AS MUCH AS HALF OF RUSSIAN CITY DWELLERS OWN COUNTRY RETREATS, KNOWN AS DACHAS, IN THE OUTSKIRTS OF THEIR CITIES, BUT FOR THE RUSSIAN ELITE, THE OUTSKIRTS CAN MEAN PARADISIACAL ISLANDS IN THE CARIBBEAN. HERE WE LOOK AT A LUXURY RETREAT FIT FOR A SUNBATHING TSAR IN SANDALS AND SHORTS.
By Linda Marx
This luxury St. Martin estate is open, spacious and embraced by the sun. For someone whose many contributions to contemporary design include a brilliant use of color, transformation of a room around a single piece of art, and an erudite interpretation of historical reference, South African born Geoffrey Bradfield could have viewed the commission of this spectacular Caribbean island estate as just another project.
But he instantly learned that the St. Martin, Lesser Antilles vacation home was different. Owned by his Russian-speaking, New York based clients, this estate, located in Terres Basses, an exclusive enclave on St. Martin that is anchored by the celebrity favorite La Samanna Hotel, had additional historic cachet.
In fact, the clients named their escape La Dacha, which originally meant “something given.” During the 17th-century reign of Peter the Great, they were country estates bestowed by the Tsar upon loyal vassals. Today, a dacha refers to a vacation home ranging from quaint country cottages to luxury estates built by the Russian elite near cities and in affluent waterfront communities such as those of Odessa on the Black Sea.
This dacha, theorizes the designer, attests to the power of modern transportation and considerable wealth to render the world a smaller place. “Rather than traveling by horse-drawn carriage to the forests outside of St. Petersburg, the family flies to their beloved tropical dacha by plane,” quips Bradfield, who grew up on South Africa’s Eastern Cape in a family farm built atop a promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean.
La Dacha offers his client stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and the island of Anguilla. In such a scenic context, Bradfield’s color choice was aqua and turquoise. But the rest of the design is French 1940s, like the client’s New York estate, yet with a totally different feel. “Unlike the rustic look of many dachas,” says Bradfield, “this one is cleanly modern and anchored by classical references.”
Originally built by architect Mauricio Lanari, the sprawling, multi-building Caribbean compound was renovated by Bradfield to convey “pure escapism.” Casual and understatedly elegant, the estate is used as a relaxed family retreat and a venue for friends. Indeed, cook-outs, pool parties and sunny days are de rigeur for the mother, father, two daughters, grandmother and friends.
In the main building, Bradfield explains, four simple and unfluted Doric columns stand at the center of two perpendicular axes, each representing an elegant enfilade. One moves through a custom Art Moderne-style wrought iron front door to the entry hall, then the living room under a wide segmented arch and onto the veranda with the sea beyond. The other proceeds gracefully from the living room to the hall into the game room and another outdoor seating area. The four columns support a low ceiling on either side of which tray ceilings in the living and game rooms soar to 18 feet.
Within the estate’s open plan, the living room and game room are cleverly demarcated by identical area rugs executed in complementary yet contrasting color schemes. The living room rug has an ivory ground with a loomed turquoise and aqua pattern; that in the game room has an aqua ground with the pattern repeated in turquoise and ivory. An ivory shagreen coffee table with nailhead trim in the living room shares a natural rapport with custom freestanding cabinets of the same material in the game room.
This partnership continues between the game room’s parchment lacquer shelving, which houses blanc de chine vessels and figurines, and a pair of turquoise lacquer tables in the living room, servicing two corner seating areas. Even the paintings, both by American artist Hunt Slonem, converse with and complement each other. “In the living room, a colorful rabble of butterflies compares to an even denser company of parrots,” says a satisfied Bradfield. “If there ever was an appropriate home for these paintings, it is here.”
The client also wanted an outdoor Moroccan room, but an indigenous gommier tree stood in the space that would become the bhou (Moroccan term for outdoor seating areas). The solution for saving the tree called for another tray ceiling over the bhou that was semi-detached from the surrounding colonnade. The tree is now a sculpture growing freely in the area between the bhou and the colonnade. Bradfield also designed a colorful mosaic floor patterned like a Berber rug.
In order to make the room appear tented in a modern expression, the architecture became the tenting: alternating Venetian plaster and concrete strips now descend from the apex of the ceiling, down walls and around six horseshoe arches backed in mirror. The structure encloses low, graphically striped divans that recall harem-style seating.
Bradfield contrasted the ornament of the bhou with a restrained open-air dining room facing the sea. The walls are without ornament or detail. “What makes this room appear not entirely utilitarian,” he says, “is the richness of the tabletop and the glory of Mother Nature.” The tabletop illustrates a leafy intarsia design accomplished in lapis lazuli and rare marbles. The form of the custom railings that outline the space, the whole structure cantilevered dramatically over a cliff, echoes the gentle rhythm of the ocean waves.
The guest suite, however, departs from the Art Moderne styling of much of the estate. Its references are of Cuban sugar plantations. Bradfield used tobacco-brown lacquered fretwork panels to separate the sleeping and sitting room areas. One showcases a mix of fabrics recalling a hilly Caribbean village, while the other shows a refined ombre brocade of tropical foliage.
By utilizing the culture of the estate’s owners, Bradfield embraced a lovely Caribbean villa and made it extraordinary. He took “something given” and gave it a contemporary and bright twist that the family will enjoy for many years to come.