November 23, 2020

Inspiration Island: Design ideas are the souvenirs from a trip to Grand Cayman

Pin It

canopyAmsin Khachi, Special to National Post

As a designer, my inspiration for interiors comes from everyday life, whether it’s a visit to a local restaurant or a drive across a Caribbean island. I recently visited the Cayman Islands to meet some potential clients, and there I explored its architecture and heritage.

The islands are just off the southwest coast of Cuba, and consist of three land masses that cover 260 square kilometres of gorgeous oceanfront. I visited the largest of the three, Grand Cayman.

My only prior knowledge of the Cayman Islands came from watching the 1993 Tom Cruise film, The Firm – hardly enough to be able to understand the beauty and history of these islands.

Landing at the airport was uneventful, but the stress of driving a rental car on the left side of the street quickly began to consume all my thoughts. Once I hit the road, driving on the wrong side quickly became second nature, although I did constantly catch myself mumbling “keep left, keep left.

My first stop was at the Cayman Motor Museum. This excursion was to purely satisfy my own interests and not necessarily to get ideas or inspirations. However, sometimes that’s exactly when they surface. The owner, Andreas Ugland, toured me around his collection (one he’s been working on since the age of 16).

“The magnificent pieces in his collection include several Ferraris, the original Bat Mobile and Elton John’s Rolls Royce”

The magnificent pieces in his collection include several Ferraris, the original Bat Mobile and Elton John’s Rolls Royce. I admired the structure he had engineered to protect his collection: A massive, clear-spanned, climate-controlled garage, engineered to withstand a Category 5 hurricane while located high enough above sea level to escape flooding.

I like visiting new sites, where I get the advantage of seeing the results of a great deal of thought and work by some of the best designers and architects in the world – and that in turn inspire me in my own endeavours.

I had a little time to burn on my way to the hotel, so I turned off the main road to venture into the native parts of the island.

This is where I began to appreciate some of the ingredients of the design heritage. The vintage Cayman houses still stand with their large porches and gable roofs; they’re made of wattle and daub – a lattice of wooden strips covered with a composition of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. Most have updated tin roofs, but a few still maintain a traditional silver thatch palm roof.

“The vintage Cayman houses still stand with their large porches and gable roofs”

Traditionally, most homes were white with dark trim, though, this evolved into the use of pastel pinks, turquoises and greens. Hundreds of feet of old coral fences mark property lines and street sides; some of these date back centuries. I studied these walls: Each linear foot offered a new dimension and design that I found fascinating. This mixture of shells and coral could be a finishing technique that would look stunning in many applications … I found myself thinking it would be good lining the inside of a reflecting pool.

One morning I travelled to the south side of the island to see a spectacular structure designed by Jamaican-born architect Kevin Young. This modern structure stands along the serrated coral coast (with a view that leaves little to be desired).

Mr. Young told me his inspiration for this project came from the sea and the land, describing how the large curvature in the black wall was inspired by the organic shape of a stingray in motion.

“Elements were inspired by the coral seashore and were designed to withstand the hot tropical environment”

Other elements were inspired by the coral seashore and were designed to withstand the hot tropical environment, the harsh saltwater sea spray and to capitalize on the breathtaking surroundings.

His client is an aeronautical engineer whose input was instrumental in the hurricane-proof design of the roof. I quickly realized that building a structure here takes different considerations. It gave me a different perspective of harsh elements – designing with this kind of challenge in mind forces one to consider material selections and finishes on the exterior of a home so they can last a lifetime in the environment they’re used in.

On my way back up the west coast, I stepped out of reality and dropped into the fantasy development of Camana Bay. This is one man’s vision, but it took an entire army of experts to plan and execute the beginnings of a superbly designed and sustainable community. The project, started in 1998, was

designed as the largest containerized nursery in the western hemisphere, to grow native plants for the entire 500-acre site. It’s a multi-decade plan that is currently in its first decade. Commercial, residential and retail components, an international school, green spaces, a marina and man waterways have been created.

Breezeway tunnels with intricate mosaic tile details are positioned among the structures to facilitate the cooling effects of the ocean winds – a thought that could be incorporated into any residential design.

Retractable canvas canopies automatically draw across stainless steel cables over the walkways to offer shade. A variation of this is something I would integrate into a contemporary back yard.

There are numerous relaxing water features in every one of the many courtyards; I could steal any one of them for a tranquil residential backyard feature.

Extensive lighting elements cast shadows and highlights – and that made the night-time experience quite magical. A walk through this twilight haven was like getting a Lighting 101 lesson. It’s worth studying, to learn what each type of light and its angle will produce.

Noticing all these details can help me recreate a magical outdoor lighting scheme in another place.

Camana Bay is based on New Urbanism, which emphasizes walking, socializing, living and exploring – an evolution in the long span of Caymanian architecture.

I spent my last afternoon on the island with Denise Bodden, historic programs manager of the National Trust. She gave me an entirely different perception and appreciation of these islands – from their discovery in 1503 by Christopher Columbus until today.

We visited everything from the earliest settlement sites to the oldest cemeteries. I love visiting old cemeteries in my travels and these burial grounds had the greatest impact on me.

Gravesites with remarkable “house-shaped” grave markers have European influences dating back centuries. This is where I realize the impact hurricanes have in deteriorating these national treasures.

I could have spent hours imagining what transpired in the rooms of one of the most interesting of the restored sites I saw. Even the borders and patterns in the hardwood floors in the 1780 Pedro St. James Heritage Great House have stayed with me and will surely surface in some project at some point in my career.

I have just realized I’ve said little about the hotel I stayed in, the restaurants I visited or the modern developments I saw. That’s because the inspirations in hotels and restaurants are often an absolute given.

My true inspirations come from travelling off the beaten path and experiencing the people and heritage of local culture. I live to experience classic and historic design details, brushing off the dust from the past and recycling them in a new and exciting way in my design life.

For more on this story go to:


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind