Furnishings: Colonial Son

  • Barbara Plumb

Only one name is always mentioned in the same breath as “best” when discussing West In-dian Colonial furniture—Michael Connors. His by-appointment-only New York showroom welcomes a parade of top decorators, including Albert Hadley, Bunny Williams, and Carlton Varney. All beat a path downtown to find antiques and architectural elements from the Caribbean islands, along with Connors’ own designs of native hardwoods.

A scholar with a Ph.D. in the decorative arts, Connors has just written Caribbean Elegance (Abrams, 2002), a book on the historical, economic, and social factors that shaped the West In-dian plantocracy, with photos of island houses and furnishings.

From the early 1700s to the 1850s, residents from each country that colonized the West Indies—Spain, Holland, England, France, and Denmark—imported their own furnishings. Gradually, the practicality of using tropical woods (which are resistant to termites) and raised four-poster beds (to hold mosquito netting and improve air circulation) led to a distinct Caribbean style. Local artisans, usually African slaves or their descendants, added their own touches by carving stylized motifs of palm fronds, pine-apples, banana leaves, nutmeg fruits, and snakes. Connors’ own pantheon of Caribbean favorites includes Danish beds, French armoires and settees, English tables and chairs, and Dutch consoles.

On a recent morning in New York, Connors was practically dancing with excitement as a shipment arrived with his latest acquisition: a mate to a Jamaican specimen wood table that he already owned. The matching tilt-top tables are made of 32 indigenous tropical hardwoods, most of which are now either extinct or protected species. It is the first time the tables are back to-gether since they were made in 1834 for Lord Sligo, Jamaica’s governor-general, and Connors has priced them at around $225,000 for the pair. Other crowd pleasers: late-18th-century Delft tobacco jars ($5,500 to $8,500), planters chairs ($2,700 to $5,000), parlor presses ($4,500 to $7,500), armoires ($10,000 to $15,000), and four-poster beds ($25,000 to $35,000).

It was love that blew Connors into his chosen field. In 1968, he met a woman when sailing the Caribbean and jumped ship in St. Croix to be with her. While teaching art history, he began collecting West Indian furnishings. Though he and his girlfriend parted, his love for island furniture intensified. When he returned to New York in 1980, Connors dreamed of starting his own antiques business. In 1987 he did, out of his SoHo loft. “If I sold a piece, I bought a better piece the next time,” he says. “It helped with the sadness of losing something I loved. And it’s a good exercise to teach yourself to trade up.”

Connors teaches a course on Caribbean furniture at New York University and styles two lines of island furniture for Baker. “People want casual elegance, and that’s what these furnishings are all about,” he says. “Prices have appreciated fourfold since I started, and copies by many manufacturers have proliferated.” But he seems pleased, not agitated, by the mimicry. “To create a demand,” he says, “you have to create an awareness. As long as our quality is better, we’ll stay on top.”

Connors-Rosato Fine Art & Antiques, 39 Great Jones St., New York, 212.473.0377

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