Talking Shop

Caribbean Modern

Wava Carpenter

Jamaican art consultant and collector Rachael Barrett is making sure 20th-century Caribbean design gets the recognition it deserves

It’s 2021, and the canon of design remains appallingly white and Eurocentric. The prevailing story of the evolution of design from the dawn of the industrial revolution through the modernist era and beyond—as told through major publications and museum collections—traces a clean narrative arc from the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London, to the Bauhaus school in 1920s Weimar, Germany, to the postwar Good Design exhibitions at New York’s MoMA, which made heroes of designers like Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Finn Juhl. This historical record, of course, omits the work of many talents around the globe. It’s past time to crack open the canon and welcome untold design stories.

Jamaican art consultant and collector Rachael Barrett is doing just this. Through archival research and curation, she is shining a light on the little known furniture makers and studios that defined design in Jamaica between 1920 and 1980. The goal is not only to bring much deserved recognition to this underappreciated body of work, but also to swat down persistent, colonialist stereotypes of Caribbean culture.

Rachael’s debut Caribbean Modern exhibition at Design Miami/ 2020 was an unforgettable hit. Inspired by Caribbean-American Heritage Month, we followed up with Rachael to see how her important project is progressing.

Caribbean Modern at Design Miami/ 2020. Photo © Rachael Barrett

For those who may be new to the subject, how would you define Caribbean Modern and the work that you represent?

My focus is design work made by Caribbean makers using native Caribbean materials in the modernist era.

A misconception persists that the visual language of the Caribbean is most heavily influenced by the sun, sea, and sand. The region’s reliance on and reputation for hospitality and leisure are so ingrained in the general psyche. Urban environments in the Caribbean, however, are a key driver of its cultural landscape. The Caribbean has always shared aesthetic values around fashion, architecture, and interior design with international communities. In the 20th century, the region and its creative production were part and parcel of the wider global shift toward modern living and modernist principles.

While many people associate island life with an escapist, vacation-from-real-life point of view, the modernist movement in the Caribbean was firmly rooted in local makers serving the needs of the local, urbane populations.

Caribbean Modern at Design Miami/ 2020. Photo © Rachael Barrett

Tell us about your efforts to expand the international design discourse to embrace and appreciate this work?

The pandemic ground most things to a halt. But what’s interesting for me is that if it were not for being thrown off my regular course, I would not have been able to get this project going at this speed. This is something that has always been in the back of my mind as something I would like to pursue. I’ve been collecting bits and pieces of modernist Caribbean furniture for some time, but I have not had the time until recently to really examine the history of the material.

Because of Covid, I spent over eight months locked down in Jamaica, connecting with people who share my interest in this material. I was shocked to discover that there is hardly any recorded information on the furniture and design of the region beyond the 19th-century Scots-born cabinetmaker Ralph Turnbull. And there is hardly any information on the subject from a post-colonial point of view.

My Caribbean Modern presentation at Design Miami/ 2020 was fate. It was the perfect alignment as the fair focused on the America(s) theme—people love to forget that the Caribbean is really part of the Americas! So while it was a smaller fair, the material got the chance to be introduced to the international design community in the right environment. This was particularly important to me to ensure that the work and workmanship is recognized on par with its European and American counterparts.

Jamaican Art Deco Club Chairs, 1950s. Photo © Rachael Barrett

Can you give a brief timeline of the development of this work, including influences from outside the Caribbean but also how it came into its own?

Historically, accounts of the modern era in the Caribbean focus on the movement for independence, political change, socio-economic liberation, and the major cultural shift toward Afrocentric and Creole consciousness in music, education, literature, and the visual arts. There is only brief mention of the transformation of the built environment that served as a backdrop to this post-colonial renaissance.

On the cusp of the wave of independence that washed through the larger Caribbean islands in the mid-20th century—when post-colonial nation-building was the order of the day—the architectural language in the region’s city centers began to visibly shift toward representations of international standards of modernity. And the 20th-century concept of the modern home was very much embraced by the new Caribbean middle class.

As the urban island continued to develop, Caribbean modernism really started to come into its own, under the influence of 1930s International Style architecture and 1950s Brutalist architecture in Britain. The clean lines and open-plan spaces of the International Style suited the tropical climate, while the materiality of Brutalist aesthetics suited the new (and importantly cost effective) innovations in local construction. Brutalism’s unfinished surfaces were easily achieved with materials that were locally available in abundance.

The timely question of British artist Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage—Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?—was certainly applied to the homes in fast developing city centers, from Kingston to Port of Spain. As the artistic renaissance blossomed, so did the hands of furniture makers who crafted pieces that suited this fresh direction and new style;  working on par with their peers abroad, but determinedly retaining a distinctive Caribbean identity.

Fluted Commodes by Fenton, 1950s. Photo © Rachael Barrett

Who are some of the most important designers and makers associated with Caribbean Modern?

Burnett Webster was arguably the most important designer-maker from a connoisseurship  perspective, in terms of both his mastery and finish. However, the ateliers of Thomas T. Jackson and Wilford John Fenton were the most popular.

Armchairs by TT Jackson, 1930s. Photo © Rachael Barrett

Can you spotlight one piece in particular and tell us why it stands out for you?

These 1930s Jamaican mahogany and rattan-caned armchairs by T.T. Jackson were a really exciting find! They are among the earliest Jackson pieces I’ve ever seen and a great example of what modernism in the Caribbean is really about—putting a twist on a mix of historically influenced forms and locally sourced, exotic materials.

I am so proud to have had the caning hand done by a Kingston-based non-profit blind artisan weaving studio, which focuses solely on historic and reproduction furniture. Even the founder of the studio who handles the business is blind, and their workshop—a mid-century cottage in a sea of highrises and office buildings—has been preserved in downtown Kingston.

The nuanced shape of the arms illustrate Jackson’s early departure from colonial revival motifs toward a more modern style. Jackson fuses clean neoclassical lines with modern angular shapes to create a chair that feels at once old-fashioned and contemporary. Plus there is a very slight coat of stain to preserve the wood—that strong reddish-brown color is the hallmark of true Jamaican mahogany!

This pair is one of the few from my collection that has gone to a private collector, who snapped them up almost the minute that they were installed at the fair. I just love that these pieces still have such a strong, timeless appeal.

Caribbean Modern at Design Miami/ 2020, including Spun Fiberglass Furniture by Albert Ohayen and a 1970s Jamaican Caned Breakfast Chair. Photos © Rachael Barrett

What are your future plans to ensure this work is no longer overlooked?

There has been a lot of institutional interest in the material, so the next steps are to ensure that these makers and their works are shown and positioned properly within the wider global design conversation. It’s an auspicious time to ensure that historians active in the field have proper avenues for their research to be documented—so that the work and makers within the canon are recognized.

This first presentation of the project was supported by Palm Heights, a boutique hotel in Grand Cayman that focuses on highlighting modernist design and supporting the arts in the Caribbean. The Creative Director at Palm Heights, Gabriella Khalil, has a background in art and design, along with other global design interests, so she understood immediately the value of the project and got behind it without hesitation. Without her interest in seeing this forgotten history revealed, the project would not have happened—and certainly not this fast!

Consolidating input from savvy partners like Palm Heights, who support bringing this narrative to the fore, are key to the next steps, which include exciting acquisitions and more exhibitions of the work from Jamaica and neighboring regions. I’m so eager for the public—especially the Caribbean diaspora—to have the chance to see this material shine!

Thank you, Rachael!