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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Culture

From 1910 to the ‘50s, Cuban designers developed tropical chic

Posted April 01, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
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BY ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ | Miami Herald
Cuba as island of allure is an advertising construct. Its first copywriter was Columbus himself when he called it, “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.’‘

But visuals have sold Cuba best, and in the first half of the 20th century the island lived what has been dubbed a Golden Age of Cuban Design.

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This merry capitalist style survives in collectible ephemera—and to some extent in the tradition that exiled Cuban media professionals to the U.S. Hispanic market. Brought back to life in Vicki Gold Levi and Steven Heller’s Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design ($20, Princeton Architectural, 2002) and the Wolfsonian-FIU exhibit on Levi’s donated collection, the island’s graphic mode, like most things Cuban, is an elegant fusion of styles.

‘‘Chic’’ is the operative word. That can mean the severe geometrics of Deco tempered by tropical colors, American cocktail style, sexy carnival caricature, even pulp fiction kitsch. It’s all so modern, mixed with a touch of irony and omnipresent fun.

If some of this clever mishmash would not seem out of place on a New Yorker cover, it’s no coincidence. The greatest genius of Cuban design, artist and publisher Conrado Massaguer, was a contributor to New York’s best magazines, including the legendary original Vanity Fair. As always, Cubans were selling themselves to the First World (a term that had yet to be coined) by showing they were First World themselves—with a Third World edge.

Feast on these images and you will agree with the famous and bitterly ironic words about another much earlier upheaval: only those who lived before the revolution know how sweet life can be. Or how sweetly sold.

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