Inspired by Cuban music, two determined young designers present Vibra

Made in Havana

By Anna Carnick

With the fault lines between Cuba and the United States continuing to shift, and with the media generating more and more coverage of the small, culturally rich island nation, we’ve found ourselves increasingly curious about, among other issues, the state of design in Cuba. So we recently decided to go see for ourselves.

Our managing editor, Anna Carnick, visited several designers in Havana and returned with some interesting takeaways: a sense of cautious optimism, mixed with heightened anxiety about the future; dogged resourcefulness in the face of constantly changing obstacles; and a seemingly tireless work ethic. Our first case in point is our visit to the home and studio of two of our favorite Cuban designers, upstarts Raiko Valladares and José Antonio Villa Sené.

Valladares and Villa Sené live and work out of a simple, two-story, stucco house, dotted with potted plants, in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood. The twenty-something pair began collaborating while they were students at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Diseño (ISDI). Their first joint furniture project was a chair collection called Vibra (or Vibration in English). Inspired by Cuban music, the three models—Emptiness, Duet and Box—call to mind the forms of stringed musical instruments. As Valladares explains, “Vibra is a visual translation of sound into 3-dimensional shapes.”

The designers compose each chair by hand-weaving elastic, PVC-cord around curved, metal frames, which they weld from recycled steel. Against the backdrop of a nation where many materials are difficult—if not impossible—to come by, this readily available cord is most commonly used for laundry lines (though, according to Valladares and Villa Sené, it is only available in three colors: red, green, and blue). It is also quite comfortable, strong, and flexible, allowing the designers to create pieces in fresh, new shapes—which is precisely what they set out to do. “We wanted to create a brand new design made in Cuba that could be appreciated by Cubans.” While they’ve only produced a small number of the chairs to date, in response to the enthusiastic response they’ve received thus far, the pair have outsourced weaving work for new pieces to artisans in the local community.

Valladares and Villa, photographed in front of their Havana home studio. Valladares and Villa in Havana Photo © Anna Carnick
The pair enlisted friend and photographer Carlos Otero Blanco to shoot their work. Notably, they chose to set Vibra inside an abandoned tramway station and atop Havana’s Iron Bridge. The former was intended “to show the contrast between the dilapidated and the new;” the latter (photographed despite oncoming traffic) “to convey a message that no matter the obstacles, we are working and new things are coming out.”

When asked about their larger goals, the duo says they hope their work will invigorate contemporary Cuban design at the same time that it celebrates local culture, materials, and craftsmanship. Because materials are often so scarce, and there are “often a lot of sacrifices involved” to accomplish one’s goals—in this case, for example, the designers used their savings to make Vibra a reality. Once you finish a project, they say, “You savor it more. In Cuba, the end product has a special flavor.”

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.