In December, the U.S. State Department announced that there will soon be commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba. While no official date has been released yet, this will mark the first time in more than 50 years that Americans will have a chance to (legally) travel to the island–and people are prepared to jump at the opportunity. Even after all this time, the image of a glamorous, indulgent, fedora-filled Cuba looms large.
While part of its appeal comes from being out of reach for so long, another is that our image of Cuba is frozen in time. Last time Americans could travel to Cuba, it was jetset heaven–a tropical paradise where the chicest ’50s socialites and Hollywood stars went to party. That world, and the vivid graphics and ads that depicted it, are on full, wonderful display in Steven Heller and Vicki Gold Levi’s Cuba Style:Graphics from the Golden Age of Design.
During the early half of the 20th century, Cuban graphic style was known for both its air of sophistication and its colorful exuberance. “Art deco streamline elegance and Las Vegas carnival gaudiness fused with the country’s own eclectic African and Spanish cultures to produce a distinctly Cuban panache,” Heller writes about Cuba’s graphic style in the book’s introduction. “That panache was was perfected by native artists and designers with the aim of attracting vacationers, gamblers and businessmen to the Caribbean paradise.”
In the 1920s, during prohibition in the U.S., Cuba became a destination for the upper class to escape restrictions on racing, boxing, gambling, and other indulgences. Advertisements reflected that with an emphasis on style and glamour–think vivid tropical colors, geometrical patterns, and exotic-looking illustrations. “Cuba was freedom personified,” Heller writes.
The 1940s saw Cuban movies, music, and magazines gain popularity the world over, and posters, record sleeves and advertisements got even bolder. Gyrating typography meant to depict the popular rhumba and mambo dance styles adorned record sleeves and in the 1950s, the design direction of Cuban magazines Social, Bohemia and Carteles, helped solidify the loud and glamorous Cuban style.
Eventually, of course, all that American influence came to a head. Combined with an increasing opposition to the country’s president Fulgencio Batista, the era of opulence and American tourism ended in an armed rebellion. When Fidel Castro and his barbudos took over, everything about daily Cuban life changed, and Cuba’s vivid graphic style was replaced with revolutionary propaganda.
Now that the restriction on travel has been lifted, it’s only a matter of time before the advertisements for Cuban vacations begin. For now, revisit the glory days in our slide show of vintage Cuban graphics above.
Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design is available from Princeton Architectural Press here.