By Dana Micucci, Photographs by Bruce Buck
“It’s my private sanctuary, an escape from the stresses of the city,” says Michael Connors of his tropics-inspired apartment on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix.
Connors, a Manhattan-based connoisseur, collector, and dealer in West Indian antiques and fine art, succumbed to the tropical charms of the Caribbean more than three decades ago while teaching a fine arts course there. But it was his discovery of the elegant colonial furniture built by indigenous craftsmen during the 18th and 19th centuries in St. Croix, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and other islands of the West Indies that led to his lasting love affair with the region.
“All these pieces complement each other because they’re from the same period,” says Michael Connors. “They’re made from tropical hardwoods, and they’re a sophisticated combination of European design and indigenous execution.”
The three-room apartment occupies the former carriage house of an 18th century townhouse built by Danish colonialists, and is a showcase for Connors’s collection of West Indian antiques. “I bought most of these pieces from local islanders,” he says.
“They were originally commissioned by wealthy sugar plantation owners for their ‘great houses’,” he adds. “Their beauty, for me, lies in their lustrous tropical hardwoods like mahogany and thibet, and the whimsical West Indian interpretation of English, French and Danish designs favored by the colonists.”
West Indian antiques are distinguished by carved sunburst, pineapple, and serpentine motifs, caning on chairs, and lathe turning, which takes the form of elaborate rope twists, vase shapes, and bobbin and melon motifs on chair legs, bedposts, and other elements.
They enjoyed a new-found popularity about ten years ago, when Connors helped to design a first-of-its-kind line of West Indian-style furniture for the Milling Road division of Baker Furniture, based on the antiques displayed at the Whim Plantation Museum on St. Croix.
At the St. Croix apartment, a Jamaican-inspired mahogany server in the Georgian manner, designed by Connors for his new Milling Road Colonial Classics line, commands the view from the entrance hall.
In the hallway, the warm wood tones and clean lines of a mahogany West Indian cupping table (a lightweight server meant to be used on a veranda) and two caned West Indian chairs offset a lime-green wall mounted with framed 19th century palm prints and a primitive pineapple painting from Anguilla.
In the adjacent living room, painted breadfruit green, the tropical colonies aesthetic is found in a turn-of-the-century thibet planter’s chair from St. Thomas, a Grenadian recamier upholstered with white Haitian cotton, and a Jamaican drop-leaf table flanked by two 1840 Crucian (from St. Croix) mahogany and caned rockers. Two large color photographs of palm fronds by New York photographer Brigitta Uihelyi add a contemporary touch.
The bedroom is anchored by a 19th century Crucian four-post mahogany bed draped with white linen mosquito netting. A pair of antique West Indian candle stands serves as nightstands, while 18th and 19th century prints of island scenes enhance the papaya-orange walls.
Accessories located throughout the apartment – ranging from antique books on the Caribbean and sailboat models to a collection of old West Indian dominoes and Cuban Cohiba cigars – reflect Connors` personal interests. A decorative arts scholar and author of Caribbean Elegance, he also teaches at New York University and is currently at work on a new book on colonial Cuban interiors.
He says his overall aim for the apartment was to create a comfortable, stylish interior where guests “wouldn’t be afraid to sit on the rockers.”
He chose each West Indian antique for its aesthetic appeal, not because it had to conform to the preconceived floor plan. “The interior is always changing; I might sell a table or an armoire to find an even better one,” he says. “But comfort is important to me. These pieces are big, bold and well made. They’re meant to be used.”
Color was another consideration when Connors first began decorating. “I wanted a new look. I got tired of all the white tones in my first apartment here. I wanted to introduce colors that evoked the ocean, sky, and palm trees. The Caribbean is all about color,” says Connors, who consulted designer friends Robin Bell Schafer of Vero Beach, Florida, and DD Allen of Manhattan’s Pierce/Allen for advice on color schemes and fabrics.
“I encouraged Michael to use bright colors,” says Allen. “They lend a modern feel to antique furniture and really spice up an interior. They particularly complement the exotic style of West Indian furniture.”
“The great thing about West Indian antiques is that they never look out of place,” Connors says. “They’re elegant enough for any formal room in Palm Beach or New York, yet casual enough for a West Indian home on the islands.”