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Porto Cervo is not the prettiest of places. The Sardinian resort built by the Aga Khan has become the haunt of the flash and the ostentatious. In town there are a lot of very short wealthy men with very long-legged girlfriends tightly clinging on to their arms and the harbour resembles a supermarket car park, with boat after boat lined up along the dock, just inches dividing them. And the boats are ugly. They look like floating Beverly Hills homes; one even has a waterfall.

But nestled among the oceans of white fibreglass is a bronzed looker that is drawing a crowd: the just-unveiled SportRiva 56’, designed by the firm’s Mauro Micheli. It is here becuse Riva has invited its loyal customers to cruise across the Med to inspect her cute body and attend a gala dinner in her honour.

Micheli – whose dress sense is more Lombardy bourgeoisie than maritime (he also admits he can’t drive the boats that he designs) is here and poses for photographs as he draws with evident pleasure on a cigarette or chews his way through a packet of Big Babol gum. Micheli has every reason to look happy: he has helped restore the fortunes of one of the world’s most loved boat firms and a brand forever linked to la dolce vita (Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot all owned Rivas in the 1950s and 1960s). The story of the turnaround would make a great film, too. The decline began in 1969 when Carlo Riva sold the family firm to a US financial company.

Over the following years it repeatedly changed hands and at each turn the business sprung another leak. By 1999, Riva was making only a handful of boats at its base in Sarnico, a town on Lake Iseo, near Bergamo in northern Italy. That’s when it finally fell into safe hands: Ferretti, owner of one of Italy’s largest luxury boatbuilding portfolios, bought it. This year the company will make more than 80 vessels.

Ferruccio Rossi is the lively CEO of Riva. Dressed in deck shoes, chinos and a peppermint-stripe Riva shirt, he is sitting in the lounge of his hotel overlooking the aquamarine waters of Sardinia. Asked about the renaissance of the company that was founded in 1842, he can barely contain his delight at what has taken place. “When we took over the company we had just three models. Now we present one or two models every year and in seven years have been able to develop a full range of products, from 33ft to 115ft, both open boats and flybridges.”

Order books are now full and new markets are opening up for Riva in the Far East, but the company is achieving this in a very Italian way and there will be no outsourcing of production in a bid to cut costs. Growth will be cautious, even to the point of managing who gets to buy a Riva. “Our dealers know every owner, so for the 56’ they selected the people who are the best for the brand – to stay with the boat – not to just buy and sell it.” In return Riva tries to ensure that no more than two boats of any model end up in the same country. No wonder so many other companies are imitating it.

It’s also comforting that the solution to the company’s woes was to trust the people who were already working there. “The knowledge was there; some people had been with the company 30 years. They sustained it, that’s why it survived.” Two of the people who Ferretti and Rossi placed their faith in were designer Mauro Micheli and his business partner and all round right-hand man Sergio Beretta. We meet for espressos – and more Big Babol.

Micheli, now in his mid-40s, joined Riva when he was 25 as an assistant in the technical department, but his design talent was soon recognised and he flourished. In 1993 he and Beretta decided to set up Officina Italiana Design, their own independent studio in Bergamo but with Riva as their only client.

How tough was it in the 1990s? “It was a different time for Riva. Now Ferretti gives us freedom. They believe in design,” says Micheli. He adds that it has been gratifying to see so many old Riva customers return, as well as many new ones (at the gala dinner it’s clear that Riva owners are a tasteful set – well, at least the ones they invite to such events).

Micheli, who says his designs are more likely to be inspired by an Anish Kapoor artwork than the work of a rival, has kept true to the company’s traditions while updating the brand. “It is an easy step in luxury to go from good taste to kitsch and we do not want to shock with special effects that are not long-lasting. We stay two steps lower than our spirit could take us. We know Riva is a classic and we don’t want to exaggerate.”

It is two weeks later. In the late morning summer sun, the waters of Lake Iseo are silvery-grey and in the distance the Alps are silhouetted against a clear blue sky. With scenes like this it’s hard to imagine any work being undertaken at Riva’s Sarnico boatyard, but don’t be fooled, this has been a place of serious craftsmanship ever since the firm was opened by Pietro Riva.

The Sunriva, Aquariva, Rivarama, Rivale, 63’ Vertigo and now the new SportRiva 56’, are all put together here (there is a new Riva yard on the coast at La Spezia for larger craft and some of the hulls are made at Forli – the second ever 56’ hull arrives dramatically from there across the lake during monocle’s visit).

Inside the sheds, the boats are in various stages of construction. “Salone” and “camera VIP” are scrawled in black ink to mark out where the different cabins will go. The wooden details – a feature Riva is famous for – lie like fragments of precious antique furniture, ready to be fitted. The staff work deftly on the skeletal boat shells; an electrician knits wires through a circuit box. When Micheli and Beretta arrive there are handshakes and smiles – Riva has retained the feel of a family company.

Next door to Riva is RAM. Set up in 1957, it specialises in restoring Rivas. Inside, there’s a flotilla of boats stacked on racks, their bows peaking out from beneath protective covers. Riva may be thriving – it helps when your prices start at €500,000 (the 56’ would set you back €1.65m) – but it faces fierce rivalry from the Italian boat group Azimut-Benetti. However, what monocle admires is that here is a company where craftsmanship is thriving.

Meet the owners

The Ferretti Group is based in Forli and headed by Norberto Ferretti. Founded in 1968, it started out marketing boats – its first motorsailer was produced in 1971. In 1998 the company embarked on an expansion policy buying up prestigious shipyards. The group now comprises nine brands: Ferretti Yachts, Custom Line, Riva, Pershing, Itama, Apreamare, Mochi Craft, Bertram and CRN. Ferretti has 22 production units and employs more than 2,800 staff. It’s a good business to be in: the Italian pleasure boat industry was worth €1.27bn in 2005 and is booming.

The school

It’s mid-morning and the students dressed in grey Riva dungarees and T-shirts pile out of the classroom. Making their way down the spiral staircase, through a large airy room full of old boat prototypes that will soon be transformed into Riva’s first museum, they spill outside, laughing and rolling cigarettes. Inside the classroom their Riva-branded notebooks lie open, small conscientious hand-drawn diagrams depicting the mechanics of boats filling the pages. Riva founded the school to train a new generation of shipbuilders earlier this year. When Monocle catches up with the students, it’s their first day back after the summer break. Students get vital hands-on experience because the school is based at Riva’s boatyard. At the end of the programme, which lasts around two months, they become specialists in different areas such as plumbing or carpentry. Gianegidio Rota teaches technical design. He thinks the quality of the teaching will mean the students will stand out from their peers. “They won’t be simple fitters like in other shipyards or industrial sectors,” he boasts.

SportRiva 56’ spec

The hull of the new 56’ is lacquered bronze and inside all is subtle wood and leather – the miniaturised kitchen and bathrooms are similarly stylish. The boat can reach a top speed of 34 knots. But it’s the lack of bling that sets it apart from rivals. “We try not to give too much freedom to the customers,” jokes Sergio Beretta.

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  • Monocle on Design