There’s one particularly important lesson that Evan K. Marshall has learned over his career: “When Sparkman & Stephens offers you a job, you take it.”
Marshall, born and raised in New York City, was a recent university graduate planning a cross-country trip in the United States when the famed naval architecture firm, then also headquartered in New York City, came calling in 1985. Having previously sent the designers several of his sketches to gauge their interest, Marshall was excited by the opportunity and gladly accepted. In his three years at the firm he focused on sailboats, honing his technical-drawing skills, and crunching performance numbers.
Evan K. Marshall: Gallery
But it was a trip to the Genoa boat show, taken independently during his second year on staff, that was the turning point in Marshall’s career. As he took in the show, he was blown away by the sleek styles and curvaceous craft he saw, the likes of which weren’t being produced stateside. “I loved the designs out of Italy and knew I wanted to do that type of styling,” Marshall remembers. He spent his free time over the next eight months drawing four different designs that echoed what he liked – never mind that none of them were commissioned, nor even fitted in with the work he was doing at Sparkman & Stephens. Marshall mixed styles and shapes, purposely disregarding whether they were classic versus contemporary or American versus European. It’s a philosophy that he continues to embrace this day. “I like being open to absorbing styles and approaches from myriad sources,” he says. This ability to remain open, he argues, is what achieves harmonious design.
So really, if there’s something else that Marshall has learned over his career, it’s this: “Achieving harmony is not going to be found by following a playbook.” Indeed, only a few things about Marshall follow a playbook. Like many designers, he developed a knack for drawing at a young age, focusing his first efforts on boats. His father had owned powerboats since before Marshall was born and did for years afterwards. “I think my path was set pretty early,” he says. “I never wavered from that.”
Since naval architecture was then primarily orientated towards commercial craft, Marshall also earned a degree in architecture, graduating in 1983. Still passionate about designing boats, he enrolled in the two-year programme at the Yacht Design Institute in Maine, hailed for teaching small-craft naval architecture via distance learning, and for pioneering many innovations and improvements in the way it was taught. While he was still in school, Marshall volunteered to work aboard two boats based at New York’s South Street Seaport. He crewed on Pioneer, a restored 19th-Century schooner taking tourists on daily cruises, and assisted in the restoration of the 1885-built Wavertree, an iron-hulled, three-masted ship that had seen far better days. A fellow Wavertree volunteer was a well-known owner of a few racing yachts, including the 60-foot Running Tide and the 1962 America’s Cup competitor Nefertiti. Running Tide happened to be a Sparkman & Stephens design, and the owner knew the firm’s Rod Stephens. He suggested that Marshall talk with the partners.
Following his advice, Marshall met Stephens, as well as the late Bill Langan, who was chief designer at the time, and Alan Gilbert, the chief engineer. They told him to stay in touch while he finished school. Marshall did, sending designs periodically and a complete portfolio upon graduation from the Yacht Design Institute. When he didn’t hear back, he took a summer job in 1985 at Shannon Yachts in Rhode Island, doing fairing and filler work. Although still set on doing true design work, he was beginning to make other plans – “I was just going to drive cross-country, take a year off,” he says – when Gilbert called.
The three years Marshall spent in the Sparkman & Stephens office were invaluable. “Back then, you had to do your own math,” Marshall says. No computers were in place to do the performance calculations. However, as enriching as working for the firm was, it wasn’t enough, as the trip to the Genoa boat show revealed. Marshall corresponded with some of the designers he met in Italy, encouraged by their advice to come see them when he had more designs of his own.
He resigned from Sparkman & Stephens in 1989 despite not having a job offer. “I was fortunate to be able to take some time off and look around,” he explains. Marshall anticipated working for about a year overseas, and met influential designers including the late Pierluigi Spadolini (Tomasso Spadolini’s father), Andrew Winch, Pieter Beelsnijder, and the late Jon Bannenberg. When Winch offered Marshall a job, the anticipated one-year commitment turned into three years of intensive learning. “The office was small,” he says; it was staffed only by Winch, Mark Whiteley (now of Redman Whiteley Dixon) and him. “I learned more in terms of interiors from Andrew,” he explains. Although he did some layouts and furniture styling while at Sparkman & Stephens, overseas things were different: in Europe the wives or shipyards selected fabrics for the boats. “Europe’s emphasis on the lifestyle of boating appealed to me,” he says.
In 1993, Marshall decided to strike out on his own, working tirelessly to get things started. “I was a one-man show, getting in at nine and leaving at nine, doing everything from drawing to DHL packages,” Marshall remembers. “There was no time to worry about whether it would work. It was a great learning experience.” Equally great was the ability to flex his design muscles. One of his strongest sources of inspiration was the architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he greatly admired. In fact, Marshall’s company name includes the word ‘Usonia’, a type of architecture that Wright created in the 1930s. Wright was dedicated to the craft of design and open to different principles, and Marshall was keen to echo this commitment. “We don’t want to show something to someone and have them say, ‘What you’re showing me is your taste’,”he says. “I really try hard not to have a signature style. I really try hard not to be constrained in that way.” When someone recently asked him his thoughts about Art Deco in the 1930s versus the 1950s, he responded: “I’ve never been worried about being that literal, that constricted in a style. I’m quite open to mixing elements from every period.”
He’s also open to clients having specific ideas. “They have to give you some direction, whether it’s pages from a magazine or pictures of their home.” When a client asked Evan to design the 50-metre Trinity Norwegian Queen, his home was a good starting point for what would become, in Evan’s words, “quite a unique interior”, with abundant use of white, red and black. Even when he’s worked with clients on previous yachts, as he has with the owners of the 57-metre Lady Linda, now under construction at Trinity Yachts, he never makes assumptions. “I still present five sofas to choose from,” he says.
Then there’s the working relationship that Marshall has with John and Jeanette Staluppi, owners of the recently delivered Diamonds Are Forever. The 61-metre Benetti is the latest of four superyachts that they have designed together. And he does mean together. “They’re very direct in their feedback,” says Marshall. “When I show them something, they say yes or no right away. They won’t pull a page out of a magazine, they’ll want something fresh and different.”
The Staluppis also want each project to outperform the previous one. “We had to make Diamonds are Forever stand out beyond anything Benetti had ever done,” he explains. Judging from unusual elements such as chrome-painted glass, they seem to have succeeded. The treatment is an experimental technique devised by Marieux, a glass company that Marshall tapped for its creativity. The glass doesn’t even look like glass; guests aboard think it’s metal that’s been etched or imprinted with a pattern.
It’s this type of creativity that earns Marshall praise from industry representatives who have worked with him. “He’s enthusiastic and always remembers to put the client’s interest first,” says Billy Smith, vice president of Trinity Yachts. “He does a quick turnaround on conceptual drawings and is always available. And he’s a good communicator, with a great attitude.”
In other words, it’s the type of work ethic that doesn’t come from a playbook.