A Breeze Blows Through the Drawing Room

44By David Colman,

The New York Times

A Breeze Blows Through the Drawing Room

“CHRISTIANSTED, V.I. — TAKE a deep breath. Hold it as long as you can. And then: let go. Your bags, and the 21st century, will come tomorrow.
Here on St. Croix, a laid-back speck of Caribbean paradise about 100 miles from Puerto Rico, islanders have their own name for their mañana mentality — ”Limin’ it,” which roughly translates to just plain hanging out. It’s an ethos Michael Connors is used to, having set foot on the island more than 30 years ago. But where other visitors kick back and forget their 9-to-5 cares, he arrives like a force of nature.

A colorful, self-created expert on West Indian design, Dr. Connors has been instrumental in seeing the style take up residence as the semiofficial look of the American second home — a pricey, exotic retort to been-there, done-that wicker, to tiki torches and bamboo settees. With its rich mahogany evoking bygone splendor, its solid, unfussy lines conveying informal elegance, and its Perfect Vacation motifs, the West Indian Colonial style casts a fresh light on traditional style that is desperately needed.”

Dr. Connors documented the West Indian style in historic homes throughout the Caribbean in ”Caribbean Elegance,” published by Harry N. Abrams ($39.95). The book lends a fresh eye on how the furniture was used historically. The book’s editor, Elaine Stainton, said the style manages to appeal to two powerful desires: to impress and to escape.

Many traditional American styles like Federal or Colonial ”tend to be so historical, so archival and authoritarian — they’re no fun,” she said. ”This is more relaxing. I have friends at the auction houses who tell me they can’t sell silver, because no one wants to polish it. Even people with money live informally now.”

He received his doctorate in 1995 from New York University, where he has taught decorative arts classes since 1989. He wrote his dissertation on the West Indies style, which was developed by local cabinetmakers, often slaves on the large plantations, who were reinterpreting French and English furnishings that rotted in the island heat and humidity. Instead of using European hardwoods, the islanders turned to the local mahogany, bulletwood, sabicu, thibet, satinwood, purpleheart and Spanish cedar.

Unearthing these pieces and bringing them back onto the design scene is no simple job. ”I find furniture, in attics, basements and barns,” said Dr. Connors, who has furniture pickers, or scouts, on almost every island.

Dr. Connors has uncovered prize pieces like a four-poster bed with double-reverse-twist turning on the posts, an all-mahogany rocker with rosette carvings, and a Charles McFarlane ”parlor press” (or small armoire). (Settlers used armoires more often than dressers because they allowed more air to circulate and thus prevented mildew.)

Dr. Connors has promoted awareness of the furniture on St. Croix, having helped curate the furniture collection at the Whim Museum, a mid-18th-century plantation house outside Frederiksted, on the island’s west side.

He and the society’s former director, Barbara Hagan-Smith, patterned the Baker furniture line on pieces from the Whim and other West Indian collections. The line has made nearly $500,000 for the museum, while Dr. Connors collects royalties on another, more recent line for Baker called Colonial Classics. He is at work on a book documenting rarely seen Colonial-era Cuban interiors, which differ markedly from other Caribbean designs because of their heavily Spanish influence.