Oliver Messel’s Style

If you’ve seen our May 2013 issue, you probably swooned at designer Colette van den Thillart’s Barbados hideaway. Van den Thillart admits she’s cherry-picked some of the elements to reflect the seminal style of one of the island’s most influential residents, British set designer Oliver Messel.

Messel’s charmed life started in London, but he ended up in Barbados, spending the last 12 years of his life there while bringing a refined elegance to tropical living that’s still the gold standard. He transformed a former storage building at Leamington Pavilion with baroque touches such as louvered doors and balustrades, arched windows and a loggia.

Affluent and well connected (Messel was the uncle of Tony Armstrong-Jones, the former husband of Princess Margaret) with a gift for gab, Messel started as a portrait painter for the social set. He moved easily into London theatre, designing sets and costumes for superstar productions of the day, and then Hollywood films such as Suddenly Last Summer and Gigi. Messel first visited Barbados with friends in 1959. Overworked and suffering from arthritis, he was reinvigorated by the tropical sun.

Messel had no architectural training, but he borrowed tricks from set design to create perspective, evident in this London production of Sleeping Beauty, and transplanted them to his new projects in the Caribbean.

His redesign of Cockade House in Barbados, a former sugar plantation, made it one of the prettiest houses on the island. Messel transformed it with slender Greek columns, flattened arches and fanciful fanlights.

The Cockade House terrace features lavish use of “Messel Green,” his trademark shade, along with lattice trelliswork, two of his most lasting legacies.

He even draped the stars in green, designing this dress for Elizabeth Taylor.

Fustic House was his favourite property in Barbados. Made of local coral stone, he accented the façade of the Messel wing with trademark louvered shutters to let the breeze flow, and Bajan parapets (small hoods over the windows) to block the sun. The cement floors were scored to look like tiles.

Messel green softens the transition from the interior to the lush palms surrounding the east terrace, and curtains buffer the elements.

His interiors incorporated white-on-white schemes with splashes of bright colour and elaborate plaster mouldings. He had a quirky habit: Messel was short so many of the light switches were placed close to the ground.

The first home Messel bought on the island was Maddox House, a rundown property on the St. James coast. He redesigned it to suit life in the Caribbean with balconies, loggias and terraces looking out to the sea.

Maddox House was such a hit, it sparked a booming new career as jet-set residents clamored for the Messel touch for their own vacation properties. He was tapped by Lord Glenconner to design 30 houses on his private island, Mustique, from 1960 onwards, including the winter escape of Princess Margaret, Les Jolies Eaux (the pool cabana is pictured above). But Barbados remained Messel’s first island love and his home until he died there in 1978 at age 74.

For more, read all about Margot Austin’s trip to Barbados.

Photo credits:
1, 4, 10. Antique French Living blog
2. A Certain Cinema blog
3. Royal Opera House
5. Charles Edwards Lighting blog
6. Social Bliss blog
7, 9. How To Spend It blog
8. Fustic House
11. Les Jolies Eaux home, 10K Vacation Rentals

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