Langan Design’s focus is “primarily naval architecture,” says Sam Howell, but a recent residential project sparked memories of previous land-based design work that required nautical expertise, meticulous research, and new collaborations. In 2011, the firm was asked to design a basement for a Newport mansion. The project was highlighted in a 2013 story for Superyacht Magazine called “The Gilded Age,” and it still looks quite fresh—which Sam points out is not a coincidence.
“The mission for that project was to create a timeless design,” he explains, after marveling that 10 years had already flown by since the magazine article came out. “Even though it’s rooted in an older Edwardian design theme, it still feels fresh.”
The reason for that, he says, lies in LDP’s attention to details: “The visual experience from each vantage point is captivating to the eye with intricate details. All together, they give you this sense that you’re on a yacht from another era.” In a house that once belonged to America’s Cup winner Harold Vanderbilt, that seems both authentic and appropriate.
The house originally did not have a basement, so the first task was digging out and creating a lower level. To enter that space, the experience of a yacht was created beginning with the staircase, which feels like a narrow companionway. As you reach the lower level, the room’s large dimensions are accentuated by the cambered ceiling and large mahogany beams, scaled appropriately. Large butterfly skylights are set in the ceiling with custom cast stainless steel openers with working worm gears. “In the end, we had to disable them,” Sam says, “so they couldn’t open, since there are living areas above!”
The sense is that you are in the saloon of a large schooner from the early 1900s, which ties back to Newport’s roots in the Gilded Age. Sam remembers weaving together countless ideas that took advantage of LDP’s collaborative approach as well as their naval architecture skills.
“This was a challenging project,” Sam says. “We wanted to create a space that felt authentic and rooted in nautical design—inside the basement of a house! The key was to bring in historical components from the era.”The best example is the Block and Shell clamshell, an important Newport furniture motif created by Goddard and Townsend, two 17th century cabinet makers. In one of the rooms upstairs, there was an example of a Goddard Townsend clamshell. The client “asked us to feature the clamshell somewhere in the basement design,” Sam says. “After some brainstorming about scale, we created two exceptionally large niches with concave carvings. It’s a place to put art, and a place to honor and tie that tradition back to Newport and the rest of the house.”
“The design was enhanced by bringing in true examples of nautical components representing the period,” Sam says. For example, the boiler room to the house is entered via a ship’s nautical door with working dog stops. And there are three fully rigged J-Class models of the yachts owned and steered by Vanderbilt—all America’s Cup winners!
“These are likely the most historically accurate models of Ranger, Enterprise and Rainbow,” Sam says. “We acquired the construction drawings for all three, but a lot of the deck details had been designed on the fly when the boats were under construction. We were able to find historic photos, which helped verify details missing on the plans. It was a lot of fun, because it required a lot of research on those details and then working closely with the model maker.”
Taking it to the movies
LDP recently undertook another residential project with a nautical theme: designing a cinema room to look like a classic yacht. The project posed significant design challenges, because the client wants to use the room for multiple purposes, without impacting the cinematic experience and sound quality.
Along with working closely with the builders and interior designers, the designers also collaborated with acoustic engineers. “They helped us determine what features we could incorporate and what features we had to stay away from, due to their negative impact on sound,” Sam says. “We look forward to sharing more details once the project is completed.”
Though residential refits are not what LDP does on a daily basis, Sam says he finds the level of detail, research, and client satisfaction rewarding. As he put it in that 2013 Superyacht Magazine article, designing a residential interior to feel like a saloon of a large schooner in the Edwardian era “was every bit a ‘Yacht’ project to us…the design theme and historic details all tied together to convey a story larger than just the design itself.” It is this same approach that, more than a decade later, is creating yet another timeless and unique residential refit that will make visitors feel that they have stepped into the interior of a classic yacht, all without ever leaving the dock.