Interior Designer Susan Dabney Outfits Ultra-Luxury Yachts

Yacht designer Susan Dabney on what her clients want.

By Megan McDonald March 3, 2014

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Sarasota’s Susan Winchester Dabney, named one of today’s top 12 yacht interior designers in a new coffee table book, The Mega Yachts 2014, has made a splash since she changed the focus of her interior design business two years ago. Dabney grew up on Lake Michigan, and her grandfather and father were boaters. The only interior-designer member of the Marina Industry of South Florida, she finds that the B.S. in textile design she earned from Michigan State holds her in good stead when it comes to outfitting yachts. “With the salt air [and other factors], textiles are crucial for performance,” she says.

“I became a yacht interior designer through one of my Ritz-Carlton clients. A couple of years ago they bought a brand-new, 61-foot Marlow Explorer with two staterooms—they’re lifelong yachters and it’s perhaps their 20th boat—and asked me to design the interiors. I featured it at the Miami Boat Show in 2012, and from that I’ve done 12 more.”

“My yacht clients are private and affluent, but they tend to be salt-of-the-earth people with a common denominator: They love and appreciate the water, the ease and simplicity of boating, and the serenity it brings them.”

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“The yachts are made in China, so all the materials, fabrics, lighting, sinks and fixtures get placed in a container and shipped to China for construction, which takes 18 to 20 months. My clients have multiple homes all over the world, and the completed boats have been shipped all over, too—Australia, Venezuela, England, Germany, Spain and the Mediterranean.”

“My latest project [shown on these pages] is an 80-foot Marlow Explorer for a Boca Grande couple. They enjoy using their boat in the Northeast during the summer. They wanted spaces to accommodate entertaining guests and living on board for extended periods of time with their two dogs. We used very luxurious materials and products, including fine crystal, which are appropriate for marine use.”

“Boating tends to be a navy-blue world. But my clients choose colors they enjoy living around. I recently finished only the second blue boat I’ve done. And I steer away from stripes and lifesaver motifs, just like on land I steer away from monkeys and palm trees.”

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“Some clients want things that wipe off with a damp rag; they want to flop down with a wet bathing suit. Others want it to be very elegant and beautiful. I recently completed a 106-footer, the largest I’ve done, for a couple with teenage boys. Each boy gets to bring a couple of friends, so for them the boat has to be very, very durable. He asks, ‘Can the kids eat on the sofa and do what kids do and not ruin the fabric?’ She loves beautiful things, so it has to have a nice look. Because this type of boat is meant for long-range cruising, they’ll live onboard for long periods of time. My clients do like to finish them out like they’re finishing out a home.”

“I stay away from silk. It’s the worst fabric for yachts because of sun rot and fading and water spotting. Instead, I choose Sunbrella acrylic fibers, commercial-grade Trivera CS polyester fabrics or other acrylic-polyester blends. I use fabric inlays on walls; it’s good for sound control and it brightens things up as well.”

“For the metal finishes, I use cast brass or stainless steel, anything that’s not going to pit or discolor. You want to be aware of that when you select furniture: cocktail pieces, end tables, etc. Brass will discolor, but it’s meant to.”

“I’ve been asked to do a presentation for the design of a 246-foot yacht along with two other designers. The yacht will be entirely for the owners’ personal use, no charter. It would be a real feather in my cap if I got it.”

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This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine. Like what you read? Click here to subscribe. >>

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