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  • Writer's pictureKerry-Ann Clarke

Full Recap: Design Week Jamaica 2023

pink boutique with orange facade surrounded by greenery
Host of Design Week launch, #ThePinkBuilding at 4 Holborn Road

Locale started this year's Design Week JA 2023 conversation by asking, "What makes a space?"

The factors to consider could and, indeed, have generated diverging fields of academia. There is much subject for thought already in the individual elements that collaborate to produce the gestalt we might acknowledge as the cumulative effect of the design — the spirit or vibe of a space. Therefore, we cannot truly observe the design of a space without observing the designs within the design.

But one might first ask, why consider design at all? This is not necessarily a separate question. For Design Week Jamaica 2023, the answers seemed to span distinct spheres of environmental, sociopolitical, economic, industrial and individual consequence.

Design Week Jamaica 2023

beautiful, stylish black woman in elegant gown holding mike and speaking at event
Design week Jamaica conceptualiser and Senior associate editor at the Jamaica Observer Novia McDonald-Whyte

Design Week Jamaica was conceptualised by Novia McDonald-Whyte of the Jamaica Observer. The senior associate editor is known for her role in elevating the narrative on all things Jamaican lifestyle (see Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards, The Jamaica Observer Takes Style Out…and her latest declaration of love for the island, Jamaica Vibes). That is to say, with her name on the bill, the standard is immediately set to excellence. This was a sentiment repeated throughout Design Week. The people understood the assignment.

For Design Week JA, Novia, as she is known on the Jamaican social scene, has made it clear that the industry is so much more than fashion.

One of this year’s Design Week collaborators, Aeisha Panton, is the genius Jamaican event space curator behind Pussbackfoot and co-owner, along with Kerry-Ann Clarke and Dr. Dainia Baugh, of Locale, the concept store that hosted this year’s Design Week launch. Panton put it best:

“Design is everywhere, and it influences our everyday lives with or without our permission to do so. With that said, it would serve us well to acknowledge it and ultimately improve upon it.”

As a week-long celebration of design in Jamaica, Design Week JA seeks to educate a general audience on the impact of design in architecture, urban planning, interior design, decor design, etc.; foster innovation through networking and collaboration; generate awareness and dialogue to engage consumers, and spotlight design trends. Indeed, it is a tall order but necessary work to further develop and sustain a thriving socioeconomic ecosystem.

Novia recognised the significance of extending and elevating the narrative on brand Jamaica, not just in creating seasonal arcs and clickable content for the social feed but primarily in affecting real change while forging a Jamaican canon. Over the years, she has rallied key players in the Jamaican design industry to the cause. Now, Design Week JA has just wrapped up on year six – a significant milestone by any measure.

As we look to Design Week JA 2024, it might be worth reflecting on what was revealed in this year’s dialogue, as the conversation offers us a snapshot of the current state of design in Jamaica.

Land of Wood and Water

floral beach towel with Jamaica tropical text held spread out by woman on beach

For a story to be set in Jamaica, it must correctly capture a Jamaican mise en scène. After all, a Jamaican home is more than “a house that is in Jamaica.” What, then, are the props in our story, and what do they tell us about the characters and the prevailing influences on the zeitgeist?

Jamaica has long branded itself as the ‘Land of Wood and Water’. Admittedly, this image does not inspire visions of a sprawling metropolis, but the importance of preserving and effectively utilising the natural landscape was a recurring motif in the Design Week JA 2023 conversation from the very start.

At the launch, one of this year’s main partners, Woodcats International, used the Design Week platform to announce its ‘Waste to Revenue’ programme, which aims to convert 100 per cent of the company’s product waste to revenues. Woodcats brands itself as the largest wood pallet and crate manufacturing company in the English-speaking Caribbean. The innovative ‘Waste to Revenue’ programme is then a success story for the region, birthed here in Jamaica. Apart from finding a reliable market for its sawdust waste and converting scrap lumber and the like to garden mulch, the company has also started a line of sustainably made furniture that are perfect for a tropical garden or outdoor space.

Design Week JA 2023 also saw other projects that boded well for Jamaica’s sustainable future. For instance, at the reality-suspending soirée hosted at the Jamaica Railway Corporation by the Karen Booker lead interior design outfit, Design Diva, patrons were able to witness a progressive Jamaica in action. Along with Woodcats’s sleek, utilitarian furniture on display, patrons were also introduced to Dezign Diva’s line of Christmas tree-toppers made from recycled material, and Smart Homes by CEAC’s cutting-edge, solar-powered, move-in ready units. Sustainable, environmentally friendly, progressive innovation, these are more than just buzzwords for the Jamaican market. In fact, Smart Homes by CEAC reported that some 70% of its smart homes in Bushy Park, St. Catherine, have already been sold.

Wood and water, it seems, will remain an integral part of the Jamaican brand aesthetic, and the pragmatism of sustainable design has already taken root throughout the industry. For instance, Panton’s own work in event curation stands out particularly for her uncanny ability to work with nature as both her canvas and palette. The moss-covered stumps propping the wooden bench in Locale’s entryway, the branches of bougainvillaea suspended above the coffee and cocktail nook at the boutique, and the fact that Locale’s own product line features sustainably made, artisan items all reflect how elegantly nature may be utilised as part of a Jamaican aesthetic.

A City on the Rise

bar space at concept store in Jamaica with hammock, and flowers hanging from ceiling
The Hummingbird at Locale coffee and cocktail nook at Locale

The topic of Jamaica’s relationship with its natural environment was a recurring motif in the Design Week JA 2023 conversation. In fact, the various spheres of conversation often overlapped. For instance, the conversation of Kingston as a designed space could not be had without considering the trees and other natural resources that are no small part of its design. This was a seminal aspect of the interactive forum that took place at Spaces, a furniture and interior decorating services provider based in Kingston.

The interactive panel discussion included industry players such as urban developers, architects, financiers, real estate agents, interior designers and students alongside a general audience. The conversation started with building and designing spaces that meet the needs of the Jamaican people and ended on the real costs of doing so, and whether or not Jamaica can afford to. There were even talks of an overhead railway system to alleviate Jamaica’s transit system.

The scope of the conversation went beyond what was possible in a single evening but nonetheless represented another step in the journey of a thousand miles. There were, however, many takeaways, with the main thrust being that, as a designed space, Jamaica still has some way to go in terms of developing infrastructure like a transit system that can sustain a growing population and further urban development. For this, it was made clear by the experts on the panel that better collaboration and planning would be needed, but the work is being done.

On the manufacturing side of things, industry pioneer ARC Manufacturing has been one of Jamaica’s key innovators. The company has had a notable impact on the Jamaican building construction materials manufacturing industry, being the first to produce things such as nails on the island and now operating Jamaica’s only treatment plant. This expansion of the industry is an indicator of the expansion that is taking place in Jamaican construction.

In terms of interior design and decor, which are as much definitive aspects of the designed society as the spaces they define, Design Week JA 2023 was able to highlight the range of offerings that are and have been available on the local market. The event hosted at Oppein Jamaica, with its high-end catalogue, high-tech systems and knowledgeable team, highlighted the fact that Jamaicans can access the finest in international standards right here on The Rock. What’s more, it highlights the calibre of consumers that are active in the Jamaican marketplace.

Shop Anywhere, Spend Local

two beautiful black women dressed elegantly and holding up platinum credit card
Locale co-founder, Kerry-Ann Clarke and the Jamaica Observer’s Novia McDonald-Whyte with their new Scotiabank Platinum Amex cards

The discussion that took place at Spaces could not have been had without discussing Jamaica’s financial position and the practicality of further expansion or redesign of our cityscape. The matter of finance and Jamaica’s dynamic economic terrain was also an important part of what made the conversations at Oppein and Home & Things so relevant.

Home & Things has some of the most competitive prices on the market when it comes to quality construction finishes and household products. The presence of stores like Home & Things highlights one aspect of the Design Week conversation that entities like Dezign Diva have worked hard to realise – the importance of making quality interior design and decor accessible for more Jamaicans. This will no doubt inform the Jamaican aesthetic, as well.

For their part in the conversation, Scotiabank and NHT signalled a thriving and capable financial market with more financial products and opportunities available to increase accessibility and fuel expansion. This part of the conversation specifically targeted a younger generation of Jamaica’s workforce – those who might be wondering if home or renovation financing is within their reach. The launch of Scotiabank’s Platinum American Express card which allows Jamaicans to shop worldwide in JMD, also speaks to the calibre of the Jamaican market and the spending power that more Jamaican’s are affording.

With more Jamaicans more empowered to build equity and generational wealth, and the clear progress the country has made towards realising Sustainable Development Goals, Vision 2030 might just be within our grasp. The question, however, isn’t just left up to major industry players to decide. As the Design Week JA 2023 conversation made clear, to achieve a desired cumulative outcome, the influence of the individual parts must be counted.

All Together

a curation of sustainably made items for home and fashion

At the colour-themed event hosted by H&L Rapid True Value, there was a vivid demonstration of how individual decisions can drive macro-level trends. True Value International flew in colour anthropologist and president of the Color Marketing Group, Pegg Van Allen, for a presentation on how international companies track colour trends and use this to inform market strategy. Anyone who wasn’t convinced by Van Allen’s presentation just had to ask one of the local industry experts present at the event to confirm that Jamaica is very much part of those trend-signalling statistics. As Regency Blinds and a rep from Chantier Construction Ltd. could attest, some of the trends that Van Allen reported were already being observed locally, even if there is no overarching agency to keep track.

Jamaicans, not just Jamaica, are part of an international conversation on design. The nuance here is relevant. It is why local interior designers like Angelie Martin-Spencer were able to speak to trends appearing in the local market that correspond with the well-researched and discussed trends that are appearing elsewhere on the global stage.

Part of the reason for this is that Jamaicans now have a vast and expanding product range available to choose from, whether they shop online and ship with innovative services like Brown Box or buy locally from stores like Furnitureland and Karmen’s Kollection that offer an impressive range of quality furnishing and decor items that you might have initially thought to search for online. As Martin-Spencer stated, it was easy to create her vignettes, representing myriad design aesthetics, because of the sheer range of items that the store had.

This is just one store. A cursory glance at the market should be sufficient to impress the share magnitude and diversity of options that are available to Jamaican consumers. In fact, one could potentially design, build, furnish and decorate their dream home with just the partners and collaborators of Design Week JA 2023 alone. There is Scotiabank and NHT for financing; Woodcats International, ARC Manufacturing, H&L Rapid True Value, Oppein Jamaica and Home & Things have your back from foundation to the finishing touches; Spaces, Furnitureland and Karmen’s Kollection, and Locale offer world-class quality furnishings and decor items. It is important to note that some of these items are locally made.

The question of where and how to spend will, of course, come down to the individual. However, if having access to a wide array of options is any indicator, Jamaicans are set to be spoiled rotten.

The Look Ahead

There is more detail and nuanced discussion that took place during Design Week JA 2023 than can be contained in a single recap. It is important to remember, however, that Design Week JA isn’t the beginning or the end of the conversation of design in Jamaica – it is simply an amplifier.

For Design Week 2024, then, the conversation will not pick up where it left off. The intention is that Design Week JA 2024 will provide a curated platform for the voice of the zeitgeist at that time. So, what might the prevailing narrative be for Jamaica a year in the future? What should it be, and how do we take it there? Where will you be?

The answers, again, will come down to the individuals – what Jamaicans, as a collaborative force, make it. Stay tuned.

design week jamaica 2023 magazines on desk at concept-store and boutique in Kingston, Jamaica

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