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Conscience of Wood

To me, wooden planks, as well as the trunks from which they are fashioned, have always had a deeper mystery of strength and quiet confidence. The morphing of style is a part of Caribbean culture and history, and it is revealed in furniture. Early colonists, wanting to replicate European styles, used mahogany in the Caribbean to create furniture, albeit the pieces tended to be more rugged in appearance than their dainty European counterparts. Once they were transported back to Europe, a mass export of mahogany began.

Now we’re importing wood from another source—Tanzania. Century-old dhows, hardwood-built Indian Ocean sailing vessels with wood cured from years of a life on the sea and under the sun. They are then refashioned by European designers influenced by living in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Caribbean.   

House of Wonders is the name of the importers bringing these boats, in the shape of furniture and accent pieces, to our shores. The pieces almost look as though the wood grew into the shapes. The smooth exterior of hand-carved pieces creates an immediate sense of depth. This is exactly what the wood is though, steeped in history and already well travelled before it starts a new journey in a home on the BVI. The dhows in Tanzania are handpicked by a team of scouts, individual project managers, who break down the derelict boats and bring them to workshops for the artisans, the fundis. The former owners of the boat are rewarded in funds that transfer to newer boats to keep them in employment or creating new sources of business. Most of those businesses are family orientated and passed from generation to generation. Such is the old way of things.

 

Sitting with Annie Westcott, a partner of House of Wonders and Nutmeg Designs, she talks about the other members of the team: Nicola, a former fashion editor for Australian Vogue magazine, and Anneke, the first gallery owner of dhow-style furniture outside of Tanzania. Annie is a former media consultant between the BVI and St Maarten. Now residing in the BVI with her husband Nigel McPhail, she serves me coffee at her house, a residence formerly owned and designed by the 1940s screen temptress Maureen O’Hara, as we marvel at the giant wooden doors at the entrance. I am taken back to an earlier time by the wooden doorway gracing the sanctuary and begin to marvel at the dhow pieces Annie has selected for her home.

Annie imports pieces of all sizes, but she wanted to start with a selection that “people could see, touch and take home easily. But,” she offers, “we can also commission full dining sets. I have started upholstering chairs and ottomans with recycled cotton truck tarp from the third world, taking the same idea of buying something no longer used and paying handsomely to help another continue or start a new trade.” The cost is no doubt in the shipping by the time it reaches our island shores and as Annie says, “consider flying to Tanzania, finding these people and commissioning art and transporting it back. We are happy to handle the logistics and smile knowing that everyone along the way is receiving appropriately, and the end piece is a beautiful heirloom with a history. We call our pieces modern antiques.”

 

I wonder about the dhow currently being broken down in Tanzania for this season’s designs through the modest distribution line. The pieces aren’t going to be mass produced, that isn’t the plan, and Nicola Swynnerton sends me an email to put me in the picture, “The dhow called Said Bahari (Arabic for Lion of the Sea), was built to transport cargo from Tanzania mainland to Zanzibar. Actually alcohol, as it is owned by a Sudanese who is Christian. Most dhows are owned by Muslims, and they refuse to carry alcohol, so this guy thought he would make a killing as lodges and hotels were demanding drinks for their clientele. The planks are narrow but thick, as this makes it stronger in case it hits anything. It is going to take two weeks to break down. My guys are there now breaking it up. Big job!” There’s something noble about breaking it down then, I think to myself as I sit back in one of the Tanzanian chairs wrapped in tarp.  

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