Great Escape: The Caribbean, by the Book

© ESCAPE: The Heyday of Caribbean Glamour by Hermes Mallea, Rizzoli New York , 2014

A new tome by designer and architect Hermes Mallea explores the origins and heyday of the Caribbean fantasy vacation.

As a partner in New York City architecture and design firm M(Group), Hermes Mallea has been creating idealized retreats for almost 30 years, focusing, as he says, on “translating a client’s personality and lifestyle to a more relaxed situation.” At the heart of his vacation design aesthetic—be it in the Connecticut countryside, the Los Angeles seaside or the Palm Springs desert—has always rested the idea of fantasy. “I love the idea of people falling in love with a place and imagining the ideal life they could find there—being the idealized version of themselves there.”

Few areas have influenced Mallea’s aesthetic more than the Caribbean. A Miami native with a deep connection to his Cuban roots, Hermes, during his decades-long career, has contributed to an understanding of the island region as the manifestation of America’s idealized vacation destination.

As he demonstrates with a clear narrative and a treasure trove of gorgeous archival images in his latest book, Escape: The Heyday of Caribbean Glamour (October 14; Rizzoli), it was early-20th-century tourism in the Caribbean in particular that inspired our collective travel poster vision of palm trees, tropical drinks, white sand, blue-green water and outrageous jungle/castle/pirate-themed resort architecture.

Mallea shows in the most delightful way how our idyllic conception of the region as a fantastical tropical paradise was created by the media (popular fashion and travel magazines like Town and Country and National Geographic and New York society gossip columnists like Suzy Knickerbocker, in particular), land developers and local tourism boards as part of a commercial venture intended “to encourage something as simple as selling real estate to wealthy Americans.”

Despite these commercial overtones, the fantasy became a reality, initially just for the ultra-rich. In the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, people like E. F. Hutton, Marjorie Merriweather Post and Irénée du Pont came to the islands, in part looking for an escape from Prohibition. They saw the unspoiled landscape, according to Mallea, as a pliant site where they could “create a house party, host people and create an ambiance.” (In fact, one major surprise to Mallea was the number of elite travelers who went on to found exclusive hotels in the area.)

The book also charts the region’s progress through the jet-set era and beyond, the changing notions of resort glamour in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and the migration of the upper crust to new islands and enclaves as travel opened to the middle class. It also touches on many of the islands’ political history and how certain situations impacted their status as destinations; how, for example, Fidel Castro’s initiative to shut down American resort businesses in Cuba allowed Jamaica to rise to prominence. It also examines the lives and work of some of the designers and decorators who created this iconic style. “The people I most envied,” according to Mallea. But the book always keeps the focus on the titular notion of getting away. “Fantasy in architecture or design encourages the concept of escaping responsibility,” Mallea says. “It’s all about escape.”