St. Barts and the Hamptons share their seasonal glitterati and mutual reputations as playgrounds for the rich and infamous.
Both are known to celebrate cutting-edge style that always must appear effortlessly casual (no matter what the cost, or however much effort actually went into it). This reputed style sometimes presents itself with a sprinkling of the spectacular, just to remind us that one’s tremendous yacht has dropped anchor not far off or that the Bentley is close at hand to whisk one away.
Apart from this Robin Leach-like spin, the tiny desert isle of Saint Bartholomew (named by Christopher Columbus in honor of his brother, who was no saint) brings to the design world aspirations, tenants and taste that have much in common with the Hamptons.
Both are the refuge of and enjoy patronage from two major metropolises—New York and Paris—that are indisputable centers of style and fashion. These are also two centers that view their relaxation as intently as they do their work-a-day world, and apply the same intensity and level of expectation to their leisure style. Therefore, an interesting high style of casualness appears, suffusing both to the core.
A global design trend toward the international style of planar simplicity is much in evidence in St. Barts (as it is becoming in the Hamptons), filtered through the warmth of a Caribbean sensibility. Flat plaster walls, unadorned by baseboards, casings or crowns, meet simple, structural ceilings with perhaps an indented reveal as the only decoration. Hefty floor-to-ceiling doors pivot seamlessly. Frameless glass openings magically reveal spectacular scenery beyond and, always, endless geometric planes of cool white, cool white and more cool white, constantly reminding you of the frothy pristine surf and this perpetual escape from a complicated, soiled world.
Due to a vicious history of hurricanes, poured concrete has replaced the traditional wood framed structures on St. Barts. Though most frequently plastered white, clever French architects have chosen to form these core supports into sculpted ridged columns that support cooling concrete overhangs. Beautiful polished Brazilian plank walls conceal heavy floor-to-ceiling doors, while expanses of polished grey limestone encircle the exposed concrete. Open living rooms and dining rooms seamlessly give way to glass tiled pools that endlessly spill forth to an expanse of mountainous islands and the Caribbean beyond. With scarce land to build upon, these concrete abodes clutch fearlessly to their rocky cliffs, meticulously guiding your gaze to a carefully framed private view that seems to be yours alone to contemplate.
In a cliff-hanger villa I recently let on St. Barts, the brilliant French architect left no fantasy unfulfilled. Siting the house to take advantage of the trade winds, virtual breeze tunnels were created to naturally cool the home. Stepped stone platforms allow for various gathering areas, both public and private. Bathrooms were entirely clad in glass tile and stone showers stood without walls, separated only by glass screens that opened onto bubbling hot tubs with vistas to the sky. Mysterious sliding wood panels revealed framed glimpses of a spectacular view.
St. Barts’ design not only leads you, it invites you, to thrill in the discovery. Then it enthralls you with what you have found.
One room, with no particular architectural interest, was treated to a concrete bump out, clad in tufted red leather. Though it sounds outré and a little silly, this window seat allowed one to curl up with a fine book while allowing the cinematic view outside to reveal itself.
What St. Barts can do with shutters may also be a lesson to us all. Much needed for hurricane protection, security, quiet, privacy and a shelter from the equatorial sun, these shutters are anything but skimpy, sometimes 3 to 4 inches thick on sturdy strapped no-nonsense hinges. A presence when opened and a strong architectural statement when closed, these solid painted shutters are hardly just decorative. Sometimes they use walls of heavy louvered tropical wood shutters that fold, pivot or slide open to reveal space seemingly without enclosure. These richly lacquered woods contrasting with the icy white walls are a refreshing summer effect—and their slats cast a beautiful pattern in shadow.
Low slung, a St. Barts’ home typically enjoys a horizontal demeanor. If vertical, the savage storms would rip them away. Rooms are sometimes spread horizontally into individual cabanas. Long, slat-like railings (or taut steel nautical roping in modern abodes) stretches out to hold back the unsuspecting from plunging into some rocky precipice. Sometimes, solid glass railings imbedded into polished concrete free the viewer to see the bougainvillea tumbling into the canyon below.
As the Hamptons has always had an undercurrent of New England’s Yankee restraint, so too has St. Barts enjoyed a period of sturdy Swedish control that has tempered its French sensibility. Currently in both worlds, I find an interesting drive toward clean clarification of form. Upholstery and chairs are square and minimal. Tables and desks are Parsons in shape, blocky utilitarian, yet tempered by a rich quality of wood or a sensuous lacquer. Kitchens are stainless, seamless, and what I would call “soft industrial,” with a wet bar attitude. Forever fluffy white terry cloth softens the edges along with crisp white linens, white sheers and white leather. Both vacation destinations worship their cloud-soft bedding, clothed in crisp cotton. St. Barts, of course, features four posters in nearly every room, which can support the sometimes necessary swaths of mosquito netting. Painted white, ebonized black or polished Anglo-Indian mahogany, these towering beds lift your gaze to the whitewashed rafters above.
Like the current trends in the Hamptons, St. Barts also believes in strong design gestures and bold strokes. Editing is important. Doors are large but simple; floors are un-patterned, yet richly natural, and color, if not white, is drawn from the sea or sun-bleached earth.
As the season swings toward summer, much can be gleaned from the St. Barts style, the least of which is the creation of a serene staged backdrop on which one can act out one’s summer visions. Here, quietly in the background, an elegant, sensual and restrained interior design sensibility has emerged that really can inspire us all. When flamboyant Argentinean beachwear is thinly veiled by fluid transparent clothing and sported by sun-kissed French beauties that hide behind sunglasses that resemble headlights, who looks at the backdrop? But it’s precisely this backdrop that lends them a greater air of elegance and class, which, of course, is the point.
*Marshall Watson is a nationally recognized interior and furniture designer who lives and works in the Hamptons and New York City. Reach him at 105 West 72nd Street, Suite 9B, New York, NY 10023.