January flew by. Part of the reason for this - and for the blog silence - was that I went on a little trip. You might have noticed by unusually tropical images on my Instagram (or even, by my lack of Instagrams).
It's been a while since I've traveled somewhere new. I don't travel very much outside the US but I am fortunate enough to have family members who love to do so. When my partner's parents first proposed a trip to the Caribbean last year, I was lukewarm. (I'm not much of a beach bunny and the vacation plan included a lot of swimming, snorkeling, and the like). Of course, I was very excited to spend time with my family and absolutely grateful for the opportunity to travel and explore Caribbean culture. Looking back on it now, I feel silly for being at all skeptical. I had an incredible and very inspiring time and would definitely go back if given the chance.
So in the middle of January, we pulled our summer clothes out of storage, packed our bags and negotiated animal babysitters and traveled to Puerto Rico and a few islands in the Caribbean.
We spent very little time swimming. Mostly, we just drove around (often on the opposite side of the road) exploring. I was surprised to find myself completely engrossed in each island's unique architecture and complicated history. Looking back on it now, of course these tropical houses - so different from my typical New England surroundings - would catch my attention.
As somebody who draws inspiration from buildings, this trip was filled with interesting pattern prospects. Iron gates in endless geometric patterns, brightly painted concrete forms, houses who's structural additions spanned decades, even centuries, with each portion on the timeline clearly visible. I became particularly interest in a type of house 'native' to Barbados: The Chattel House.
Since our day in Barbados was spent with a unwell party member, there wasn't too much time to stop and take pictures, but I spent the whole drive gazing out the window at the variety of houses fitting this particular style and ranging in age, wear, and variation.
A Chattel House is a simple wooden structure, usually with a central door, two windows, and a steep pitched roof. It's similar in appearance to a Cape Cod house, but much smaller. Often, a second similarly shaped structure was added to the back to create another room.
In terms of materials, these houses were constructed out of wood and corrugated metal using no nails so that they could easily be moved. The structure originated during the time of plantations as worker housing, since they could be packed up and moved to the site of a new employer. There’s a complicated history of colonialism and slavery in many places in the Caribbean, including Barbados which was heavily involved in the sugar trade throughout the 17th & 18th century and had an immense population of enslaved Africans.
The term used to describe these houses - Chattel - literally means a 'piece of property, other than real estate'. Chattel was often used to describe enslaved people - pretty horrific and dehumanizing - so the word is very loaded. These Chattel houses belonging to plantation workers were considered movable personal property, unlike houses associated with a piece of land which belonged to the land owner. At a time when many of these folks could not own land, the chattel house was a unusual instance of home ownership.
As people began to settle permanently, these houses grew. Additions were added to create space for more family or to allow for modern home amenities. Sometimes, you can still see the original chattel structure; a common addition is to extend the back of the home with a slightly pitched roof, keeping the original front facade. Other times it's harder to identify, with the recognizable part of the house facing away from the street, or partially obstructed by a porch or addition.
I haven't stopped thinking about ideas for a pattern inspired by the Chattel house. My current train of thought is something that can come apart at the seams. Would anybody want to sew 20 buttonholes? Maybe not
I also was quite surprised to see a lot of gingerbread! Not the cookies, though molasses is plentiful on an island known historically for sugarcane and currently for Rum; gingerbread is a term often used to describe all the detailed scroll work and molding used on Victorian houses. At first, I was surprised to see it almost everywhere in the Caribbean. However, when you recall that most of these islands either still are or were European colonies, it makes sense. (There's a big, complicated discussion about colonialism in the west indies that I'd love to delve into, but not today. ) For now, we’ll focus on the lovely blend of influence and local culture apparent in the appearance of these homes.
In a weird way, my attraction to the Caribbean is similar to my attraction to New England. Both were at some point, European colonies that (sometimes) developed into independent nations. But their older cities still show that influence. When I think warm climates, I think of the endless cookie cutter stucco and relative newness of Southern California where I grew up. The Caribbean feels a lot more like Massachusetts than California to me (you know, if you take away the whole tropical climate/culture/flora/fauna thing...)
With a few other patterns in the works, it'll take me a while before I begin working on some of these ideas, though I've already started sketching. I'm looking forward to reading more about island architecture and history's influence on it...that is, after I finish reading The Making of Home by Judith Flanders, which 2 chapters in is already awesome.