Carrying the Torch

Sparkman & Stephens has defined good design for 80 years. Today, the firm is proudly traditional, yet willing to improvise.

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Midtown Manhattan seems an unlikely location for a renowned yacht design firm, but that wasn't the case in the 1930s when Sparkman & Stephens opened shop, and it's where you'll still find them today. Housed on the 14th floor of 529 Fifth Avenue, a nondescript building at the corner of East 44th Street, the company has been at this location for the last 12 years and in New York City for all of its 80 years.

I visited the S&S offices on a warm and breezy Friday afternoon in early March. Scudding clouds played hide and seek with a startlingly bright sun. Their game sporadically shaded my path as I walked from Grand Central Station, giving the vibrant cityscape the look of an under-exposed monochrome photo.

As is often the case in older New York office buildings, the hallways on each floor of 529 Fifth Avenue seem unusually narrow and shabby compared with those of their modern counterparts. I found the door marked Sparkman & Stephens, a plain portal painted a dark color, and paused to compose my thoughts. I defy anyone who calls himself a yachting enthusiast to enter this space without feeling reverence for the men and women who've worked their magic over the years. After all, this is Sparkman & Stephens.

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Inside, it was as quiet as a Saturday in the Catholic Church of my childhood, when the priest heard confessions-not the stillness of an empty space, but the rustlings of parishioners shuffling to the altar to pray away their sins. I heard the same sort of hushed rustlings-the staff at work-coming from the design studio. Halfmodels of S&S designs paved the walls like the cobbles of an ancient Belgian byway. No one sat at the reception desk, but someone in the office immediately adjacent asked if he could help. It was Bruce Johnson, S&S's executive vice president and chief designer, who greeted me with a firm handshake that exhibited the directness of a sharp executive and the youthful jollity that seems to accompany anyone who loves boats.

S&S has a staff of seven, a congenial mix of naval architects, engineers, and designers-most of them quite young. Sitting at the top of this modest heap is Johnson-the guardian of a supreme heritage, begun by Olin J. Stephens II and his brother, Roderick, Jr., in 1929. The duo joined with Drake Sparkman, a successful yacht broker, to form what now may be the oldest continuously operating design and brokerage firm in the world. It's certainly the oldest in North America. You'll find the best windows on the glorious history of S&S in Olin Stephens' books, All This and Sailing Too and Lines: A Half-Century of Yacht Designs by Sparkman & Stephens, 1930-1980, and in the number of those designs that still sail today, restored and loved by a new generation of yachtsmen. This story, though, is about S&S today.

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"It's a huge responsibility," Johnson said as we talked in the conference room and he summoned a variety of the studio's current designs from the depths of the computer. The number of files astonished me. "You're sort of carrying this torch through 80 years now. You know, let the next generation screw it up."

Since the beginning, S&S has been smaller than its reputation suggests. Johnson said that the company rarely had more than 8 or 10 members on the design and engineering staff and for the past 30 years has kept growth under control and every aspect of the design and engineering process in-house. This approach allows S&S to monitor every step and to be remarkably candid about the compromises that are such a large part of custom design. Equally important, Johnson was frank on the subject of the give-and-take that goes with designing models for series production-an important part of the business.

"Sometimes I feel we're under-appreciated because we're oldfashioned," Johnson said. "We're sort of big-picture people in a boutique operation, and a lot of people don't understand this when they think of us." Pressure to conform to the client's schedule has occasionally led to an impasse. "We can't get to it for a month, even if you pull the trigger on the contracts," or something to that effect, Johnson said. The company's philosophy has occasionally resulted in lost contracts.

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In spite of the rich history of S&S, clients don't expect a simple rehash of old designs. In fact, Johnson and his team are more than willing to interpret a customer's sense of aesthetics, even if the design team has to swallow its best instincts. To illustrate his point, Johnson displayed a few yachts that he said didn't do the company "any favors" by being identified as S&S designs.

On the other hand, many of the latest designs have a certain look from the waterline up that reinforce the S&S style. The successful Morris M36 daysailer is one of these, as is the new Burger motorsailer. Students of yachting's history should recognize each of these boats as an S&S design simply by their aesthetic. Below the waterline, they are thoroughly modern, in keeping with the latest improvements in comfort underway and seaworthiness.

The current economic climate has caused S&S to cut back a little on overhead, but the firm remains busy, splitting its efforts about 50/50 between production boats and custom yachts. Approximately 20 percent of the firm's revenue comes from royalties paid on production boats. Johnson also noted that he's seeing a trend toward smaller custom yachts. Owners of large yachts don't want to give up the high quality and luxury they've been accustomed to, but they want a yacht that doesn't require a crew and an engineer. The Passagemaker 60 (log onto www.yachtingmagazine.com for a complete review) is one such yacht, and a more extreme example is the 45-foot fast cruiser built in high-tech materials by New England Boatworks.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Johnson said about the future of the business. If the previous 80 years have any influence on the coming decades, he has nothing to worry about.

Sparkman & Stephens, (212) 661-1240; **www.sparkmanstephens.com**