When famed French designer Christian Liaigre wants to kick back with his family, he heads to the island of St. Barts, where he has taken the idea of a simple beach shack to new heights of sophistication
Every winter, they arrive by private seaplane or superyacht—boldface names, moguls, and models descending en masse on a tropical oasis that is one part Hamptons, one part Saint-Tropez. The Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy—or St. Barts, as this French territory is known among the jet set—has evolved into the ultimate holiday sandbox for the world's rich and famous. But 30 years ago, when the Parisian interior and furniture designer began vacationing here, life in paradise was a lot more subdued. "At the time, most of the homes on the island were simple wood cabins and cottages," he says. "Today, the local carpenters are busy working on houses that are very grand, like the type you might find in Miami."
Designer Christian Liaigre with his son, Léonard, at his family's home on St. Barts in the Caribbean.
Certainly Liaigre, whose pared-down approach to luxury has earned him an elite global clientele, has played a role in the island's development. He designed the soigné beachfront hotel Le Sereno, along with vacation compounds for such A-list clients as art dealer Larry Gagosian and Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich. But 10 years ago, when Liaigre decided to build his own house on St. Barts, his goal was to re-create the simplicity that drew him to the island in the first place. "I wanted a house that was basic and surrounded by nature," he explains. "Essentially, what I set out to build was a fisherman's hut."
In the living area, the pine sofa, chairs, leather-covered ottoman, and sisal rug are all by Christian Liaigre, and the antique wood stool is Chinese; the cupboards are custom made, and the beams were stained black.
Liaigre has often said that true luxury boils down to three essentials: air, space, and light. On St.Barts, he set out to find all three. The road to perfection began with the ideal setting, on a quiet beach that is part of a protected natural marine reserve. "Just in front of us is the Bay of Marigot, which is very calm. Every morning we see turtles bathing and fish jumping," Liaigre says.
In the kitchen/dining area, the chairs are by the designer, the wicker pendant light is by Ay Illuminate, and the teak-and-oak table and brushed-oak console are custom made; the painted cabinets are topped with oiled local wood.
The decor is just as modest. Liaigre designed furniture specifically for this house, and then supplemented it with many of his classic pieces. Nothing is superfluous, from the living room's white slip-covered seating to the dining area's spare table in teak and black oak to the bedrooms' minimalist platform beds topped by mosquito nets. To this backdrop, Liaigre added black-and-white photography and a few handpicked objects that are vaguely suggestive of the setting.
The living area's walnut side table, brass sconce, and knitted sea-grass rug are by Liaigre, who also did the chalk drawing.
For example, there is an 18th-century portrait of a count (an ancestor of his wife, Deborah's) who ran a shipping trade to the Caribbean, as well as an antique French desk with gilt and chinoiserie decoration that reminded him of a pirate's chest. While the home's overall palette is stark, Liaigre injected touches of red throughout, from stripes on a dresser to the living area's varnished sliding doors. "It's a little note to bring equilibrium to all the white and black," he says. "When we close the doors in the evening, it feels like there is a lot of red, and it warms things up."
A daybed by Christian Liaigre under the shade of a gaïac tree on the terrace.
A custom-made cedar dining table on the terrace.
Sliding doors lead to the beachfront terrace.
The outdoor sofa and bench on the covered porch are by Liaigre; the view is of Marigot Bay, with Pointe Milou beyond.
Liaigre, accompanied by his wife and their six-year-old son, Léonard, makes the nine-hour trek here from Paris four to five times each year, flying first to St. Maarten, then switching to a seaplane for the trip to St. Barts, where the landing strip cannot accommodate a full-size aircraft. Léonard—named for Da Vinci ("My wife and I are both designers," says Liaigre by way of explanation)—adores spending time on the island. "He loves seeing the wildlife: the pelicans, iguanas, and large fish," Liaigre says. What's more, the family's next-door neighbor is a working fisherman: "He has children around the same age as Léonard, and they invite him to play and go fishing."
In the dressing area, a photograph by Herbert Ypma hangs above a custom-made chest of drawers inset with strips of red leather; the rattan-and-straw bench was made in Thailand for a Christian Liaigre showroom.
The fisherman also brings the family the catch of the day, whether it is mahimahi or fresh langoustines, which Liaigre and his wife put on the grill as the centerpiece of casual dinners with friends. "When I come here I try not to work, because, to be honest, I work a lot," he says. "For me, this place is about relaxation—swimming, cooking, and playing with my son. And even if the house is small, we spend most of our time here living outside."
The linens in the master bedroom are by D. Porthault; the sliding door is painted a shade of red frequently used in projects by the designer.
While it can get quite hot on the island, one thing Liaigre won't abide is air conditioning. "It's not necessary," he says. "We have plenty of fresh air from the sea. That is part of the charm of coming here, to sleep with the doors open and feel the wind on our bodies. We have everything that is essential: air, space, and light."
The sink and its fittings in the guest bath are by Volevatch; the shelves and steel-frame mirror were made by local craftsmen, and the door is of local stone.
In Léonard's bedroom, the headboard and bedside table are custom made, and the brass lamp is by Liaigre.
Custom-made mirrors and teak shutters in the master bath; the sinks and fttings are by Volevatch.
An 18th-century chinoiserie French desk and a Liaigre stool of chestnut twigs in the master bed-room; an 18th-century Caribbean map hangs above a 19th-century Vietnamese photograph, left, and a photograph of Bora Bora by Liaigre.