The Mortlake studios of Winch Design are where dreams are made – and now the company has branched beyond yachts into architecture and aviation.
When the Boston-based automotive billionaire Herb Chambers wanted a new superyacht, his journey took him to an unexpected destination: Mortlake in London, and the Thames-side studios of Winch Design.
In fact, it wasn’t such an unusual place to end up: since it was founded in 1986 by Andrew and Jane Winch, the company has worked on 83 yachts, including some of the most egregiously luxurious and beautiful yachts in the world. So Chambers will have known what they were about.
The brief he gave Andrew Winch, the agency’s creative director, was to design something ‘extraordinary’, as well as a vessel that offered a seamless connection to the outside world. ‘I also wanted the boat to be what I call a “happy boat”,’ Chambers once said. ‘There are many boats out there that are overdone; they become an exercise in excess. I didn’t want that.’
You can decide for yourself if the 80m Excellence achieved that or not – either from the pictures or by going the whole hog and chartering it for yourself. (She’s just over €1 million a week and offers accommodation for 12 guests and 22 crew, as well as two ‘limo’ tenders among a raft, so to speak, of überluxurious refinements.)
Unsurprisingly, the elegant Excellence scooped some of the most prestigious awards in the nautical arena – including the Monaco Yacht Show’s finest new yacht of the year in 2019. Part of her appeal, undoubtedly, is that extraordinary angled dreadnought bow. It might be worth noting that Chambers, 78, was in the US navy at the start of his career, serving as a petty officer.
While there’s nothing petty about Excellence, which was built at Abeking and Rasmussen in Germany, that hint of naval heritage in the design is surely not a coincidence.
‘We get to know clients quite intimately, get to know about their lifestyles and really understand who they are and what makes them tick,’ says Aino-Leena Grapin, CEO of Winch Design. ‘We tend to design experiences rather than design objects. It’s almost like they’re designing happiness, rather than trying to design something beautiful or aesthetic.’
Having started out in yacht design, 20 years ago the company moved into aircraft. There’s a natural crossover – weight, limited space and stringent regulations all exert influence on design decisions.
Plus there’s a crossover in terms of clients: those with megayachts tend to have wings, and vice versa. ‘Andrew never says “no”,’ explains Grapin.
And that’s been good business for the company: it has completed 24 aviation projects to date and has four live projects, including the interior of a Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner under way for a VVIP.
‘There’s a lot of space to play with. It will have meeting rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms – basically a flying apartment and very luxurious,’ says Grapin, who adds that the company has done ‘quite a few’ Airbus A320s, too.
A decade ago, Winch also started doing properties. Already it has completed 21 architecture projects, and it has another ten in the works. ‘When you step back it kind of makes sense,’ explains the CEO. ‘Our clients have more properties than they will have yachts or planes.’ Winch now has more than 100 staff and a broad enough business to be resilient.
This also allows for creative growth of staff: its interior designers can get to work across the range of projects. ‘You could be working on a Dreamliner and the next week you’re working on a penthouse in London, and then a really cool yacht,’ says Grapin, who underlines that the opportunity to work on ‘out of this world’ projects comes with very high expectations.
The company is now responsible for the exterior of Project Cosmos, a superyacht being built at Heesen in Holland. At 80.7m, the svelte Cosmos is 75cm longer than Chambers’ dreadnought and will be the largest and fastest aluminium yacht ever built, boasting a top speed of close to 30 knots and ‘an efficient’ cruise speed north of 20 knots, according to Heesen.
Winch has 24 other ongoing projects across its three disciplines, including a contemporary, minimalist Cape Town cliffside residence which completes this summer, where Winch has created both exteriors and interiors. It’s ‘very tasteful’, notes Grapin. ‘Very far from the bling that people expect from certain projects our competitors may have done.’
Winch has no ‘house look’, according to Grapin. But, she explains: ‘There’s a signature in terms of the level of intricate detailing that we apply to any project – whether it’s classical, 18th-century French, all the way to minimalist contemporary.’
Sometimes clients want that all at once. One asked them to design a French-style château for his estate in Ukraine and then a contemporary cube-like house on the same estate.
As well as taking great strides to understand clients and their needs (all the way down to what side of the bed they sleep on or whether they are right or left-handed ‘and where the gin and tonic will go’), the company realises it is often designing for the client’s family, and for an infrastructure of discreet service.
It also emphasises customer service, as you would expect. During the first six to eight months in the concept stage of a project – which might take three to five years to complete – there will be multiple meetings with clients to present work.
‘When they meet us we really try to make it a great experience,’ says Grapin. ‘They participate in the project – we don’t just tell them, “This is what you’re going to have.”We like them to be involved, so that they can have fun with it as well. We like to think that their meeting with us is the highlight of their week.’ One intriguing aspect of Winch’s rise – quite apart from its sumptuous creations, many of which, sadly, will never be revealed – is just how it has been achieved.
At the heart of the operation is Andrew Winch himself, a designer who can rightly be regarded as the UHNW world’s answer to Thomas Heatherwick. Grapin describes him as ‘very empathetic’. One client even told him: ‘You have read my soul.’
But even assuming Winch is a master of managing and reading the big personalities involved, there’s no way he could master and manage the sorts of projects without the broad shoulders of the team in Mortlake – not when you consider the complexity required by Cosmos or Excellence or the interior of the 155m-long Dilbar (which included a 25m swimming pool).
The drive to deliver under such circumstances can’t just ‘trickle down from the top’, rather it ‘has to flow through everybody’s veins’, says Grapin. ‘We invest a lot in company culture, in training, away days… we have regular pow-wows. We invest a lot of time – even when people are super-busy on projects.’
And ultimately it’s not for everyone, cautions the CEO, who has ten years at Christie’s on her CV as well an MBA at INSEAD.
‘Clients are extremely demanding,’ she says. You can be told: ‘Your design is not good enough – you’re going to have to do it all over again.’
The flipside, of course, is that you get to work on some of the most incredible projects and with many of the most interesting people in the world.
Winch himself likens clients to ‘patrons’. ‘I think the most important thing is to listen,’ he has said. ‘It’s very difficult to create a great project of you don’t know where the target is.’
Main image credit: Winch media