Cruise ship design legend: Giacomo Mortola

First appointed as a technical advisor for Sitmar Line in 1974, Giacomo Mortola opened GEM design studio in 1984 and has since become a cruise ship design icon. Jon Ingleton talks with him about his distinguished career

Cruise ship design legend: Giacomo Mortola
Elegance is a GEM hallmark, typified in this suite design onboard Silver Muse

Joining the cruise business

In the early 1970s, someone gave me a Caribbean cruise onboard Sitmar Line’s Fairsea as a gift to celebrate achieving my master’s degree in architecture. While onboard Fairsea, I noticed that the shopping area was not very well arranged, so I took several photos, drew some sketches and, when I returned home, prepared a proposal for a new design with handmade renders. I sent a letter to Sitmar to say how much I enjoyed the cruise and shared my design suggestions. Just a few weeks later, I was sitting in front of Boris Vlasov, owner of Sitmar and V. Group, at Sitmar’s office in Monte Carlo and my adventures in the cruise business began.

Evolving design processes

When I first began designing ships in the 1970s, a large proportion of the cruise fleet had originally been designed and built to provide a regular service from Europe to North and South America, or to Asia and Australia. In those ships the layout and available space for public areas and cabins was the result of a compromise between the original ship design and the new cruise requirements. To achieve this, architectural teams used to prepare drawings and renders by hand to present to owners.

Computers and computer-aided design software became available at the beginning of the 1980s and by the middle of the decade, all our work was produced and presented with the aid of computers.

Consequently, the artistic and very personal approach to design was quickly substituted by a new standard – a very impersonal digital language. However, it was still common practice to present designs to owners via face-to-face meetings to enable them to give feedback. This allowed us to propose alternative solutions and develop a clear understanding of how to finalise the design by the end of the meetings.

By the 1990s, the advent of the internet made it possible to transmit drawings electronically, so the process of presenting designs and getting the shipowner’s feedback became much faster. However, it also meant that owners increasingly sought to achieve their version of perfection, so we had to continually update our designs and present new solutions.

Team changes

As design processes changed, so did the types of people working on the projects from the shipowner’s side. In the 1970s and 1980s, the team consisted of people experience in managing operations, technical, maintenance and costing for ship projects. New members with financial and marketing expertise joined the decision-making group in the 1990s, a trend that was consolidated in the 2000s. In fact, financial and marketing expertise now prevail over technical perspectives.

Shifting ship sizes

As new technologies and construction techniques were introduced, the typical newbuild cruise ship size changed. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, cruise ships were primarily panamax (vessels of less than 80,000gt, 106 feet in width and 965 feet in length to enable them to travel through the original dimensions of the Panama Canal). However, in 1995, Princess Cruises set out on a quest to develop more efficient vessels and decided to build a bigger ship. I was appointed to produce a preliminary general arrangement with relevant outline specifications and Fincantieri was chosen as the shipbuilder. In November 1998, Grand Princess was presented to the world in New York, USA and, at 110,000gt, she was the largest cruise ship ever built – a title she held for five months. Later in my career I had the pleasure of designing even larger vessels for Princess Cruises, namely the Royal-class ships.

Shipowners tend to build increasingly larger cruise ships for two reasons. First, there is an economy of scale that reduces the cost per lower berth and second, ships have become a destination in themselves, so every new vessel must offer facilities that are even more attractive than those on the latest competitor newbuild.

There is a parallel trend today in the smaller expedition niche market – destinations are playing the major role again and the cruise experience is being redefined as a journey to cultural enrichment. This is clearly reflected in the design of Silversea Cruises’ Silver Origin, one of my latest newbuild projects.

Incredible people

Sitmar’s Vlasov was the first of many influential and visionary people I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with since completing my first cruise ship projects on Fairsea and Fairwind 45 years ago. He gave me the direction that has guided my career. After Princess Cruises merged with Sitmar in 1989, senior vice president of hotel operations Brian Langston-Carter, Peter Radcliffe and Lord Sterling were close and influential collaborators. Later, when Carnival Corporation acquired P&O Cruises, I had the opportunity to meet with and work for chairman Micky Arison – initially during the briefings for the P&O Azura and P&O Ventura projects and then later for Cunard’s Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

More recently, I’ve been delighted to work on the development of Silversea’s latest newbuilds and refit projects, following a similar design process to the one I used in the 1970s. The design programme started with a briefing discussion in an old-fashioned, face-to-face meeting with the company’s chairman Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio and his senior management team. Thereafter, we had meetings to evaluate designs, seek comments, explore alternative solutions and participate in more discussions, before making final decisions. And then, when everyone was happy, we began to implement our ideas.

I achieved another important career milestone when Virgin Voyages asked me to manage the architectural coordination for its three new ships. During this project I had the great pleasure of working with senior vice president of design and customer experience Dee Cooper and CEO Tom McAlpin.

Amazing memories

At the end of 1970s, Sitmar awarded the contract for the construction of a new ship to French shipyard CNIM and I was one of five architects chosen to work on the vessel, which was named Fairsky. The others included Lennon, Lindquist, Barbora Dorn (Joszi Meskan) and Nordio. Fairsky, which was the passenger ship powered by a steam turbine, was presented in 1984 in Los Angeles, California.

Sitmar then enhanced its newbuild programme by ordering one vessel from Chantiers de l’Atlantique (then STX France) and two from Fincantieri. I was appointed as the designer for the passenger cabins on all three ships and also served as the coordinating architect and designer for some of the public areas on the two ships being built at Fincantieri’s yard. The top decks and livery were assigned to Renzo Piano and all the other areas to the H. Chambers Company in Baltimore under the responsibility of Teresa Anderson. At this time, Anderson created the Princess Cruises brand image and she was its custodian for the whole fleet until the delivery of the Regal Princess in 2014. I remember our relationship with great fondness, but we were both strong characters, so our professional encounters occasionally caused fireworks. Thankfully, Langston-Carter and Fabio Franceschini, senior vice president of hotel purchasing, were always on hand to put the fires out and our pyrotechnics were always to the advantage of the project!

What’s next?

Design is a real passion for me, so I cannot foresee a future that doesn’t involve continuing to work on new designs and having an active role in the management of the firm. Today I manage alongside my son, Lorenzo, who joined the firm in 2012 after completing degrees in naval architecture and interior design. He was raised in a family that has close ties to the shipping industry – I’ve been going onboard ships, visiting shipyards and attending naming ceremonies since he was very young and my wife’s family was also involved in the shipping business – so his passion for designing vessels came naturally. Lorenzo has brought new ideas and energy to the studio, helping to improve our creative process and the way we manage projects. He’s also enhanced the digitalisation of the studio and streamlined many of our processes and procedures.

Like the rest of the world, GEM started 2020 by facing an unprecedented health pandemic. However, we continue to work on important design projects from home and we hope for a speedy recovery from this pandemic so that we may go back doing what we love most – sailing the seas and delivering amazing interiors that enrich the passenger experience.

This article was first published in the 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
09 July 2020

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