Hugging a magical stretch of beachfront on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, Playa Grande Beach Club is a soul-filled mashup of West Indian old-world elegance, custom crafted Dominican decorative elements and pre-loved vintage furniture. Here, we talk to interior designer and author Celerie Kemble, the mastermind of the resort’s design vision, about how she achieved the look and how you can emulate it in your own home.
In the summer of 2004 a group of investors connected to each other by family ties and friendships acquired a 2,000-acre swathe of land at Playa Grande between Rio San Juan and Cabrera on the quiet northern coast of the Dominican Republic. The parcel is indisputably one of the most spectacular sites in the Caribbean: a seemingly endless beach of dreamy powder-soft white sand, dramatic cliffs and lush tropical jungle. Close enough to the international airports at Puerto Plata or El Catey for easy access but secluded enough for relaxing in undisturbed tranquillity, the group had found their Eden – the ideal spot to build their own hideaway homes for family vacations (which are now open to guests too). Over roughly ten years, celebrated interior designer and part-owner Celerie Kemble oversaw the creation a collection of 9 one- and three-bedroom bungalows and a communal great house with oceanfront pool, all of which are infused with her unique style while feeling firmly rooted in their surroundings.
I asked Kemble how she first came across the site. “One of my friends from my college age years had talked about this property as one of the most dream-like properties, too much to be believed until you’re there in person. He had informed us the property was for sale. On his word – which were all superlatives – we went down as a group of friends looking for something to buy together. We couldn’t believe that anything like this was sitting there.”
At the time there were remnants on part of the site of a former destination long past its best. “There was the original golf course in poor repair but still stunning,” Kemble says. “The original golf club which had a Soviet era design. Nothing you’d want. Everything about it was the topography. Then this big, long beach which stretched along the jungle. There was one hotel there called the Occidental. It was an old, all-inclusive and that was also a big concrete conker… it was as good as gone when we purchased the property.”
The group decided that they wanted to purchase the site but they had not yet decided what exactly they wanted to do with it. “We knew that we wanted to somehow be a part of the property. We knew it was obtainable given the scale of our investment group and it was so easy to see no matter where we built or what we built, we would be in an optimal location. There aren’t many sites that are protected on all sides by cliffs or jungle or ocean with that level of view, the beautiful weather, the proximity to airports. It just seemed like at the time we made the decision to get involved that we didn’t even need to know what we were doing specifically because we weren’t developers. It was more a group of people who were like, somewhere in this property we could build our homes and create vacation homes for our family. It was big enough to encompass a lot of imagination. It almost felt like, well if we did it this way it would work or we could do it a totally different way and it would still work. The property had inherent flexibility just because it was beautiful in all directions.”
The group decided to purchase the entire parcel. One section of the parcel was subsequently sold on to developers and has since become the setting for the gleaming Aman resort – Amanera. With minimalist concrete and teak structures perched on 60-foot cliffs and the crisp lines of floor-to-ceiling glass walls, flat roofs with overhanging eaves and glimmering infinity pools, Amanera is the epitome of clean, contemporary luxury design. It is also a striking contrast to Kemble’s vision for Playa Grande Beach Club at the other end of the beach. “My goal in designing the club was to make it feel like an old house,” Kemble explains. “Not so old, but something that quickly, in accommodation of its own environment, aged in a way that felt natural. So, where I think of Aman as these incredible sightlines and sort of intense architecture of high contrast, bold moves, I wanted where we are to be a bit more of a folly in the jungle, something that bent and swayed in the breezes and was of wicker and color and whimsy. An entirely different design directive than the Aman.”
The vision for Playa Grande Beach Club developed out of Kemble’s design philosophy, typified by the title of her first book ‘To Your Taste: Creating Modern Rooms with a Traditional Twist’. However, in this case, “I would probably not even use the word modern, except that it is modern in its use and its comfort level,” Kemble says. She drew on the architectural tradition she was surrounded by in her childhood. “I grew up in Palm Beach, Florida, also in an old wooden house which had originally been a church and next door to an old, wooden Victorian kit house,” she says. “There was a lot taken from those two homes, because I grew up really loving the graceful women’s folly in the tropical setting.”
Kemble also looked deep into the local architectural traditions of the region for inspiration. “It really grew out of looking at the local farmhouses and some of the old Victorian houses in the cities which are pretty heavy on ornamental detail but all primitive details – very hand wrought and irregular and wonky,” she says. “We used a lot of the same architectural references, the decorative balustrades, the overdoor shapings and the tragaluz (the cut out open air passageways above doors) and I looked to the patterns in a lot of the roadside homes or farmhouses up in the mountains where they used a particular wood species called Tabla de Palma,” she explains. “Then we used concrete tiles made in the Dominican Republic for our flooring. Then there were elements of more Victorian era design that we took from some of the houses in Puerto Plata and I worked with an architectural historian who has long been going down there and he brought years’ worth of his own inspiration and photographs from traveling around the country and we pored over them.”
Kemble did not stick rigidly to architectural tradition. She added her own playful twists. “I always think inspiration from something original is as important as being original because every building has its own proportions. We made ours grander and a little bit more refined than the Dominican farmhouses, but at the core, the layout of the houses were the same.” To the interiors Kemble added an eclectic mix of pieces, from vintage wicker furniture and copper bathtubs to shell-festooned mirrors, wrought iron light fixtures and lamps and bright throws and cushions. The result is an eye-catching and inviting feeling that has a warm patina of age and is filled with unique character.
It is this mix of old and new, the twist on tradition that Kemble believes is key to adding personality to a space. So, how can you set about recreating the look and feel in your home in the Caribbean? “I don’t think it is easy to design anything,” she says. “But, to design something and have it feel like it wanted to bear its own soul or have a real personality, you need things with varying ages and different design styles”. Her advice: “I think it would be to really challenge yourself, even if it means buying old things that are more expensive than new things, to shake the desire to have things entirely functional. The truth about the Caribbean is that nothing is truly functional – that is part of its charm. So, in decorating houses I would choose a wildly old chair that has a soul over something that I could get a matching set of ten,” she explains. “I would allow for more spirit and kook than continuity and practicality and perfection,” she says.