Some people are both fortunate and driven enough to do exactly what they were born to do. Evan K. Marshall, the 57-year-old founder and head of EKM Limited, is one such lucky man. Born in Manhattan to the children of Barbadian immigrants, his exposure to yachts was early and consistent. His novelist mother encouraged his creative inclinations while his father, a sociologist-turned-executive at AT&T, docked a cabin cruiser at the 79th Street Boat Basin, a short distance from the family’s Upper West Side apartment and where Malcolm Forbes kept his legendary Feadship The Highlander. He began to draw yachts as a boy, poring over his father’s subscription to Yachting magazine. With a degree in architecture from Hampton University, he enrolled at the Yacht Design Institute in Maine. After stints at Sparkman & Stephens and Winch Design, he opened his own firm in 1993.
I visited Marshall at EKM’s London offices on a rainy day in June, just before the Brexit. Nestled in Plantation Wharf, in a labyrinthine live-work complex across the Thames from Chelsea, the six-person studio designs the exteriors and interiors of some of the world’s most sought-after custom and semi-custom yachts — from a modest duplex overflowing with sailing paraphernalia and books on Botticelli and the universe of Venetian interiors. On the second floor, across a short wooden patio that constitutes the entirety of his daily commute, is the airy apartment he shares with his Dutch wife and two children.
Marshall, who has a shaved head and flawless brown skin — as far as he’s aware, he’s the only black man in the world designing superyachts — cuts a meticulous figure in a blazer, jeans and two-tone monk-strap shoes. He flashes a huge smile when he pulls out a stack of decades-old Yachting issues from under a sofa and pages through them.
“Jack Hargrave, William Gardner, Edwin Monk,” he says, rattling off the names with the kind of reverence another man might reserve for legends of music or sport. “They had styles you could identify just from looking at the drawings.”
Marshall, on the contrary, prides himself on remaining as transparent as possible. “Nowadays, things have changed to the extent that clients for the larger custom boats are looking for a unique style that’s personal to them,” he says. “I’ve tried to develop a reputation where we’re known for being able to work with diverse styles, from very contemporary to very traditional.
“At the same time, there’s a job that we do for Ocean Alexander — we have about 10 different models for them,” he adds. “We have to think very differently about the design, almost like an automotive design, looking at the market and really understanding what the buyer of that [semi-custom] boat expects.”
Out of 126 designs during the past 23 years, Marshall estimates that 90 have been built. Within that number, it’s impossible to say which is his favorite. He grabs an iPad and swipes through a range of eye-watering beauties, from the faintly Asian to the gold-plated baroque, from an interior sheathed in black-and-white rock ’n’ roll photos to one with painstakingly engraved mirror panels rendered in highly polished chrome.
“A lot of owners will say, ‘Evan, don’t let me do something that will make it harder to sell,’” but others want to leave their mark, and they encourage Marshall to think creatively.
“This was my first client,” he says, scrolling to a series of colorful photographs of a palace in Austria filled with marble and gilt and what seems like every other luxury material known to humanity. Marshall worked on all aspects of the space, down to the table settings — store-bought items were blended with custom designs to amplify the aesthetic.
“We did his boat and offices, and then he asked me to get involved in portions of his house in Salzburg. He was very over the top. Everything was Versace. And then things that I designed for him, this fireplace, I knew he liked naked women,” he says with a chuckle, highlighting twin columns straight out of a Renaissance fresco. “We replicated from sourcebooks images of other pieces made in Italy.” Yet, after all that, the house remains vacant. “For tax purposes, he had to leave Austria. He moved to Liechtenstein and Ibiza.”
That’s par for the course in Marshall’s line of work: Buyers change their minds or simply lose interest. Still, he does not consider the work to be in vain. At the time he landed the palace job, he was working with Andrew Winch. When his employer and the client had a falling out, he shrewdly proposed to mediate, leaving Winch on the condition of setting up his own company and overseeing the completion of the Austrian’s project.
“You have an opportunity like that, you’ve got to jump,” he says. “Straight off the bat, as soon as I started [EKM Limited], I was doing a boat, a house and offices. I was working out of my apartment, doing it all. No social life, but a great way to start a company.”
With Marshall’s architectural background, EKM Limited was, from the beginning, a one-stop shop for clients who wanted to unify the visual language of their yachts and homes. Today, the residential aspect of the practice is expanding.
“Now we’re getting involved in some projects in Moscow,” he says about the Russian developer’s apartment complex.
“The reason this company contacted us initially was that they wanted a nautical theme for the lobby and common spaces. They were trying to come up with a marketing angle. As it evolved, it didn’t become a whimsical design, but a sophisticated interpretation because the site is close to a port in Moscow. Hopefully, with this company, we’re on the verge of doing several more buildings.”
Marshall doesn’t have a vessel he calls his own, but a lot of his friends have yachts.
“I do a fair amount of sailboat racing on Skylar [a restored 53-foot Sparkman & Stephens design from 1937], the boat of Tara Getty, the grandson of John Paul Getty. In fact, they’re sailing now in Argentario, Italy. The racing that we do on the older boats, it’s a whole other era. The boat’s impeccably maintained. It’s a piece of jewelry. Then he has two other classic yachts we stay on.”
But isn’t it frustrating not to have a mega-yacht of his own? I venture. “How are you getting home?” he parries with the smile of a man who controls his own fate. I mutter something about the Overground and the Tube before he answers his own question. “Matter of fact, I’ll give you a ride.”
We duck out across the deck through his home and down a flight of stairs into the building’s garage, where he mulls over the otherworldly decision between a sea-green 1960 Aston Martin DB4 and a metallic-blue 1966 Jaguar E-Type, both perfectly preserved — easily a cool million in vintage coupes. We lower ourselves into the second option, and as we exit the complex, the rain has cleared.
A man standing beside a new Bentley cranes his neck to admire our ride as we drive by. Marshall gestures toward the river and notes that the zoning law is likely to change soon.
He’ll be able to dock a boat, something modest for his own family like the cabin cruiser his father had, right outside their apartment in the heart of the city.