment in his life when, during his degree, he decided to switch from engineering to architecture, the thorny question being how he should explain this to his engineer-father, who had encouraged him to follow a practical discipline. “Back then, a young man couldn’t ignore his parents’ advice,” Gianni says. So how, in these independent times, did Bernardo and Martina end up as designers? “We didn’t push them at all,” says Paola. “The only thing we told them is that work is the main part of life, so you have to choose something you like.”
But boats were never far away from the young Zuccons, with an Apreamare as a family boat and the design-rich environment in which their parents lived. It’s not surprising that some influence rubbed off. “When I was a child I read boat magazines,” says Bernardo. “My first real wish was to live close to the sea, and that grew into a desire to work close to it.”
“When they chose to study architecture at college, I was a little worried,” admits Gianni. “Are they okay? Have we been good parents? So I talked to two psychologist friends of mine. They told me that I didn’t need to worry because the educational model they were following was a good one, and that they had decided for themselves. It is something to be proud of.”
Martina’s first project was the Ferretti 530. “In this kind of boat you can really get to understand how to use space – every centimetre of it,” she says. And it’s these vital lessons that are echoed by her brother: “The opportunity to work on bigger yachts was a case of growing up. Two years ago I was working on a 110-metre project. The big spaces made it feel like a public building! But I was also working on a nine-metre day cruiser. In both cases, it was a case of finding space and filling space. It’s good training for the mind.
l am a lucky architect to have this experience.”
So are there any differences in the design approaches of brother and sister? “We both work up and down the ranges, but I really like steel and aluminium,” says Bernardo. “I am more used to composite but I am now working on a 39-metre,” says Martina. “She prefers to find the space. He prefers to fill the space!” comments Paola.
Of course, in a global industry they are away a lot but when they are together they are a close family unit. “We all live and work in the same building, although Martina and Bernardo have apartments on the second floor. If we are all in the office together we work on different projects until 2pm. Then it’s mandatory that we have a pasta lunch together. After coffee, it’s back to work until eight,” says Gianni. Many employees are very long term, he adds. “It feels like a big family here.” A key element of the studio’s work is that every aspect of each project is dealt with in-house – from first sketches to renderings and technical work. “This gives us more control but it also means more privacy for the client,” says Bernardo.
Will yachts always be the most important aspect of the studio’s work? “We’ll always be 70-80% boats, but we’re really open to every experience,” says Bernardo. “My father and I work at the university with design students, and I have been following projects dealing with a museum and a theatre. It’s different to yachts, but the rules about space are the same.”
So have the economic troubles changed their approach to design? “We are five years into the economic situation. It’s not a temporary crisis, but it’s a new era. Research is so important at the moment. When the market comes back we want to be ready to offer new opportunities to our clients. Some clients are afraid to make that commitment, but as architects we can help create that desire to go back to the sea,” adds Gianni. “With any new project you have to understand the man, his motivation and his culture.”
“I like to read books about Buddhism,” says Bernardo. “And there is one important sentence I remember: ‘every problem can become a real opportunity’. Change can be positive. We just need to be able to adapt.”
Gianni Zuccon once wrote: “It is impossible to recount the story of my career without mentioning Paola, as it is impossible to separate our emotional, sentimental and family experience from the realisation of our products.” The fruits of this intricate weaving of very human feelings can be seen in the scores of superyachts that carry the Zuccon name. When I ask how they see the future, Paola answers: “We are waiting for our grandchildren.” The Zuccon dynasty has some way yet to run.