PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- To followers of high fashion and the latest Haiti design trends, she is the young, hip luxury designer whose $600 handbags and beaded leather accessories are must-haves among the fashionista set.
But step into the first U.S.-brand hotel to open in Haiti in 15 years, the Best Western Premier, and another side of Haitian designer Pascale Théard quickly emerges.
“I want people to see that Haitian art can be extremely modern,” said Théard, 38, the creative eye behind the locally inspired touches that have transformed the upscale hotel from ordinary to contemporary, Avant-garde Haitian.
The 106-room property that opened earlier this year in tony Petionville on the hills above the capital features 622 works of art from more than 100 artists and artisans from around the country.
In the $159- to $189-a-night guest rooms, the spirit of rural Haiti comes alive with woven dividers from Jacmel and traditional chairs, made from bamboos grown in Marmalade in northern Haiti, accenting the interior.
On the walls: picturesque scenes of peasant life, created by hand from cut out banana leaves.
In the lobby, neutral hues are given a splash of color to complement the imported furnishings, handcrafted wood pieces and recycled rubber. Pillows were created from clothing scraps, a statue was honed from recycled aluminum and steel, and a hand-embroidered tapestry greets visitors at the door. Inspired by Haiti’s Vodou flag tradition, the tapestry was re-envisioned by Théard and transformed into a work of art by artists in the Bel-Air slum.
“We want our customers to feel Haiti as soon as they walk into the lobby, the rooms, the restaurant, everywhere,” said hotel owner Christopher Handal, who with brother Stanley, hired Théard to bring their vision to life.
Indeed, at almost every turn, there are authentic, hard to miss, yet understated touches of Haitian aesthetics: recycled tires refashioned into dancing abstracts; red, green and blue sunflower-inspired panels from Croix-des-Bouquets that illuminate the pool area at night; hand-carved river stones from Léogane, made to look like bubbles to bring a bit of tranquility in the spa’s waiting area.
In the restaurant, Le Michel, a sense of humor was added to bronze-colored two-dimensional, recycled drum masks. Spoons and forks around the masks serve as earrings and beards. All were produced by homegrown Haitian artists, who were recruited by Théard and then challenged to stretch their imaginations to produce something unique but still very much Haitian.
“I said, ‘We are going to show how Haitian artisans can go completely into modernity,’ ” Théard said, as she worked with the artists and artisans over six months. “I wanted to take it to another level, one that is more Avant-garde, more contemporary.”
Philippe Dodard, the internationally renowned Haitian painter and director of Haiti’s National School of the Arts, ENARTS, is impressed.
“I find the concept interesting,” he said. “She’s not only showing the artists and paintings in the way she’s using them, but how Haitian aesthetics can be used in designs.”
Dodard is especially moved by Théard’s tribute to Haiti’s Saint Soleil Movement. Also known as the “peintres paysans” because most of the naturally talented artists started as rural farmers, the movement was founded in 1973 by artists Maud Robart and Jean Claude Garoute, known as “Tiga.” Vibrant reproductions of the paintings adorn the hotel’s elevators and walls.
New York attorney Melissa Bernier, who calls the Best Western her new favorite Haiti hotel, said while the artwork has helped produced a warm and inviting feeling, it’s also given her, as a Haitian American, a sense of pride.
“A hotel of that stature could have easily taken a more European or American approach to the interior design,” she said. “I loved the fact that a lot of the furniture was made in Haiti and had definitive Haitian elements. Haiti is a very artistic country and seeing those elements present at the hotel is wonderful.”
The Best Western is among several branded properties that have opened in Haiti since the country was devastated by an earthquake four years ago next month. Every hotel has its own character and charm, which government officials hope will help their push to market Haiti as a tourist destination, once again.
Indeed, some tourism operators here have long argued that in order to promote tourism, the authenticity of Haiti, and thus its culture, must be promoted.
“Everyone who has visited the Best Western hotel in Petionville can do nothing but agree that it is the perfect match of the modern and the traditional culture,” Haiti Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin said, calling Théard‘s creative work “amazing.”
“Our paintings, our fabrics, our art, our touch. It is definitely the best way to present Haiti to visitors,” she said.
Stacy V. Elliston, principal interior designer with Studio 11 Design, which was hired by Best Western to oversee the hotel’s design and collaborate with Théard, said the final product “just looks like it all goes together.”
“It is a very cohesive package,” said Elliston of the marriage between the imported furniture, Best Western’s brand and Haiti’s visually vibrant culture.
Elliston said she could see Haiti’s richness from her very first trip in January 2012. Théard, who draws inspiration for her beaded and sequined Vodou symbol sandals and purses from Haiti’s traffic-clogged, colorful streets, took Elliston to several places, including her home.
“Her house is a beautiful showcase to the local artisans,” Elliston said of Théard, whose interior design work is also featured in government offices and the renovated Port-au-Prince international airport. “She took us around and showed us the capabilities, and we were just astounded.
“We knew we needed to utilize these artisans, but we didn’t want to use them in their traditional sense. We wanted to come up with concepts to use their materials, their arts and their craftsmanship in different ways. We didn’t want it to be a literal interpretation.”
Case in point is the 300-plus framed paintings made of banana leaves in all of the guests rooms. They were inspired by typical Haitian postcards depicting rural life.
“I’ve been seeing these cards since I was little,” said Théard, “and I always have a bunch in my desk. When the designers from Studio 11 came, they fell in love with these banana leaves.
“They love it and they found that it was very typical of Haiti. So in each room you have Joseph Stanley’s artwork.”
Stanley said the experience has been rewarding in many ways.
“It’s the first time I worked for someone and they invited me to come see my creations on display,” he said. “It was truly beautiful.”
Théard said while she’s been approached about hotel projects before, “this was the first time there was a willingness to have a hotel with a Haitian atmosphere, featuring the work of Haitian artisans and artists.”
Standing on the hotel’s second floor, surrounded by recycled drums that have been transformed into artwork, she points to a quote on the wall. It is by Selden Rodman, the modern culture critic and tireless promoter of Haitian art who died in 2002. It says, “Haiti ... where art is joy.”
“Sometime you have an idea of Haiti being so poor, so miserable,” Théard said. “People are struck to see that, yes, it is a poor county, but people have joy in them. They smile.”
Suddenly, the idea that someone had of Haiti completely changes, she said.
“For me Haitian art and craft translates that way of living, of seeing life,” Théard added. “I really wanted to make the link between Haiti and Best Western, Haiti and the United States ... To make that link for me was to have this sense of an American that really loved Haiti and loved Haitian art.”