If you Google the name Patrick Le Quément you’ll come up with some 194,000 hits, most attesting to the Frenchman’s long and successful career designing automobiles. Ford’s iconic (in Britain) Sierra? That’s one of his—at first nicknamed “the jellymold” by detractors, it went on to sell 3.5 million models. The Renault Twingo and Megane, the Scenic and Espace—all designed on his watch. But you need to scroll down a long way before you discover Le Quément’s connection to the boating world and, oddly enough, it involves Playboy magazine.
“They contacted many heads of design and asked us to choose an object we considered iconic, and to make a drawing of it,” Le Quément tells me. That was about 10 years ago. “Easy-peasy, I thought. Drawing is just like getting back on your bike after a few years.” He chose to draw the fluid curves of a Laguiole knife. “The first was easy; second was just awful and the third was appalling,” he says with a near-audible grimace. That was when he realised that he had some work to do.
Le Quément stepped down as the head of Renault’s 350-strong design department shortly afterward, aged 64. “I hate the damn word, so I won’t mention it again: I retired.” He had no solid plans, but he knew he wanted to keep busy—not spend his days cycling more and more slowly. “I had three projects in mind, and one was to get back into drawing.”
It took him three months of “slogging away” for two or three hours a day. “Then suddenly there was free flow between the brain and the hand, and I didn’t feel incapacitated any more.”
Out of the blue, he got a call from Xavier Desmarest, the CEO of high-end catamaran builder Outremer. At first Desmarest was interested in discussing a quality management system so that the Outremer experience matched that of comparable brands like Audi. “Then he phoned me again and he said, ‘I’m getting together my dream team to start on our next boat, which will be top of the range—would you be interested?’”
“I told him I knew nothing about boats, but I loved them like everyone likes them, because they’re such beautiful objects. If he could accept that, then fine, I’d give it a go.”
For his part, Desmarest is clear. “I was frustrated,” he tells me. “We didn’t have a global perspective on design. Patrick brought us a methodology from the automotive industry. With his background and experience, I did not consider that we were taking a risk.”
Outremer’s dream team included VPLP for the architecture, French ocean racer Michel Desjoyeaux (deck layout) and Darnet for the interior. “Everybody was bringing ideas, and the others were bouncing them back and forth,” he says. “It was great, this project. ” The boat became the award-winning 5X, Outremer’s flagship to this day, which was voted European Yacht of the Year in 2013 and has sold 20-plus hulls. Every new Outremer model since then has included design input from Le Quément, as has every new model from Lagoon, whose boats are also designed by the VPLP team.
In fact, the 5X was not quite Le Quément’s first boat project. His Renault design team had helped to produce a radical concept catamaran for the Paris Boat Show in 2000. But he readily agrees that he is no technical expert when it comes to the performance of a boat. “I’m not the kind of type who can disassemble guns in the dark, but I do like to know how things work,” he says. “I worked on the 5X under the guidance of VPLP. My first two boats, I didn’t do design work, I did styling—the 5X was a very nice looking boat based on beautiful architecture.”
His second project was a trawler for Garcia Yachts, called the GT54. It was supposed to be pitched at the U.S. market and design work was actually finished when Le Quément got involved. “They just didn’t like the look of it,” he says. “It was pretty much a ghastly looking thing. I just re-penned the boat.” It went on to win European Powerboat of the Year 2013 in the displacement category, but it didn’t sell a single unit in the United States. “The architect was totally oriented toward weight and size, and he’d forgotten about one tiny thing: people.”
The experience pushed Le Quément further into the arms of VPLP. “When I got back, we began in earnest and I really began to integrate into their team.” He is very aware that he is just one designer among many skilled naval architects and engineers on each project. “I hate these silly designers who create this aura that they do it all themselves in no time,” he says hotly. “I’m not interested in that kind of ego trip. Good design is 95 percent common sense and 5 percent magic.”
Working with VPLP, famed for its multihull and racing designs, Le Quément has had a hand in designing the current ranges of Lagoon and its younger, sportier sister brand, Excess, as well as the striking-looking Gunboat 68. It is quite a remarkable resumé for someone who had forgotten how to draw when he left Renault. His mantra is simple: “proportions, proportions, proportions.”
More than the individual pen strokes, though, Le Quément has brought a change in process to VPLP—something for which he was lauded at Renault, where he ended years of design subordination. At VPLP, and in the marine sector more widely, there is already a good understanding of the importance of design, he says. But the way in which designers work with boatbuilders can certainly be improved.
First of all, Le Quément says he gets clients to discuss their projects and identify no more than six values that they hold particularly dear. “What are the keywords that you want associated with this boat that we’re going to be designing together?” he likes to ask. Just as important are those words the client would never want to hear. “It’s not just a marketing ploy. It’s getting to the core of how you want the project to develop.”
Next, they look at societal trends that have an impact on the boat. With Outremer, for example, that means creating boats that are gender-neutral. “We want to develop boats that not only a 7ft muscular man can use,” he explains. That done, he sketches numerous different lines that take each idea to its extreme. “Every boat I do, I fill a Moleskine [notepad]. I pick one keyword at a time and draw for that—like a musician with a mixing desk.”
The next stage is to turn these concepts into hard renderings that can be shared with the client. Here, Le Quément’s automotive experience has proven a boon. He brought in Autodesk software unknown in the marine sector and persuaded VPLP to train up some of its staff to use it. Where before a rendering might have taken weeks to complete, they can now churn them out in a matter of hours. Suddenly it is possible to work up half a dozen alternative designs and present them to a client quickly and easily.
This iterative design process is part of what persuaded Groupe Beneteau to commission VPLP to design its new Excess catamaran range. “I convinced them that it was much better that we do that ourselves because we had designed the Lagoons, and we knew exactly how to move the dosage of the personality.” He shows me a mood board contrasting the two lines. While Lagoon is all mineral—bold edges and manmade forms—Excess is “animal,” with flowing curves. Lagoons are aimed at older, more comfortable sailors, whereas the Excess boats are younger, sportier and offer more contact with the water.
VPLP co-founder Marc van Peteghem sees this as Le Quément’s greatest strength. “We’ve made a lot of progress in understanding the preliminary phase of the design and fully understanding the part about the aesthetic,” he says. “Working with him, we learn. Our designs are certainly better now, because he’s there, but also because the other half of the design company is evolving.”
Shape of the future
When we turn to the future of multihull design, it is no surprise that Le Quément takes a more global perspective. He doesn’t zoom in on foils or new building materials, but on the fork in the road that he says will see the shape of boats go one of two ways. “On the one hand, there are those boats that are extremely efficient and fast,” he says. “Then there are the others, which are more like houseboats, and by that I mean the tremendous attraction of having space, but at the same time, not wasteful.”
Driving both is a single concern: efficiency. “There’s one overall influence which is going to be dominant, irrespective of the type of boat we’re talking about, namely that we cannot ignore the state of Planet Earth.” Boatbuilding clients are increasingly interested in performance because a lighter, faster boat can make more use of the wind and rely less on the engine, he says. And private clients who might once have ordered something 350ft long are now thinking about smaller boats.
Patrick drops a tantalizing hint about a nascent project to design a yacht for “the richest man in the world.” When I quiz van Peteghem about it later, he will only say that it will probably be around 60ft and is focused on zero emissions. “If you have a boat that is able to sustain reasonable speed with light wind, an electric motor might suddenly make sense because you are not going to use it a lot. You may have a little genset for security, but you could dream of something like that.”
There’s a contradiction in the fact that the man who designed 60 million cars is so concerned about the environment. “If you were to put them bumper to bumper, they would go around the planet 6,428 times,” Le Quément says. It seems like a well-thumbed phrase, but he wears it almost like a penance. He himself drives two of the cars that he designed: both Renault Twingos. “In Paris, I’m just selling it and buying an electric vehicle.”
In a nice metaphor, he used to drive a Ferrari, until he came to his senses one day. “I realised what a fool I was to have this car,” he says. Not just because of its gas-guzzling engine, but because the benefits of having a fast car have vanished in Europe as traffic has worsened and speed limits fallen. “Since the AC Cobra, we have managed to reduce 0-60 by 1.5 seconds. It’s all so very pointless: eating lunch in four and a half seconds; making love in five seconds. The whole thing is silly, and I have no interest in it.”
Performance yachts, on the other hand, are different. “This challenge of speed where tech and lightness is deployed to achieve performance against the elements—I still have the same reaction that I had 40 years ago with automobiles.” In fact, his ideal boat would be a fast catamaran. “I would wish for it to be zero emissions. I would clearly hope for a boat that would combine the most efficient sails, rig—it would run on electricity. I would aim for lightness.
“In terms of interior design, I really do like what we’ve done with the Gunboat. It’s a beautifully light design; doesn’t try to over-impress. This is my French side—I love lightness in physical impact, so I would wish for a very light-looking boat. I hate those monstrous boats at Monaco.”
It feels appropriate that our interview finishes with Le Quément’s English side coming to the fore. After all, this Frenchman describes English as his mother tongue these days. He has some choice words about his former boss at Renault and says that many senior people in the car industry have “very little feeling” for the products they are building. And then he gets to the crux of it: “One of the nice things about the yacht industry is that there’s no room for bullshitters!”
MHS Winter 2019