While the title of the new book by decorator Celerie Kemble is Island Whimsy, there is a certain seriousness and thoughtfulness to the project it documents. Kemble has been designing the Playa Grande resort on more than 2,000 acres in a formerly undeveloped part of the Dominican Republic since the project was first conceived in 2004.
Kemble had done hotel and club work before, but had never faced a project of such scale from the ground up, with no client besides herself and the Playa Grande partners. Luckily, she had some familiarity with the DR, having spent lots of time at Casa de Campo, owned and operated by friends from New York and her hometown of Palm Beach. And she, with extremely limited Spanish language skills, had a close friend who was able to assist her in navigating the island nation’s local building regulations, and communicate her ideas to craftspeople and others involved in realizing the clubhouse and the six one-bedroom bungalows and three three-bedroom cottages that encompass the seaside venture.
“We didn’t want to close off from the surrounding area,” Kemble explains. “The idea of gates didn’t seem right.” The resort is, after all, built where locals used tp park their cars when headed to the beach.”
Kemble didn’t conceive of Playa Grande as a traditional resort, but as a boutique hotel, with a sense of history, even though there is no particular Dominican style of architecture.
“The biggest asset is the inclusion of the local culture and traditions,” she says. And Kemblel looked to the style of houses built in the hills rather than hotel architecture as a guide.
“I wanted everything to look real,” she reflects. But her touchstones, especially in the decoration department were more in keeping with her familiar PalmBeach stomping grounds. It’s not a Disneyfied version of the DR; instead it’s a melange of Victorian and ideas from the eccentric, yet relaxed and comfortable place she grew up in—the deconsecrated church her mother, Mimi McMakin, also a successful interior designer, transformed into a spectacular and extremely sophisticated-charming family home. “My family’s house in Palm Beach is essentially a series of rooms created from porches, surrounding a big central space, the former church sanctuary.”
For Playa Grande, Kemble strived to achieve what she calls a non-decorated look. “I wanted it to look like it’s been there for 50 years, and to celebrate the authentic Dominican artisans.”
So there is wicker furniture from an island factory capable of reproducing classic pieces, metalwork created by locals, and hand painted tiles from local suppliers.