Cuban Design and Private Initiative

Daisy Valera

Piscolabis Crafts

HAVANA TIMES— “Cuban design ? difficulties” is a simple and useful formula that could well be used to summarize the situation of this practice on the island.

The promotional and support strategies which the Cuban revolution developed in many cultural sectors (such as popular music, ballet and others) were scant in connection with the design arts, something rather surprising when we recall how intensively propaganda posters were used to convey political proclamations to the people in the early 60s and the many movie posters produced to present the “new Cuba” to the world.

There are perhaps only two important moments in Cuban history where we catch sight of an effort to make the cultural policies of the State coincide with the development of a design movement: the creation of the Empresa de Producciones Variadas (“Artistic Production Center”, EMPROVA) in 1974 and the founding of the Instituto Superior de Diseño (“Higher Institute for Design”, ISDI) in 1984.

Five decades of indifference and misunderstandings within the field has resulted in a lack of communication among designers, the absence of historical records on Cuban design practices, a lack of journals and catalogues aimed at the study or promotion of the art, a shortage of designers working within the industry, an industry that isn’t even capable of achieving the quality of the products manufactured in the 30s, 40s or 50s and a world of designers who find it extremely difficult to join official institutions in the field.

The situation of Cuban design, be it graphic or industrial, is an unavoidable issue today, when the country’s new economic reforms have resulted in a Havana that has been re-conquered by the advertisements of fledgling private businesses.

The venue of Laboratorio de ideas sobre el diseño (“Ideas About Design Laboratory”), Havana’s Factoria Habana art gallery is perhaps one of the key spaces where the issue is being debated today, through talks and conferences aimed at describing current practices in the field and the material and aesthetic solutions to different challenges being deployed in Cuba at the moment.

At these gatherings, the Piscolabis team, made up by social communication expert Claudia Angurel and architect Maria Victoria Benito, touches on the role that design strategies play in the development of private initiatives today.

Bazar Cafe Piscolabis

It was precisely the use of such strategies, in the design of both spaces and products that secured the success of Bazar-Cafe Piscolabis, an establishment opened by the duo which has recovered its initial investment in only a year.

Piscolabis is an oasis of modern design enclaved in a wasteland of chipped walls, fading facades and balconies propped up with improvised, wooden scaffolding.

The commercial aggressiveness of its owners has allowed them to avail itself of an experimental strategy aimed at new businesses promoted by Havana’s Office of the City Historian.

To date, the Office of the City Historian has rented out a mere 8 locales destined to ornamental plant stores, restaurants, hairdresser’s and other establishments.

These locales, which had either been shut down or which were being underused, are located in Old Havana, Havana’s main tourist area. A stone’s throw from the Cathedral, on San Ignacio street, Piscolabis enjoys a privileged location within the old town.

The bazar-café exhibits and sells Cuban-made crafts, mainly lamps, jewlery and textile products. The more noteworthy of the latter are cushions decorated with the motifs of traditional Havana mosaics.

The shop – which, according to the owners, seeks to rescue the aesthetic values of pre-1959 Cuba – has fashioned an identity for itself through the clever use of colors, textures and distinctive materials, a world of ochre tonalities, recycled bottles, texturized tracing paper and mixed fiber textiles.

As an artistic project, it aims at becoming an aesthetic alternative to the products imported by the State to stock the country’s hard-currency stores and to traditional crafts, dominated by multicolored percussion sticks and maracas.

Piscolabis boasts of a rather sui generis design which nonetheless insists on calling itself “Cuban.”