• Steven Heller

Signs of Life, Havana Style

Diego Vainesman of 40N47 Design and chairman emeritus of the Type Directors Club recently returned from Havana where he was seeking typographic treasures. Obviously, this is a time of discovery, what with the Wolfsonian Museum’s Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction, on view May 6 through Aug. 21, I asked Vainesman, enviously I might add, to share his thoughts and the photographs of the artifacts he found:

“When you walk around Havana, you have to be ready to discover typographic treasures almost in every single block. Those treasures aren’t going to be in your face but you’ll have to look down on the sidewalk or high up on a building in order to discover them.

“There is a reason for that. Cuba obtained its independence from Spain in 1902. After that, a large number of neighborhoods, streets, parks and real state developed. Due to the increase of new business, banks and stores, it became clear to the owners that in order to be identified they had to write the store’s name at the entrance of its building, and many of them did it on the sidewalk.

“Today a large number of sidewalks still retain those typographic jewels, regardless of the store or house in front of them. Some new stores have painted their façade, leaving the old type untouched.

“The graphic design landscape in the streets in Havana is depicted by the posters, murals, restaurants/stores’ signage and the vernacular design. There isn’t any advertising or billboards. Many considered the revolution, with its political posters, the beginning of graphic design in Cuba (although the lithographic tradition started in the 19th century). During my trip they had a Poster Biennial. I was mesmerized by the quality and design of the posters created by the Cuban artists/designers. The poster tradition is amazing and the talent limitless.

“Based on the posters from the early 20th century, one could only imagine what Havana used to look like with the ads, posters and street graphics from that era. The typographic style reflected the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. Today Havana, doesn’t have the glamour of those times but it still gives us a glimpse of the typography and design from that era.”

Thank you, Diego.

Special thanks to professor Germán Luft and the typography class at the Centro Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (La Habana) for providing the signage photos.

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