Island Style

19By Leonard Gill

Memphis Flyer

Island Style

Michael Connors: back in the Caribbean.

By Leonard Gill

First, he was calling from his home on Deer Island, Maine, to let me know of his latest book. Then he was headed for the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany to publicize that book, and it wasn’t such a great time to talk. Then he was in transit again — on his way to Havana, where he has a house too (in addition to homes in New York and on St. Croix). But on his way to Cuba, I finally had a chance to catch up with Michael Connors (who grew up in Memphis). He was in Naples — Naples, Florida — where Connors, author of the new (and beautifully produced) Caribbean Houses: History, Style, and Architecture (Rizzoli), was in the middle of a morning walk. He apologized for being a little out of breath, but he was eager to talk about Caribbean Houses, the author’s latest look (afterFrench Island EleganceCaribbean Elegance, and Cuban Elegance) at the antiques — and architecture — of the islands.

Memphis Flyer: In Caribbean Houses, you not only consider the decorative arts but also the architecture of Caribbean colonial culture — a centuries-old mix of cultures.You take in more than the furnishings to look at these townhouses and plantation great houses as a whole. That’s a broadening of your interests, no?

Michael Connors: I couldn’t continue to imitate myself, but I’ll admit, it was a learning curve. I’m not as “acclimated” to architecture as I am to the decorative arts. I enjoyed learning what I didn’t know — the terminology of architecture — but the decorative arts follow architecture: Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical. I knew the periods.

The hundreds of photographs by a team of photographers in Caribbean Houses are spectacular. You were on hand for every shoot?

I had a number of photographers, because my main photographers weren’t always available. When these houses open up, you can’t wait, unless you want to take years to make a book. I’m not that way. I don’t like waiting.

And yes, I’m there for each photograph. I look through the camera. I know what’s in every frame. I know what I want to talk about in the text. I know what I want to show my readers. This book tells its story through the eye, so the photography’s extra important. And so are the stylists who helped me out. I’m not good with flowers.

How long did it take for you to put together Caribbean Houses?

Two years, solid. I sold my antiques gallery in New York in 2007. I’m dedicating myself strictly to writing now, and I’ve already got another book, English Island Elegance, ready. It should be published a year from now.

I’m also contracted to do a book on historic Cuban houses, so I’m living in Havana now — 21 days at a time, because that’s all the time the country permits — and I’m really enjoying it. But in Cuba, when it comes to historic structures, it’s often preservation by neglect. At some point, though, neglect turns into deterioration.

You ever get back to your hometown, Memphis?

Oh yeah. My webmaster is a fellow in Memphis. I still have friends in Memphis. And one friend, musician/producer Jim Dickinson — he unfortunately just died. But every opportunity I get — any excuse I can find is more like it — I’ll get down to Memphis.

You’re keen to point out in Caribbean Houses an important fact, a fact too easily overlooked: that if it weren’t for the laborers and their skills, these significant colonial buildings and their furnishings wouldn’t have existed.

For centuries, those laborers have been unrecognized — unpaid but more accurately slave labor. The indigenous Amerindians and African West Indians were put to task to do the work. It’s time they’re recognized, and it’s important that this patrimony be recognized as part of their heritage too, so that they take pride. The colonial era is as much their patrimony and their material culture as it is anyone’s.