“The Jamaica Archives and Records Department is actually very efficient,” Rachael Barrett, a Jamaican fine art consultant and curator told me over the phone from Miami, where she was putting the final touches on the “Caribbean Modern” display at Design Miami earlier this month. “If you want to know if Bob Marley picked his toenail at 3 o’clock on a certain Tuesday, they’ll have a record of that. But you won’t find any material about furniture makers.”
Shedding light on Jamaica’s incredible tradition of modern design has become a passion for Barrett, who in 2010 founded the curatorial service Three Sixty Degrees and has worked on projects with the Jamaican Government, Gagosian Gallery, and the Tate in Britain, among many others. This month, Caribbean Modern was on show at Design Miami 2020 as part of their Podium showcase. Renowned contemporary Jamaican architectural firm Atelier Vidal designed a booth with richly painted walls of greens and tropical houseplants that Barrett filled with fourteen pieces of bespoke furniture, all of which are available for purchase, to create a snappy diorama of what a well-appointed living room might have looked like in mid-century Jamaica.
Barrett, who grew up on the island of Jamaica before pursuing studies abroad, points to the fact that Jamaica has begun to document its creators (with the notable exception of musicians, of course) within the past 30 years and that even today, art collecting remains a rarefied activity: “It’s only been in the last ten years that we’ve found an international market for Caribbean art. We are slowly beginning to see Jamaicans themselves collect art and furniture that can be found in the houses of older relatives, or at estate sales,” she said.
Jamaica’s colonial history and its march toward independence played a major role in the development of modern design in the island nation. Throughout the colonial period, Georgian architecture and design held sway, and the drawing rooms of the rich were filled with grand bookcases and secretaries made of sturdy mahogany, replacing the earlier preference for walnut.
The most famous designer of the colonial period in Jamaica, Ralph Turnbull, was a native of Scotland who became renowned for his intricate parquetry, and for combining Georgian design with indigenous hardwoods from the Caribbean. Today his work is included in the permanent collections of major museums around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Turnbull’s work has appreciated in part because of two relatively rare practices at the time: He labelled his work with his name before it left the workshop and often included a piece’s plans and sketches upon delivery. This has made his work far easier to collect and catalogue than other makers of his era, who were more likely to treat their furniture as merchandise than art. It’s also part of the reason why even today, in Jamaica, furniture and design is often sidelined in discussions of fine art. Barrett noted that it was common for wealthy families to have a skillful local craftsman make copies of expensive European imports using local materials, which means some of the island’s finest makers remain anonymous.
Caribbean Modern highlights the work of several historical designers from Jamaica, such as T. T. Jackson, Fenton, and Burnett Webster, considered by Barrett to be mavericks for focusing on original design rather than replicating traditional Georgian models. As nationalism and modernism combined in the Caribbean in the push towards independence—Jamaica formally separated from the United Kingdom in 1962—architects designing public-use buildings sought inspiration in forms and fittings historically found in enslaved people’s quarters, and insisted on locally sourced materials. The question of what to put in these new spaces was answered with a focus on Jamaican hardwoods and precious stones, and other hand-crafted objects like the chairs and planters made by the designer Albert Ohayen from locally spun fiberglass in his workshop in Stony Hill, on the outskirts of Kingston.
The pieces collected in Caribbean Modern offer a practical glimpse into how Jamaicans saw themselves in the mid-twentieth century: It was a time to throw off designs replicating the island’s status as a “colonial backwater” or a culture beholden to Britain, and it was a period that predated the Caribbean package-deal aesthetic ushered in by the mass-tourism of cruise ships in the second half of the twentieth century. It embraces the same clean lines and sumptuous curves of Danish modern design, which make sense when considering that these pieces were handmade for the island’s cultural élite, a group of people accustomed to international travel who were also active in determining the political agenda of an emerging independent nation. The materials, though, are all Jamaican.
Many of the pieces for sale are made from hardy local mahogany, and required barely any restoration, despite almost seventy years of use, with a striking telephone cabinet and a pair of fluted commodes standing out among the articles designed by Fenton. There’s also a fine cedar bureau dating from the 1950s and a pair of armchairs designed by T.T. Jackson, the latter of which were expertly re-caned by master craftsmen at the Jamaica Society for the Blind.
A three-tiered circular table of mahogany in the 1930’s is the sole item on sale from Burnett Webster, a craftsman whose work is emblematic of the original styles designed in Jamaica in the first half of the 20th century. Burnett Webster holds the distinction, according to Ms Barrett’s research, of being the only designer whose work has been the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the catalogue to that exhibit is a rare example of documented design in the region. With increasing academic attention and a new generation of collectors in the region rediscovering local mid-century design, we can expect to see a lot more modern Caribbean furniture in the future.