The Soulhaus

Jamaica's Divine Design

Category: Lifestyle, Travel

If I could describe Caribbean architecture and decor in the simplest way, I would call it “divine design.” Divinity is the beauty we find naturally. Caribbean design represents a lifestyle where decor choices are led with intention. Homes and buildings are simply accessories that accentuate the natural mountain landscape, green vegetation, and majestic rainbow of flowers that surround us year-round.  Our way of life as Jamaicans is bold, ostentatious, and often acts first and seeks answers later (or not at all). Similarly, Jamaican decor and architectural styles have been generated without the need for official agreement or approval. We color outside of the lines while still utilizing tradition as a trusted foundation.

As you can imagine, the present-day style of Jamaican homes and architecture are an amalgamation of cultures, traditions, and ways of life that have journeyed to Jamaica, both by choice and by force. It is easy to relate our architecture to colonial history, but I like to think that the divine design of the natural, ever-flowing, landscape of Jamaica is truly the catalyst for which all else is manifested. The national motto on the Jamaican coat of arms is “Out of Many, One People,” as a tribute to the unity of different cultural minorities inhabiting our island alongside natives. First the Spaniards, then the English and French, voyaged to Jamaica, and with them brought jalousie shutters, wrought iron detailings, plastered facades, balconies, and ceramic tiling, creating the  “creole” architectural style seen across the island.

Writer Marleisse Stephens pens a powerful piece immersing readers in the divine design of leisure and lifestyle in the epicenter of the Caribbean – Kingston, Jamaica.

“Homes and buildings are simply accessories that accentuate the natural mountain landscape, green vegetation, and majestic rainbow of flowers that surround us year-round.”

Creole architecture was initially derived to satisfy the needs of the plantation and the leisure of the owners. For example, the “helper’s quarters” are present-day normalcy in the average Jamaican home, but in context, helpers’ quarters were created to keep the enslaved in close proximity to the fields in which they worked. Knowing that many architectural elements in Jamaica were created to aid in our imprisonment, and that we now utilize them as free people fills me with conflicting feelings of sadness and empowerment. 

To that end, what pleases me most about the architecture and decor style in Jamaica is that it is interpreted through a lens of life outdoors. The lush, hot, and humid climate creates an opportunity for many daily activities to happen outside of the structure of the physical house. This can also be traced back to our colonial history. That which is called a “house” is often made up of many buildings, and in Jamaica, it is often more pleasant to be outside than inside. In Jamaican living and leisure, the house becomes a backdrop and the patio or garden becomes the focal point. For instance, fruit trees are an integral part of the divine design, as they provide a myriad of uses: a naturally refreshing treat, a shady and cool spot to hang with family, or simply a beautiful sight to gaze upon.

Outdoor washing basins and stoves allow us to entertain and bring family and community together, but also make it easy to clean off the burdens of the day without having to bring the outside in. Jamaican people as a whole are extremely hygienic and take much pride in maintaining a clean environment. The Jamaican lifestyle provides immense comfort and allows us to utilize every piece of our dwelling multi-functionally to suit our lifestyle. That, to me, is the true definition of luxury: great comfort.

The idea of luxury living equating to premium consumption surrounds us and is hyper-politicized. Unfortunately, what society has come to define as “luxury” is often characterized  by inaccessibility. As a Canadian raised by Jamaican parents who grew up in the U.S., I have been able to witness a high standard of living in cities like Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. However, it was not until I started sharing more of my time in Jamaica, my parents’ birthplace, that I was able to experience a higher quality of life in its purest form. These travels have confirmed to me that true luxury exists in our access to leisure, and that can be found in abundance in Jamaica.

Images of Marleisse Stephens captured by Destinee Condison at the Kingston Antique Market in Kingston, Jamaica.

As a creative marketer and director now, I find inspiration in all aspects of everyday life. There’s a common phrase Jamaicans say is that ‘Jamaica is not a real place,” because any vibe you are looking for can be found here; remote, hyper-modern, inland, seaside and metropolitan. The options are endless and the limits non-existent. It nearly feels unreal. The Jamaican landscape is a great canvas to create with. I enjoy mixing antique pieces with modern moments and natural elements to create a unique visual point of view for my home, personal style, or client projects. In a world where most things are replicated, I enjoy challenging myself to search off the beaten path to create a product for clients that can be completely ownable and bespoke. 

Shopping second hand for personal, professional or client needs has so many benefits — everything has a story and is sure to be one of a kind. I like mixing modern styling with traditional to create an eclectic motif that feels nostalgic and sexy. In comparison to the U.S., antiquing is not a real “thing” in Jamaica. We, Jamaicans, take exceptional care of our personal items and tend not to throw anything of importance or value away, instead opting to repurpose or tuck them away for safekeeping. Conversely, many items like furniture are imported from the U.S. or China, and as a result, are much very expensive.

When I began decorating my own space, I knew that I was up for a challenge to create something that felt modern, but in concert with the divine design. I began doing my research and hopped around to the Salvation Army and found a few (very few) antique dealers. I bucked up on Kingston Antique Market and struck gold.  The richness and diversity of our nation can be seen so holistically at Jamantiques. The owners, Kim Kong and Wayne Nasralla have been in the business of collecting Jamaican antiques for over 20 years. They host a yearly antique fair, which has only been defunct for the past two years due to the pandemic. When I found them, they invited me to view their robust collection at their headquarters in Kingston. Kim and Wayne’s collection ranges from furniture, vinyl, crystals, lighting, books, handmade art, and much more created in Jamaica or brought here centuries ago by travelers, so every item is sure to have a story.

Moments captured by Marleisse Stephens on film

My personal approach to decor is similar to fruit trees: multi-purpose. For instance, a vintage set of crystal glasses from my Grandmothers’ collection serves as a beautiful drinking vessel, but also a talking point amongst guests. My advice to those wanting to curate a space with divine design is to first think about functionality. Ask yourself how this item aids your leisure and ease of life. I often use old wine bottles as watering cans and liquor queues as incense holders. Secondly, sustainability. Review what is presently available to you  and consider how you can utilize it in a unique way before making a purchase. Every day that we wake up, we are lucky to have life and the opportunity to engage with it in new ways. Shop at your home and the homes of your family to see what underutilized gems can be found in plain sight or under the dust. I love the book stacking trend because it allows me to utilize my books and old magazines in new ways, and I can always remerchandise and refresh the stacks for some newness in my space. Lastly, lean into the living. Plants literally create cleaner air, repel critters and heighten energetic vibrations. I also like to paint my planters a bold color to create additional dimension and contrast. Aligning with the divinity that exists in your life, environment, and ancestry will never steer you wrong and is sure to manifest a space you truly enjoy being in.

SHORT FILM: Jamaica’s Divine Design

Leisure and lifestyle in the epicenter of the Caribbean – Kingston, Jamaica.