Abdeslam Laraki is one of the most sought-after designers in the world. Wealthy clients and top-level companies seek his services to design and develop exclusive automotive and yacht projects. Laraki masters several disciplines that make him a uniquely gifted artist, designer, and craftsman who juggles aesthetics and engineering that transcend into his unique designs. His work ethic is relentless — at one point during the interview, he paused to take a client call, promising to personally polish up a few details on a custom car order! What follows is a condensed conversation that I had with Abdeslam at our headquarters in Newport Beach, CA.
Tell me about growing up.
I was born in Casablanca, Morocco. I started being interested in luxury design when I was only 7 when vacationing with my family in Marbella, Spain where I saw for the very first time some of the largest and most impressive superyachts. I remember running off to look at them every night, already imagining how I could make them look even more impressive, down to the smallest details. The circumstance changed my life. I started sketching relentlessly, and my ideas got crazier and crazier. Somehow, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I didn’t know how. Years later, while living in Boston, I discovered Auto and Design magazine. Through it, I learned about other designers’ careers and the steps they took both academically and artistically to make their dreams happen.
Is that how you got your passion for cars?
Just as with yachts, my passion for cars started at a very young age. Maybe because I grew up in an automotive family since my father was the exclusive importer of BMW and Honda among other car brands. This allowed me to create and build my first automotive projects in my father’s workshop. I remember building and racing my go-kart which I had reconfigured in tandem and redesigned it to look like a formula one race car at only ten years old. Unknowingly, these were probably my very first real-life steps in the car design world.
So how did you study for it?
First, I studied car design at Espace Sbarro in Switzerland, where I not only learned how to design cars but also how to build them as part of the curriculum consisted of building two prototype cars that were shown at the Geneva Motor show of 1995. While at school, I was the only student to collaborate directly with Mr. Sbarro on a separate project for a German client who gave me the task of redesigning his Ferrari Testarossa that he wanted to be modified into a unique roadster that looked as if it came from space. The project gave birth to the Ferrari Alcador which was also shown at the Geneva Motor Show of the same year. That was my first realized one-off car design.
That’s amazing. And that launched you to more schooling?
Yes, after Espace Sbarro, I attended the Art Center College of Design in Vevey, Switzerland, which was considered one of the best industrial design schools at the time.
How long were you there?
I was there for four years. Years during which I also worked as a freelancer for many luxury brands, such as Audemars Piguet, Lalique, Baccarat, and others. During that period, I designed all kinds of luxury items, from watches to glass sculptures to special home furniture while still learning and practicing car and yacht design.
So, how did you transition back to yachts?
In my mind, there was never a transition. I have always considered myself an industrial designer and always felt very comfortable designing all industrial products, whether a car, a yacht, a watch, or whatever industrial product it might be. But I must admit that I have a slight preference for car and yacht design projects.
Have you won awards for yachts that you have designed?
Yes, in the early 2000’s, I won awards for the yachts I designed for Mangusta, an Italian yacht brand specializing in high-performance open yachts ranging from 80 to 165 feet in length. In the same period, I also helped modernize many shipyards by designing their future models.
Have you had any cars you designed go into production?
Even though my focus was never on designing cars for mass production, I still did a lot of work for major car brands such as Alfa Romeo, but I find it more exciting when I design and build one-off cars for special clients. Not too long ago, I was approached by a client who owns two La Ferrari’s, asking me to completely redesign and rebuild one of them as a unique one-off for his collection. I completed the project, and now my client is the proud owner of a truly bespoke La Ferrari of which only one exists in the world. These kinds of projects excite me the most.
Wow! Where is this car?
It is in Abu-Dhabi I suppose. My client might show it in public when he sees fit. These spheres are very secretive. I often work in secrecy on specific projects but sometimes, clients allow me to make additional examples to show, but this rarely happens. One of my recent creations is being shown at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where it will be exhibited for a year. I designed and built it for a prominent client very dear to my heart. That one is a reproduction of the original!
So we can see it at the Petersen Automotive Museum?
Yes! It’s called the Sahara — a reproduction of the original, except for a few details.
Looking back at that 18-year-old kid who wanted to be a designer, what do your parents think of your career now?
To tell you the truth, I have never asked them explicitly. But I feel like they share my enthusiasm and follow my creative journey and accomplishments with interest and pride, especially when sometimes they get to witness the final product.
But that feeling, from a design to a finished car, must be incredible.
I agree; the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a car project is great. I also get the same feeling of accomplishment when a yacht of my design is completed or any other product I work on.
You’ve crossed a lot of different boundaries, from the design of yachts to cars to fine arts and even hookah!
(Laughs) A famous rapper I am friends with enjoys smoking hookahs. He wanted something special, so I designed a one-off hookah for him, inspired by a bullet that changed his life, which now, to him, symbolizes resilience! He likes the idea and the design so much that he is considering it for mass production. The truth is that I like working on different things as long as I can express my creativity and vision of things. The same goes when I design yachts; it’s my way of expressing my take on things to a certain extent; it just happens to be a larger and more intricate canvas.
When I search Laraki online, the car that comes up the most is the Epitome.
Really! that was actually the first car that I designed and built in California. We sold a few in different liveries, but the main objective of that project was to put my company and me on the map putting forward the design and engineering capabilities, which translated to many collaborations with established automotive companies. Epitome is what started my professional activities in California some ten years ago.
When designing something new, what is your creative process?
First, other people’s great designs naturally humble me and force my respect. But the moment I start a new design project, I somehow become convinced that “I am the best designer!” For example, when I recently took on the design and development of a new-generation electric taxi for a car maker, before I did any research, I started by telling myself “I am the best designer for the task”. Then I would typically take a step back, do the research, determine areas of possible improvements, build up my confidence, and dive in. As I do that, I start seeing it in my imagination, in my mind’s eye. Once I see it clearly, I go through the process of sketching, 3D modeling, implementation, and engineering, all the way to the production of the fully functioning prototype.
This is 24 hours a day?
(Laughs) Yeah, almost! I become very focused for months in a row. If a small detail does not convince me, I can’t sleep. I become obsessed until I fix it. I feel There’s always room for improvement. Yes, as my wife can witness, I’m a perfectionist … with all the pros and cons that come with it. I sometimes wish I could let go a bit.
But your clients are always happy?
Yes. It’s my biggest reward, I think.
What are you bringing to the community in Newport Beach?
I have a few projects on the way, in both the automotive and the yachting sectors. One of them is a 60-foot high-performance open yacht called the Iconic 60. She has a retro-futuristic, Blade Runner vibe to her. Now that the design, naval architecture, and engineering are completed. I am looking to build it in the Newport Beach area rather than in the Netherlands as originally planned. If it happens, it will be a first for the region. A proper local shipyard, making amazing yachts for here and elsewhere. I am very excited about this project.
What do you think about electric cars? What would a Laraki electric car look like?
I am glad you asked. I’ve been working with a promising automotive startup developing a new product for the last four years. The project started as a one-off car for Prince Albert II of Monaco. The goal of the company is to put to market luxury lightweight recreational electric sports cars with a unique retro-futuristic look, with the first model inspired by the race cars of the 1920s. I am fully involved in the project as my company is responsible for the design, engineering, and development of all their products. I am convinced the cars will be a great hit, especially in the Newport Beach area, as many here are always looking for the next cool thing.
Does it have a name?
The name of the brand is Riviera, and the first model is called Grace. The global launch is forecasted in the first quarter of 2023.
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Words by Doug McLaughlin
Photos by Hannah Wilson