Photography by Bruce Buck
The French West Indies are best known for stunning beaches. But beyond the sand and palm trees lie hidden getaways and dramatic old plantation homes most tourists never see. Luckily, Michael Connors found his way inside some of the islands’ most alluring houses while writing French Island Elegance (Abrams, 2006). One peek between the covers and all we could say was, “Vive la France!”
The collection of antique furniture at the Swedish Consulate on St. Bart’s (above) includes exquisite examples of carved manogany with cane inserts.
“In the French West Indies,” writes Michael, “three major factors influenced the colonial architecture, especially that of the houses: the inhospitable climate, the availability of materials, and the historical French tradition.” A student and collector of West Indian art, Michael notes that homes were designed for tropical conditions, “with shaded balconies, verandas, and louvered shutters” – practical solutions that are still used today.
Above: For ventilation, West Indies homes had as many doors and windows as possible.
Over the centuries, as island populations grew, homes throughout the region became more grand. The original French furniture brought over on ships “quickly succumbed to the ravages of the tropical elements,” Michael explains.But island artisans assembled pieces made from native hardwoods and created an entirely new style that still endures. Largely carved by slaves, the prized furniture has “traditional African motifs … such as serpents, shells, flowers, banana leaves.”
did you know? West Indian lolling chairs such as the one above on the right sit low to the ground, with steeply raked backs for ultimate comfort. Conversely, the plain armchair has a higher seat and straighter back.
Part history lesson, part dreamscape, part fantasy vacation, Michael’s book is filled with inspiration and ideas any coastal aficionado can use. Pour yourself a glass of icy Chablis, settle into a comfortable chaise lounge, and check out those homes. We think you’ll say, “ooh la la,” too.
Left: Outdoor living spaces allowed homeowners to maximize cooling winds in a punishing climate. They often placed children’s beds outside during the tropical dry season. Instead of glass-paned windows and doors, shutters with louvered openings were the rule.