Words by Monique Mcintosh
Photos by Martei Korley
Close your eyes and think of the Caribbean home where you grew up, and no doubt one essential piece comes to mind – that massive china cabinet or vanity dresser dominating the room, all dark, thick mahogany and carved within an inch of its life in pineapple scales and lion paws. Dusting and polishing that bugger was the bane of your childhood. And you’re still not sure which would be recused first in a fire – you or the credenza. No doubt, you will fight for that honking wooden monument tooth and nail with your siblings and your Aunty Doris. But, if you’re honest, the fussy Victoriana of traditional colonial furniture always felt out of place amidst the car exhaust and hot cement of Caribbean cities, or the jagged cliffs and rough sea air of the coast. For all its traditional appeal, such furniture can sit like a coffin, sunken with a colonial past that’s gone, but never quite buried.
Clearly, Caribbean interior design is still in need of an update, and no one seems as well suited to lead the charge than Trinidad-born, LA-based artist and interior designer Scot Sardinha. His organic and unapologetically contemporary studio furniture has become a favorite of Hollywood heavyweights like Will and Jada Smith, and Queen Latifah. But, for us regular folk, Sardinha’s designs offer a new view on what constituents “The Tropic”: Think exposed raw woods, sleek, airy silhouettes and vibrant hues. Sardinha’s signature massive coffee tables and mirrors also command space, but they convey a sense of the experimental, and are surprisingly emotional.
“I wanted to break some of those barriers about the type of furniture design you’d expect to see coming out the Caribbean,” Sardinha says of his work. The clean, almost Scandinavian lines of his furniture provides a much needed antidote to the heavy colonial style, while reflecting his exposure to contemporary design as an art student traveling across Europe, and studying painting and sculpture. There, he learned the power of “maintaining a feeling of simplicity in the execution of design,” says Sardinha. “When you’re younger, you tend to try to do too much. Like a young painter adding and adding on, not sure when to stop. The most useful thing I learned was to boil down to the simplicity of lines. Find your signature by demonstrating yourself in the simplest manner possible.”
But make no mistake. This is a Caribbean simplicity, a certain effortlessness Sardinha surprisingly rediscovered along the coast of Santa Monica, where he now lives, surfs and works with wife Ty for their design firm, Modern Earth Home.
“California is like one big Caribbean island,” says Sardinha of his adopted home. “You can sense a similar vibe, in the beach houses you have along Malibu, just like the ones you have up the north coast in Trinidad. But they just take it to another level, the way they use glass to let in light, how they design the structure to maximize the wind coming through. And just the simplicity of the materials they use. Glass, wood, concrete, how they mix it up to make the home work with the surrounding elements.”
Glass and concrete may be a far cry stylistically from the Gingerbread-style family home of his sun-baked childhood, one he spent surfing along the cliffs off Trinidad’s north coast in Glencoe. But, in Sardinha’s eyes, just beyond the fancy Victorian filigree, his Caribbean home captured that same California sense of openness, how “all those hurricane shutters let in so much air and light, constantly, filling the whole house.” This, says Sardinha, is Caribbean too – a design that opens wide, that gets out of its own way and makes one focus only on the essentials.
And for the Caribbean, “the one thing that stands out is that natural, visual cadence that the region offers,” says Sardinah. You can see it the vivid hues of his more iconic pieces, like his fuchsia Pink Poui polygon coffee table from his most recent Inha Living collection, inspired by the “carnival of colors from the Phagwah [Holi] Hindu festivals back home.”
Elemental emotion plays its part too, as throughout the design process Sardinha is exploring how one piece can inject a particular energy into a room. “I am always playing music to get a vibe, create a feeling,” says Sardinha, whether it’s conscious roots reggae worthy of raw textures and sinuous lines, or the sharp angularity of a soca rhythm. “Once I start a build, I want to create some sort of extension of myself. Make other feel like the way I do when I look at the same piece.”
Sardinha’s experiments with Caribbean simplicity don’t get more fundamental than his most recent Inha Living collection – high-end furniture made from machine-cut plywood that is a far cry from the Caribbean’s colonial fetish for rare tropical woods. Making luxe pieces from the same material as your college dorm room furniture is a subversive, but intentional choice – that high design need not depend on mass-scale deforestation of rare tree species and ecosystems. It need not depend on the imperial weight of the past.
Instead, the Inha collection’s sense of luxury comes from the clarity of its aesthetic. The collection of tables, mirrors and chaise lounge chairs has this in spades, combining the airiness of floating glass with the raw edges of plywood normally hidden away from the viewer. Stacked together in layers, the exposed grain “creates a movement unlike anything else,” says Sardinha. “I start to see things in that grain when you work with it for so long. It still has that energy from the tree. There’s a real pureness there, a warmth that is still very functional.”
This sensibility of not mucking up a good thing when you got it will surely infuse the upcoming interior design collection he is currently working on. “I’m gathering up materials for it now,” says Sardinha. “I’m looking at going back into designing some lighting. Something on a smaller scale, more of a sculpted art piece that you can hang on a wall. Definitely something out of wood, but more of a statement piece.”
As for what a real dream Caribbean home should look like, Sardinha has very clear ideas. It would be of course – like his childhood Glencoe home – “a house on a hill with an ocean view, and a surf break down the bottom.” It would be all glass and wood and concrete, open wide to the morning light. No coffins in sight.