Late last month, Marco Castillo—formerly of the group Los Carpinteros—opened The Decorator’s Home at UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles. Established by the entertainment industry powerhouse United Talent Agency as part of its fine arts division, the 4,000-square-foot gallery—largely designed by Ai Weiwei—opened last July.
In The Decorator’s Home, Castillo investigates Cuban architecture and design of the 1960s and 1970s, spotlighting and reinterpreting the work of key figures from those decades. In an email interview with Cuban Art News, he talks about recovering this largely forgotten history and reconnecting it with contemporary Cuban art and design.
What aspects of Cuban history and culture are you examining in the show? What attracted you to these themes?
Modernist design and interior design are topics that always interested me a lot. I dedicated myself to researching and collecting works by great masters of international design like Sergio Rodrigues, Lina Bo Bardi, Arne Jacobsen, etc.
This passion made me want to understand what happened in Cuba, with all the aesthetics and good taste that characterized our society and were maintained until the beginning of the revolutionary process (the 1960s and 1970s).
I knew of some isolated names, especially of architects like Mario Girona, Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, Vittorio Garatti, etc. They did a wonderful job during the 1960s.
In 2017, we invited curator Abel González Fernández to the [Los Carpinteros] studio in Havana, to create an exhibition that would work with the full heritage of Cuban interior design at the beginning of the revolutionary period.
This is where El museo de las máquinas: arquitectura de espacios cerrados en las décadas del 60 y 70 de la Revolución cubana (The Museum of the Machines: Architecture of Closed Spaces of the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s) came from. [The exhibition was presented in spring 2017 at Los Carpinteros’ studio.]
It was a difficult investigation, because there was no organized written body of literature to support the development of the project. From testimonies and interviews with some of the leading figures in this movement, we were able to piece together part of that unwritten, untold history.
The Decorator’s Home was inspired by this utopian movement of designers, interior designers, and architects trained in the Modern Movement of the 1950s. Led by Celia Sánchez and Iván Espín, in the early years of the Revolution this movement developed a project that could be considered an aesthetic revolution.
This group would be responsible for projecting and producing the new spaces that would modulate the life of the supposed new man—more austere furniture and objects with more practical sense, but with an avant-garde design that occasionally recalls Scandinavian furniture and early Ikea designs.
For these new productions, local woods such as mahogany and cedrela were used, in combination with Soviet marine plywood; the cream marble “Bayamo”; and elements of Cuba’s colonial and traditional past, such as woven rattan and lattices in wood, ceramics, and cement. At the end of the 1970s this process was abandoned, mainly due to the lack of understanding on the part of institutions that stigmatized “bourgeois taste.”
Many of the works in the show bear the titles of individuals. Who are the people referenced in the titles? What bearing do they have on the themes you are exploring?
The entire series is inspired by this utopian generation of Cuban graphic designers, interior designers, and architects from the first 20 years of revolution who are for the most part practically unknown in Cuba today.
The works are named after the figures in that generation that we have managed to retrieve and dust off: Gonzalo Córdoba, María Victoria Caignet, Reinaldo Togores, Heriberto Duverger, Rodolfo Fernández Suárez (Fofi), Joaquín Galván, Walter Betancourt, etc.
For example, the work Beltrán (2019) refers to Félix Beltrán, who is considered the father of the Cuban poster and one of the most important references in Latin American design. It is inspired by the logo that this designer made for the Cuban pavilion for Expo ‘67 in Montreal. From Felix’s original design, I realized this work in wood and woven rattan, referencing the modular systems that were characteristic of design in those years.
There’s an interesting fiction underlying the concept of The Decorator’s Home.
In this exhibition I act as if I were a designer of that time, to pick up and continue a tradition that disappeared in Cuba at the beginning of the 1980s. The work Galván (2019), for example, revisits the eye-catching room dividers that Joaquín Galván and Rodolfo Fernández Suárez made for the Hall of Protocol of the Council of State. Taking advantage of the lattice grid, I turn it into a support for a conceptual alphabet soup that recalls the encrypted languages used during the Cold War.
The works move between art, decoration and applied arts. This has allowed me to talk about cultural and aesthetic deaths as the result of stigmas, censures, and misunderstandings of the system that have happened cyclically, not only in Cuba but in other countries of the world.
I decided to show my work process and the tools that I used to understand this language. The drawings De la serie Libreta de notas (From the Notebook Series, 2018) are an example of this. I am not a designer, and in my previous work I did not use the language of abstraction. Therefore, I needed to get into the skin of this [fictional] man, this character I decided to interpret.
So the exhibition was envisioned as a coherent whole, rather than simply a collection of pieces.
The selection of works and the layout in the space responded to a conceptual idea that attracted us a lot—the evolution of the circle to the star. The circle is a simple geometric figure with no apparent political content. When I began to play with it, the shapes reminded me of American design and its influence, and of our own commercial style in the 1950s.
Then I presented works that showed the change in the political discourse—much more aggressive and extremist, starting from the star, undoubtedly a more complex and cutting figure.
The work Córdoba (2019) bears the name of one of the most important designers of his generation. Gonzalo Córdoba headed the design department of EMPROVA (Empresa de Producciones Varias) and conceived the look of Fidel Castro’s office in the Council of State, the Ministries, and private residences of high government officials, among many other projects.
The work is a metamorphosis from a circle to a five-pointed star, which functions as a metaphor for this formal and ideological evolution-involution. It is a work that can be read as a cycle, in both directions—from circle to star and vice versa.
The show includes a series of mobiles created from materials that evoke scales and balances. How do these works address the themes you are exploring?
The end of the evolution of circle to star—or star to circle—is scarcity and the pursuit of certain economic behaviors. In Cuba there is an underground private economy that works, but it is not accepted by the state. This economy is not equipped with sophisticated measuring instruments such as digital or precision scales. Which is why some people have given themselves the task of designing and producing them—precariously, artisanally, and illicitly—to supply and be used in the “black market.”
I set out to locate these producers and have collaborated with them to produce this series of interdependent instruments, which are a great metaphor for submerged economies.
Mobiles always find balance. To move them out of that state requires applying pressure, as sometimes happens when the state intervenes to try to regulate this type of system.
Lets talk about the works made from wood and rattan.
The design of this period also rescued different materials from our Indo-Cuban and colonial past. These designers looked back, revisited the history of Cuban furniture, and rescued, for example, rattan—using it, sometimes, in a way that recalls the colonial period.
In addition, designers like Córdoba designed and named some of their works to reflect the inspiration of Indo-Cuban elements, as with his Guamá series.
They also make some lovely references to tropicalism—all those parabanes (portable room dividers) that let the air pass from one side to the other, the woven rattan that doesn’t make your back sweat, the combination of the color white with mahogany wood that reminds you of tropical fruits like the coconut, in a very subtle and conceptual way. A series of language lines, intertwined to form a single piece of furniture, with roots that begin in our aboriginal past, pass through Nordic and African influences, and result in our own Cuban design.
In addition to sculptures and drawings, the exhibition includes a six-minute video titled Generación.
The Generación video (2019) completes the concept of the show, through a melancholy story that works as a metaphor for the cultural and aesthetic deaths that have happened cyclically in Cuba and possibly in other countries of the world. The characters in the film are artists, photographers, writers, architects, and curators of today’s Cuban intellectual scene, who interpret the generation of the late 1970s, establishing a temporary ellipsis between the island’s past and the present.
The song “Pólvora Mojada,” which accompanies the video, was very popular in the 1970s, sung by one of the most important voices of Cuban music, Beatriz Márquez. I did this work in collaboration with Cuban filmmaker Carlos Lechuga, director of films like Santa y Andrés and Melaza.
In addition to his valuable creative contribution, I was very interested in working with Lechuga because he is part of the current young generation that has been marked by censorship in Cuba. In a certain way I wanted to place the spectator in the position of the affected person, [so as to become aware] of the profound damage caused in human beings by extremist and stigmatizing positions.
The Decorator’s Home is your first solo exhibition in the US since leaving Los Carpinteros last year. What direction do you see your art taking now, and how does the exhibition relate to that?
The only thing I know is that I do not know where I’m going, and that makes me very happy.
The Decorator’s Home was curated by Neville Wakefield. It remains on view at UTA Artist Space through July 13.