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St. Thomas Author Helps Preserve Caribbean Furniture Heritage

Jan. 9, 2008 — West Indian people should recognize their heritage and try to protect it, says St. Thomas businessman Philip Sturm, whose recent book on antique furniture — on store shelves for less than two months — has already sold out in the territory and in a number of locales across the world.
During a brief interview Wednesday, Sturm said the need to preserve his knowledge about antique furniture — particularly his knowledge about the pieces in his mother's expansive collection — inspired him to write the book, West Indian Antique Furniture of the Lesser Antilles: 1740-1940.
The 10-year labor of love reflects Sturm's own interest in antiques, a passion cultivated by mother Dorothy Margaret Wallace de L'Isle Sturm, who started her collection after moving to Trinidad in 1939.
"She would notice all this furniture on the sides of the street, or under houses — things that were being thrown away," Sturm explained. "She would collect them and restore them, and pretty soon, people would start calling her whenever they had old furniture to sell. She would also help them purchase newer-model furniture and, in exchange, she would take their antiques and restore them."
Sturm smiled fondly as he recalled the weekend garden parties his mother would throw at their home in Trinidad, where the gems of her collection would be on display for potential buyers.
"We had a two-acre garden, with a big lawn," he said. "And she would decorate the whole garden like different rooms, like bedrooms, and put down carpets and everything and the furniture."
The collection eventually topped more than 200 pieces, most of which either remains in Trinidad, or at Sturm's home on St. Thomas. Sturm said that his mother would often take him along on her frequent "sojourns" to the country, and clue him in on the history behind the pieces she collected, along with various restoration tips.
"In 1981, when she died, I got a little nervous, because there was no information about this furniture — nothing written down," Sturm said. "I thought that maybe everything would disappear, so every night, I would take a little out of my head, write it down on a legal pad. It took awhile, because I first went to visit each individual island from which the furniture originated, but then I realized that I would have to do an overview, looking at the Antilles as a whole."
The pieces in the collection are representative of the archipelago that spans from the Virgin Islands down to Curacao, with French, English, Dutch and Spanish influences, Sturm explained . Many of the furniture designers took standard European motifs and designs — such as the tulip or the rose — and added their own twists.
"Three islands — Trinidad, Barbados and Curacao — were major furniture exporters," he said. "And they moved pieces up and down the islands through the free ports. The oldest piece in the collection is from 1740, while the youngest is from the 1940s. Today, it's become increasingly more difficult to find pieces that date as far back as the 1800s. And you're able to see that the different designers put decorations on them that are indigenous to the islands — palm fronds, seashells, sea-grape leaves, that kind of thing."
Now turned into a more than 100-page book, Sturm's thoughts and histories have been flying off bookshelves in the territory, online and in locales such as Australia and Denmark. Only 2,000 copies were originally printed, he said.
"I'm very surprised at the success of the book," Sturm added. "It's really a niche book, and the response has been overwhelming, which is nice. It's important to understand that this type of furniture, the supply is very limited. A lot of it has been lost through the centuries, through hurricanes, fires and revolutions. A lot of the islands are also only so big, with a certain number of houses. As these houses get pulled down or turned into something else, the furniture gets deleted or dispersed. So the book preserves this kind of history."
To get a copy of Sturm's book, head down to Dockside Bookshop on St. Thomas or visit amazon.com.
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