OPULENT UTILITY
October 18th, 2011

Taking a closer look at Firmship,
an austere pleasure craft.

A strange and marvelous case of excess and restraint meeting in one object is the Firmship, a 42 foot boat from the Netherlands. The Firmship is a luxury item in the sense that it is a rare and expensive object residing well beyond the reach of the needs and wants of the average consumer. But it is far from ostentatious. Perhaps it is the very best of just what one needs. If one could be said to need a pleasure boat. It’s entire existence lies outside the bounds of what most people could be said to require. And yet it must meet a certain set of requirements almost ideally. It is so particular and perfectly balanced, so well considered and focused that it must for a certain person or group be just the right thing.

It’s an amazing piece of work. From a distance it looks like it might easily be overlooked as a multi-purpose work boat making its way across some grey and busy harbor. But closer inspection, even a second glance, would reveal that it is every bit as smart and dazzling as any other boat called a yacht. It has an expanse of teak paneling at the back of the cabin which is an elegant revelation, a facet with a demure sparkle. It has a long teak table that even unpeopled looks like a swank gathering. And a number of subtler details, doorknobs, latches, rails, that add up to a taut and polished presence. It is not hiding its opulence. But it tends far more toward the sturdy than the shapely. It is a pleasure boat that allows the owners to indulge in some fun without anyone being too keenly aware of it, including themselves.

The boat’s context, suggested by the way it is advertised, is contemporary architecture and design rather than the world of yachting or boating. Its audience and its owners will be found among the inhabitants of these social worlds. And it embodies these sensibilities and ideals. There is a modernist legacy evinced in the privileging of function and the eschewal of superfluous details. There is great attention paid to structural points like the windows and the engine. But since it is an embodiment of something extra, something not clearly necessary, there is a note of absurdity in its great expression of utility. Despite its workman-like aspect, from a utilitarian perspective the boat is essentially a colossal trinket.

photo - Kai Lundgren-Williams

This makes it a pretty spectacular example of opulent utility. I have frequently considered this a predominantly American phenomenon, something we here in the US are particularly drawn to: the idea of investing in, embellishing, even gilding objects that are ostensibly practical and highly functional to a point that pushes them into a sort of staid luxuriance. But clearly we are not alone in this mania. Europeans, and the Japanese too, share some of the same tension between the ideals of hard work and self-sacrifice pitted against an excess of wealth and power and the urge to relish it.

The Firmship is an outstanding example of this tension and its oddness, a bit like the Hummer. It is a tremendously emphatic statement much more than it is a machine. It is, rather than or much more than, it does. Its isness transcends its functionality. All of its details form a complete whole with great force and conviction. But they come together through such complexity and opposition that it, as a piece, begins to push at the boundaries of design out into a more fraught and human category. Perhaps it is this very messiness, this embodiment of human complexity and contradiction, albeit with a composed and cultivated surface, that gives objects like these their peculiar charm.

Official Firmship site: www.firmship.com

Williams Trent