Almost Paradise

by WOHe

The warmth of rich mahogany light and airy furniture pieces that evoke a sense of Caribbean elegancecarefree styling that combines Victorian clutter with African design influences If you’re looking to create rooms that are “almost paradise,” design influences from the tropics may be just the thing you’re looking for.

For those who favor casually elegant, more tailored traditional styling, a taste of paradise can be found in rooms that are inspired by a Hawaiian plantation, a villa on the Caribbean island of Mustique, or a cottage in Key West, Florida.

This easier traditionalism creates classic styles with a modern interpretation: rooms rooted in tradition, but designed with today’s lifestyle in mind. The style is successful because it combines “classic tastes with modern life.”

This sliver of traditionalism evokes the feeling of the tropics a look that has proven popular as it calls to mind images of life under an island moon.

Over the past five years, furniture styles have been introduced that are reminiscent of lives lived in island paradises by designers who understand how much we all enjoy the freedom of cool summer nights in far-off destinations. Examples of this include Ernest Hemingway furniture by Thomasville, Tommy Bahamas furniture by Lexington, Nautica furniture by Lexington and British Khaki furniture four collections demonstrating this refreshing new view of Traditional styling.

I first appreciated this Traditional style in the early 1990s while visiting Roxanne and David Okazaki of Lifestyle Kitchens in Hawaii, when I had an opportunity to enjoy the Sheraton Mauna Surfrider Hotel built in 1901 and considered the “First Lady of Waikiki” a hostelry built at the turn-of-the-century in the exuberant plantation style of Victorian elegance. This year, I once again saw the style presented in the Plato Woodwork display at the 2003 Kitchen/Bath Industry Show, a colorful Caribbean version by Rutt HandCrafted Cabinetry, and an intriguing master bath setting designed by the Wood-Mode team.

Just what is the “essence” or “signature” of this style? The answer lies in the style’s history. In the Caribbean, Spain, England, Denmark, Holland and France alternatively gained control of the islands. With its agricultural abundance, trades soon developed: So followed the demand for gracious living.

Similarly, while missionaries first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, they were soon also followed by merchants eyeing the riches possible by controlling the sugar cane export business.

These Europeans in the Caribbean, as well as the North American businessmen in the Hawaiian Islands, soon became wealthy plantation owners who initially imported fine European and North American furniture to their island homes. The heat, humidity and ravenous termites quickly destroyed these softwood pieces. In response, the wealthy then turned to local craftsmen to duplicate these imported pieces using the islands’ indigenous woods, such as Koa in Hawaii and mahogany in the Caribbean.

As time went on, the locally crafted imitations became progressively less exact and increasingly more interpretive, leading to an island style with a distinctive flair. Hawaiian styling stayed true to Victorian opulent woodworking but transitioned away from the dark, drab tones of the time to airy pastels and crisp white contrasted against the dark wood accents. In the Caribbean, much more colorful interiors emerged featuring bolder, more primary colors.

In the late 19th Century, very staid Georgian styles gave way to the exuberance of Victoriana. Such classical detailing, as well as over-done Victorian decorations, was well suited to the wood carving talents of the local island artisans and natives.

Working with lustrous tropical hardwoods, they created pieces distinguished by carved sunbursts, pineapples, serpentine motifs and stylized carved palm fronds. Lath turnings presented in elaborate rope twists, vase shapes, bobbin and melon motifs were used as furniture legs and sideboard cabinet details. Furniture feet, shaped open baseboard details and open fretwork were details repeatedly seen.

Such furniture pieces were always light and airy, designed to be moved out to the veranda and back inside. The original pieces were brought many miles across the sea, so heavy, complicated chests didn’t successfully make the journey. Additionally, the value of “camp furniture” (small and portable for use by officers as they moved from location to location) was redefined as indoor/outdoor furniture. Such furniture was enhanced by the introduction of decorative woven rattan, wicker and caning.

You might wonder: Am I really suggesting you create a Caribbean style total kitchen? If you practice along the Eastern seaboard or are creating a second elegant home for a well-to-do client in Florida perhaps. However, for the rest of us, rather than creating an entire suite of kitchen cabinet furniture reflecting the islands’ sense of casual elegance styling, consider adapting an “acquisition” mentality. Propose that your clients select one part of the kitchen to showcase a unique piece infused with the personality of the islands.

This is particularly appropriate when considering the most casual of styles: the Caribbean carefree styling which combines Victorian clutter with African design influences presented in the colors of the sea, the sand and the sky.

For a more restrained environment, consider taking inspiration from Hawaiian plantations. Darkly finished wood floors and balustrades can be used in combination with painted white/off-white/pastel traditional cabinetry (featuring shutter door inserts, or multiple panel stile-and-rail raised panel styling).

Bead and ball molding or dental can be added in ceiling coffers. Small panel mullion doors might open to the outside or an adjacent space. Duck, linen or cotton fabrics are appropriate at such window or door openings. The space will be punctuated with vibrantly patterned tropical patterns.

As far as cabinet finishes, in addition to soft pastel paints or pristine white, consider introducing heavily distressed and glazed darker finishes on mahogany (although maple and cherry could certainly be used). In addition to typical dark colored glazes, think about striated colorful glazes over white, hand-carving accented by pewter glazing (“metallic tipping”), metal accents used in forged iron valances, window guards combined with frame-only doors or decorative metal countertop brackets.

Pay more attention to the decorative hardware specified for the project, as well. A Bamboo hardwood floor covered in a sisal carpet in the adjacent dining space would certainly add to the mood.

As you create the cabinetry design for these kitchens, incorporate geometric patterns presented in herringbone cane, woven seagrass, tightly twisted metal, or wood diagonal lattice as panel inserts for doors.

A recent article in House Beautiful magazine’s “Antiques” column, helped explain the origin of mahogany as a wood specified for furniture and case goods when it said: “In 1595, a carpenter aboard one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships in the New World first remarked upon the beauty and durability of what was then, to Europeans, an entirely new and wonderful wood. Cabinet-makers learned mahogany could hold a line far better than walnut and oak of its day: helping to elevate the art of furniture carving. Additionally, its rich patina and shades that ranged from ambrosia to amber truly inspired artisans to their greatest work when creating furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries.”

The original mahogany used by English furniture makers was imported from the Caribbean and Cuba by the boat load. Indeed, mahogany may have been Cuba’s most valuable natural resource but it was brought to near extinction during the 18th Century’s early wave of lumbering.

When they had depleted the Caribbean and Cuban stands of trees, the wood merchants turned their eye on the Gulf of Honduras, importing Honduran Mahogany. Therefore, the mahogany of early 19th century American Classical Revival furniture, French restoration pieces and English William IV furniture was often Honduran. Sadly, most of these great mahogany stands were largely depleted by the end of the 19th century, leading traders to search South America and the African coast for fresh supplies.

Today, mahogany is an endangered wood specie in some parts of the world. Responsible forest management has led to harvesting African Mahogany for today’s woodworking. Therefore, mahogany today comes from tropical West, Central and East Africa.

With its straight interlocking grain, characteristic striped figure in quarter-sawn stock, and its medium to coarse texture, the wood from Africa continues to be extremely suitable for veneer and plywood furniture and cabinetry construction.
Some of the distinct characteristics designers should consider when working with mahogany are as follows:

  • When finished with a 40 to 60 sheen topcoat, the wood is extremely lustrous in appearance. Mahogany has a curly grain pattern that, when polished, almost “shimmers.” A word of caution: Lower sheens can oftentimes result in a “hungry” look. Because of the coarse texture and grain of the wood, always view a sample door of the finished wood before ordering a set of cabinets.
  • Ribbon Mahogany can vary widely in its figure. Therefore, Sapele veneers are oftentimes used in place of Ribbon Mahogany.
  • Some wood wholesalers or door manufacturers do not work extensively in mahogany and, therefore, may not stock the same grade of mahogany that you are accustomed to using in cherry or maple styles. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the grade (this impacts the width of the boards used to lay-up solid wood center panels and stile-and-rail doors, as well as the amount, variation and sizing of wood characteristics in veneers).

You might think such a special kitchen space would only be enjoyed on a hot, sultry day at the beach. Move beyond such an assumption! Clients who find such a style intriguing typically are not interested in living physically in a tropical location rather, they enjoy the spirit of such a space.

As noted designer David Rockwell aptly said, “With a margarita and the right point of view, tropicals can transport us to a fantasy island resort.” I assure you, such a fun-filled approach to design will appeal to your younger clients and those “young at heart” looking for a fresh approach to traditionalism.

If you’re interested in learning more about this style of design, two good sources of information are Caribbean Elegance, by Michael Connors, and Under the Hula Moon: Living in Hawaii, by Jocelyn Fugii.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two textbooks in the area of design education. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies. She is a volunteer on NKBA’s Ad Hoc International Affiliations Committee and Ad Hoc Planning Guidelines Committee.

This is the last of a series of pieces looking at Kitchens of the New Millennium. In 2004, Cheever will be sharing her ‘Designer’s Notebook’ ideas exclusively with Kitchen & Bath Design News.

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