NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
You received a PhD from NYU in 1995, using your studies in Arts and Humanities to focus on the Decorative Arts. What drew you to NYU Steinhardt to study this field? What about the coursework at Steinhardt provided really resonated with you?
I will always cherish my years at NYU Steinhardt. It was extremely difficult in the beginning because I was holding down a 9 to 5 job at Lord & Taylor as the antique furniture buyer that necessitated frequent travel around the globe as well as opening my own gallery in Soho. The dissertation proved to be the hardest task because there were no professors giving me deadlines! However since I was motivated by not wanting to be an ABD statistic, I managed to generate enough self-discipline to finish the required work. I found all my required and elective courses inspiring, with the notable exception of statistics (enough said). I especially enjoyed the coursework that required extensive reading and/or research.
How did you become interested in the Decorative Arts?
My father was an architect and interior designer. He graduated from Pratt Institute in 1938 and owned his own business for 40 years. I grew up surrounded by fine art and antique furniture, much of which rotated through our family home; it was an ongoing education. Our dining table discussions were regularly about taste, or the lack thereof, with lengthy explanations as to why. It was an early education in the fine and decorative arts by osmosis which has continued throughout my life.
You spent some time as an adjunct professor at Steinhardt. What did you enjoy most about teaching?
Being a writer, researcher and historian involves continually reciting, making analogies with the past, and discovering new unanswered questions, which is tantamount to teaching oneself. So teaching, to me, is a natural process. I initiated and taught the American Furniture course at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with NYU for 12 years. I was fortunate to discover and learn something new every class. The bottom line is that what I enjoy most about teaching is learning. I composed a syllabus for a course that was never approved and I am sorry I never got the opportunity to teach: “The History of Taste.” I expect my father would have enjoyed that one.
You’ve written numerous books about the West Indies, the Caribbean, and Cuba – what makes the history and art culture of those locations so unique and interesting? What are the inherent differences between decorative trends in these locations and the United States?
The Caribbean islands have the oldest colonial heritage in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba, for example, was the center of Spanish Empire’s trade in the New World for centuries. The French-speaking islands are still political provinces of France, distinctly French, yet very much West Indian. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, the Caribbean Sea was the cradle of England’s burgeoning naval empire. The Danish and Dutch also fought for a share of the sugar wealth, and by the twentieth century the United States had become a major player.
There are five distinct styles representing the five European countries that colonized the Caribbean, coupled with the African West Indian cultural influences, which makes for not only a unique combination in architecture, the decorative and fine arts, but also in the fields of music, cuisine and many other island cultural elements as well.
Decorative trends in the United States are an amalgamation of many cultural influences and therefore vary significantly from any of the five major styles found in the Caribbean. If I had to summarize the difference between American taste and that found throughout the Caribbean in a sentence; I’d have to say that the colonial great houses in the West Indies display a dissipated splendor that is, for most Americans, difficult both to appreciate and to achieve.
You are credited with bringing Colonial West Indian furniture to the US market. When did you recognize the need for this type of furniture, and how did you help customers integrate the pieces into their own decorative styles?
I get calls from all over the world because of the notoriety of being the “go-to Caribbean guy;” the questions range from inquiries about architecture, furniture and collections to which island has the best beaches, the best rum, or which island is my favorite. I keep a website (michaelconnorsantiques.com) with a great deal of this information and most of my published papers if people are interested in pursuing this topic. I was inspired not only by the original furniture produced in the West Indies under European patronage, but by the fact that it was crafted for the most part by enslaved African-West Indians who embellished the designs with tropical decorative motifs and construction techniques. These cross-cultural designs bring not only an exotic elegance to the furniture, but also an undeniable cultural richness. This combination of raw, undiscovered African artistry combined with sophisticated European craftsmanship lead to elegant, durable and aesthetically exquisite furniture.
Of course there is no need per say for this type of furniture, but Americans as a general proposition, are always looking for innovation, new ideas and design to complement their lifestyles. This ethnic authenticity and originality has undeniable warmth and appeal. For a long time the Caribbean has been a popular travel destination so it seemed a natural extension to bring back and integrate some of the warmth and beauty of the islands into our mainland homes. A few pieces of Colonial West Indian style furniture can beautifully complement both finely appointed and more casual homes. This is the aim of the furniture lines as not everyone can afford originals.
You have written several books, including Caribbean Elegance, French Island Elegance, Cuban Elegance, and Caribbean Houses: History, Style, and Architecture. When did you decide to write your first book? What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
Although I enjoy researching, writing does not come easily to me and I find myself agonizing over getting it right. I do enjoy the research. I have traveled to London, Paris, Copenhagen, Dublin, Madrid, Washington, D.C. and other capitols of the world tracking down and researching primary and secondary resources and information needed for my books.
The research and writing for my Ph.D. dissertation actually became the start of my first book. As I wrote I realized, “Hey, I can do this” and figured it would make more than just a beautiful art illustration book, but be educational as well. Apparently there was a real market for this information as nobody had combined the academic and the aesthetic qualities of Caribbean decorative arts to this degree.
Do you have any plans to write a new book?
My fifth book, Caribbean Houses: History, Style, and Architecture was released this past October. British West Indies Style, my sixth book, has just been completed and will be published by Rizzoli International next fall. This winter I’m spending most of my time in Cuba working on my next book project:Historic Houses of Cuba, which will be published and released in 2011. I’d love to take the same approach to studying South African furniture and style and do that book after I exhaust the Caribbean!
Even prior to your studies at Steinhardt, you were a viable and integral figure in the art collection community. How did your studies at Steinhardt compliment your first-hand experiences in the Decorative Arts field?
My experience at Steinhardt provided me with the expertise and confidence to believe that I could accomplish what I had for many years wanted to achieve as an author. A Ph.D. from Steinhardt NYU certainly opened doors at publishing houses in Paris, Frankfurt and New York as it gives me the authority to appraise and provide accurate academic descriptions of the architecture and furniture I write about.
You sit on the Board of Directors for Fundación Amistad, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering better mutual understanding and appreciation between the peoples of the United States and Cuba. Tell us more about your role there. Why are you drawn to this particular organization?
Fundación Amistad’s work focuses on two areas: Humanitarian Aid and Bridges to Culture and Preservation, and it has been involved in more than 120 projects in Cuba over the 12 years of its existence. While researching in Cuba for my first book in the late 1990s I became aware of Fundación Amistad’scontributions and involvement, especially in the architectural restoration of old Havana. I was drawn to Fundación Amistad because of their interest in helping to preserve Cuba’s historically significant architecture and decorative arts which comprise the patrimony and material culture of the island nation.
You spent some time designing custom furniture lines for Baker Furniture. What did you like best about your experience creating contemporary furniture with a West Indies feel?
I designed two furniture lines for Baker Furniture: the West Indies Line and the Colonial Legends Line. Both lines mined the rich history of the colonial era (18th and 19th century) designs that were crafted with island motifs and embellishments, and applied them to the livability, functionality and high quality for which Baker Furniture is known. I currently serve on the Board of Trustees of St. Croix’s (not-for-profit) Whim Museum and am Head of Collections there. I signed over my royalty payments from Baker Furniture to the museum. Over the last fifteen years Whim Museum has taken in about $750,000 in royalties. This reflects my dedication to the preservation of these unique fine arts, much of which was left to rot and fade away with the decline of empirical colonization. Knowing that I play some role in ensuring their continuity was the best part of that experience.
Do you feel that consumers’ interest in decorative art has waned since the economic downturn? If so, why is it important to keep them engaged?
I don’t feel that consumers’ interest in fine or decorative art has waned at all. I do feel people are spending more time exploring the markets and researching their prospective purchases. I’ve also noticed that the middle price-point market has suffered a bit, but the lower price-point market has increased in sales and the high-end market continues to thrive and expand.
What’s your newest art interest?
Other than the two books I am working on, I am designing another line of furniture based on the 1920s, 30s and 40s mahogany furniture crafted and found throughout the Caribbean. It’s a moderne, Art Deco style that will have a special appeal to the younger (and retro) market.
Each year, Steinhardt students graduate and begin to forge careers in the arts. What advice can you give for these burgeoning new art dealers and collectors?
I would say look at emerging markets, different venues and create your own innovative curriculum. A perfect example would be the need for conceptualism and pluralistic critical analysis, consultation and appraisal methodology for collectors and art patrons, and the advisory positions needed for public installations, corporate collections and the new phenomenon of private collectors and collections displayed in museums (e.g. Christie’s auction house owner François Pinoult’s displaying his collection of Jeff Koons’ “king of kitsch” in Château de Versailles December 2008).
Visit michaelconnorsantiques.com for more information on Michael’s books and work.