Interior Design in a Boat Doesn't Have to be Nautical
We’d cruised all the way from the Chesapeake to South Florida and couldn’t wait to show our Miami friends our new 36ft PDQ catamaran, Neshamah. Professional interior designers and long-time friends Pat and Barbara stepped aboard as we poured the wine and lit the candles for an evening of catching up.
“I like it. It’s really very…uh…cozy,” Pat managed.
“It reminds me of Grandpa Vern’s cabin in Wisconsin, doesn’t it? It has that cabin-in-the-woods feel for sure,” Barbara chimed in with a polite smile.
The opinions of our designer friends came through loud and clear. It was true: our boat, like so many others, had become a throwback, a décor don’t, a “before” photo in a magazine. We had fallen into the trap of teak/hunter green/brass/blah of so many sailboat interiors.
Something had to be done.
Only Good Enough
On the outside, boats appear to be as individual as their owners. Step inside, though, and design choices seem slim. There’s the old-school, dark teak, salty-dog look, laden with brass knickknacks and colors otherwise reserved for a prep school headmaster’s office. There’s the classic plastic look that goes 50/50 on the teak and the shiny white, with a daring splash of abstract pastel on the settee and something stainless to mix things up. Then there’s the wild look, mostly bleach-bottle white with a bold teal color on the settee and a knock-off granite countertop in the galley, trying desperately to pass for modern. They’re all good, but could they be better?
When we were shopping for our second liveaboard cat, Majestic, in 2004, I was surprised by the bad trends in interior design. One time, for example, I spotted the same tacky faux-wood plastic light fixtures on a $700,000 world-class cruiser that I’d seen earlier on another boat that was nearly 25 years old. Short of opening my own marine light-fixture company, I set out to do everything I could to add style and personality to our cat.
The number one secret to gussying up your boat’s interior is fabric. It’s lightweight, doesn’t create clutter, won’t break in heavy seas, can be easily changed to accommodate the seasons and comes in thousands of varieties. Here are some fabric do’s and don’ts:
Shop local. When you re-cover your settee, think outside the old Sunbrella swatch sheet and head to your neighborhood fabric store. You’ll find hundreds more choices there that will hold up to abuse just as well as marine fabrics. “It took a long time to find modern outdoor fabric, but I learned you can’t just look online. I spent a week actually going into fabric stores to find the one I wanted,” says cruiser Charlotte Kaufman. “You have to be creative with your space.”
Get colorful. People gravitate toward neutral colors because they “go with everything.” Recently, though, we swapped our “Yawn Beige” leather for a “Hey Baby Red” in Ultrasuede and were pleasantly surprised by the results. Primaries give us that fun, “hey we’re homeschooling with little ones aboard!” look, while mature grays and blacks give us the “how would you like your martini?” look.
Texture with care. Stick to solids for settee cushions, as they make up such a large part of your visual pallet in a small space, and save the patterns for pillows, curtains and other details. If you’re set on using a pattern on your settee, pick a bold one and make a statement. Our friends aboard Rebel Heart had a sewing machine and were not afraid to use it. They swapped out their bland earth-tone settee cover for a bold pattern with beautiful, bright colors that echo the tropical waters they’re now cruising in Mexico.
Spruce it up, subtly. The real fun with fabrics comes in the places where you normally wouldn’t think to use it. We have a cubby, for instance, that was originally intended for a television and now holds a tangle of wires and plugs, computer parts, and a solar regulator. Although it looks like a forbidden weed garden of gadgets, and no amount of cable ties will make the space look neat, two eye hooks, a small wooden dowel and some bright lemon-print fabric across the front make it look tidy and bright.
Make it functional. We have a throw pillow on the settee that was handmade by a friend, and we stuff it with different tablecloths. Not only does this save on storage space, we can use the tablecloths to transform the cockpit table or the saloon table in a matter of seconds, depending on the occasion.
Berths are Bedrooms, too
A sailboat berth is more than a spot to sleep. It’s your bedroom, your personal space, your own little haven, and it deserves design attention accordingly. The master cabin can be cozy and have personality all at once. Back on Rebel Heart, Charlotte turned to her sewing machine and stitched up a complete set of sheets and pillow cases from designer fabric by designer Amy Butler.
Other boat owners go beyond bed coverings. The crew of Jason Hudson’s 1991 Lagoon 48, Excellent Adventure, turned a pasty, outdated aft cabin into a rainbow-colored room for their sons by pulling out the paneling and recovering it with colorful fabric. “Pretty much everything in the boat was factory-standard 1991 chic,” Jason says. Their sons’ cabin was the worst offender, decked out in pink suede, before Jason and his wife tore it all out and started from scratch. “We wanted their berth to be the sort of place where other kids, even land-based ones, walked in and went, ‘Ooh! I want to live here!’” In addition to the rainbow wall panels, they installed bookshelves and cloud-dappled trim.
Remember, it’s a sailboat, not your mother-in-law’s guest room. Show a little flair.
I have a proclamation: nautical décor is intended for those who live far, far away from the sea and long to be close to it. If you’re already tied to a mooring, do you really need a starving-artist painting of moored sailboats? If you have an anchor light shining at the top of your mast, must you have an old brass one hanging from your bulkhead?
Art should be personal and original. Display family photos, kids’ drawings, or prints from artists you know and like, rather than anonymous bargain art. Be careful with the frames as well. Of course, you want something that won’t crash to pieces the first time you tack, but you also don’t want it to look like a dentist’s office. Seek out colorful frames that punctuate the rest of the room or sleek modern ones that add class.
When it comes to flooring, use what you have and take care of it. Most boats have some form of teak and holly floors, and that’s beautiful enough on its own. If your teak is trashed, throw rugs are acceptable, but be sure to use some sort of non-skid pad underneath to prevent a magic carpet ride while underway. Stick with solid, subtle colors that complement the space rather than busy patterns that compete with each other.
Carpets can work for a range of budgets and tastes, but tend to get dirty pretty quickly in a marine environment. There are several alternatives on the market now, including Plynyl, seagrass and rubberized flooring that come in wall-to-wall installations. These offer the non-skid characteristics that work well at sea and look great when unwinding at port.
Don’t Give Up
At the end of the day taste is subjective, and I won’t pretend to be an authority on what’s hot and what’s not. It’s only important that you give some thought to your boat’s interior. Sailboat décor is often overlooked because, truly, it’s trivial next to all of the crucial systems needed to voyage safely. But the décor can also be a work-in-progress, constantly evolving as you get to know your boat.
As you go along, keep a notebook of images that strike your fancy—ideas from magazines, catalogs, online, in shops. Whether it’s a color scheme, a pillow or just a look, clip it and keep it on file, or use Pinterest. You’ll soon see your tastes shine through and you’ll have a portfolio full of ideas on how to create a boat interior you can be proud of. No offense to Grandpa Vern’s cabin.
Transforming a Kid’s Cabin
Before: Standard wood veneer in mediocre condition. One small hatch and one small portlight let in minimal natural light. Little person was unable to reach the faux-wood light fixture. The other plastic light was ugly and got too hot for little hands.
After: Cabin whitewashed in Brightsides Polyurethane Paint, adding a clean feel and more natural light. Wood was painted over. Fiberglass/plywood ceiling panels replaced with frosted acrylic on top of colored LED lights, adding color, light, and an easily reachable switch for the kids. Doors on damaged wood veneer storage cubbies were covered in chalkboard paint, adding a creative and functional splash. Various touches to improve storage of kid stuff. Moldy carpet replaced with Plynyl and a washable sheepskin throw rug.
Cindy Wallach and her husband have lived on cats since 1998.
They’re currently aboard Majestic, a 1999 St. Francis 44 MkII
with their two little ones, and plan to cast off again in 2014.
Cindy is a regular contributor to SAIL.