Oliver Messel, Through the Proscenium Arch
The show-stopping legacy of iconic master theatrical illusionist, style-maker, mover and shaker, Oliver Messel, architect of Caribbean cool.
Words by Juliet Austin. Photography courtesy of Rizzoli from Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design and www.byronslater.com.
Leamington Pavillion in Barbados. Photograph by Daniel Christaldi.
If "All the world's a stage," then legendary set and costume designer-cum-style maker, Oliver Hilary Sambourne Messel should be considered a one-off smash hit and a key player in the theatre of Caribbean design. Recently released, Oliver Messel: in the Theater of Design (Rizzoli) edited by Thomas Messel, charts the ascent of the Eton educated scholar through his studies at Slade School of Fine Art at London University and on to a lifetime of whimsical designs which first loomed large in productions in the UK and across the pond on Broadway. Acknowledged by revered theatre director, Peter Brook as, "By far the most talented designer of his generation," from the 1930s to the mid 1950s, Tony and Academy Award nominations streamed in for Messel's work on movie, stage and ballet productions from Caesar, Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet and House of Flowers with a Tony win in 1954 for House of Flowers. Ironically, as his career in the theatre waned in the early 1960s, his star began to rise in the Caribbean, opening a whole new chapter in Messel's creative oeuvre and sealing his fate as one of the region’s most profound style influences.
The Pavillion Room at The Dorchester Hotel in London which Messel designed in a Regency Revival style in 1956. Photograph courtesy of The Dorchester Hotel.
Epitomising the sophisticated and fashionable world of theatre, Messel’s lavishly ornate sets married Baroque and Rococo styles coupled with healthy doses of whimsy and playfulness. Known for his exquisite craftsmanship, keen attention to detail, remarkable sense of texture and eccentric inventiveness, his fantastical and poetic designs possessed a highly stylised, painterly quality reflective of his background in the Fine Arts. With a vast knowledge of historical time periods gleaned from hours of research in libraries, museums and private homes, Messel developed what experts at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum called, “an extraordinary sensitivity to the dramatic requirements of action and atmosphere.” Master of mood, his ‘stage pictures’ played to full houses for the better part of three decades, inevitably leading to private commissions – harbingers of his second coming – like his eponymouslynamed suite at the Dorchester Hotel, celebrating the sumptuous elegance of a designer whose imagination knew no bounds.
Messel's set design for Cleopatra, starring Vivien Leigh.
Suffering debilitating arthritis and, in the late 1950s, limited to working on operas and musicals due to the wave of ‘Kitchen Sink’ drama taking possession of the stage and silver screen, Messel did what any self respecting theatre lovie would do: upped sticks and moved to the Caribbean. Something about the warmth and vibrancy of the Tropics (not to mention the sybaritic lifestyles of the well-heeled, well-to-do and well-connected) inspired a new lease of life in him. And so, Act II of Messel’s illustrious career began. Cue – Mr. Barbados, architect of the first distillation of Caribbean chic.
The garden front of Cockade House in Barbados typifies Messel's remodelling style which interpreted 18th century Caribbean plantation houses.
In 1964, investing in a ramshackle house called Maddox on the fashionable island of Barbados – where he would, fourteen years later, take his final breaths – he and partner Vagn Riis-Hansen, joined fellow socialites, Ronnie and Marietta Trees, for a life of blue skies, endless horizons and perpetual house parties. Reinventing the simple bay house on the west coast with his effusive theatrical flair, Messel’s flamboyant “coral-rimmed creation” boasted an easy mix of Palladian, Baroque and Classical styles. Designing his own sage green, faux-bamboo ironwork furniture, Messel’s magic flourishes are most evident in his predilection for manipulating focus, melting divisions between inside and out.
Featuring slender Greek columns, romantic flattened arches, elaborate plaster mouldings and elegant white-onwhite interiors, Maddox showcased the designer’s ability to, as architect Barbara Hill puts it, “convert quite ordinary houses into wonderlands.” Capturing the imagination of the influential Cunard, Heinz and Guinness dynasties, a string of high society commissions flooded in, including those for Leamington House, Mango Bay and Messel’s favourite, the “tearing beauty,” Fustic House. With demand for his illusionistic designs at a premium, Messel applied the same principles to designing houses as he had done stage sets, often manipulating perspective to create the effect of largesse as in the case of the house with light switches mounted eighteen inches from the ground. As Jeremy Musson writes, the designer’s genius stemmed from an ability to “envision[ed] the whole aesthetic impact of the domestic space in social, even sensual terms.” Creating strong lines of axial connection between the house, garden and broader setting, mini proscenium arches acted as focusing devices, limiting the view and framing scenic vistas so they fell as splendid botanical backdrops; “controlled Rousseau jungle[s],” against which life inside played out. So doing, Messel engaged the spectator’s imagination in completing the scene, framing the view from inside out toward the theatre of nature, or from outside in, where illuminated rooms were like model-boxes viewed from a starlit, open-air auditorium.
Reinterpreting his flights of fantasy in bricks and mortar, a whim to create a doll’s house or bird’s nest translated into hallmarks of Messel’s style including exquisite neoclassical detailing, jalousied shutters, latticework and exposed rafters. Palladian arches delivered classical symmetry while coral stone Doric colonnades, open loggias and decoratively scrolled terraced walkways were all as moss on a stone, adding charm, character and patina to Messel’s dreamscapes and lending authenticity, depth and a sense of being rooted squarely in time and space. As he says in an interview with his nephew, Lord Snowdon, “I think it is rather tiresome if a house is too conspicuous; I rather like it melting in.”
“By far the most talented designer of his generation.”
Royally connected as he was, in 1969, Messel found himself lured away from his first love, Barbados, to the exclusive royal outpost and celebrity getaway of Mustique by the wily Lord of the Revels himself, Colin Tennant (Lord Glenconner, if you will). Commissioned to design Princess Margaret’s home, Les Jolies Eaux on Point Lookout – a wedding gift from Tennant – he went on to build or remodel more than seventeen properties and devise thirty house plans, creating the island’s unique vernacular style inspired by French Colonial traditions and his own highly personal sense of colour and scene setting.
With the prologue to his life’s work in the ephemeral world of the theatre, Messel’s lasting legacy is as the leading man of Caribbean domestic architecture. Enacted in the articulated rooflines, the rusticated outdoor living rooms and shabby chic interiors, he continues to upstage from beyond the grave: orchestrating and shaping our expectations from behind the scenes, through the proscenium arch and beyond the final curtain, leaving us in no doubt that the show will go on.
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