January 22, 2018A painting by Damián Aquiles hangs on a distressed-looking dining room wall in the home he shares with his wife, Pamela Ruiz. Top: The rear elevation of this 1930 home, now the French ambassador’s residence, was modeled onCa’ d’Zan, circus-maestro John Ringling’s Venetian-inspired Florida mansion. All photos by Adrián Fernández, courtesy of Rizzoli
Cuban-American relations have changed greatly since the election of President Donald Trump. His administration has rolled back some of the friendly measures President Obama introduced toward Cuba, making it harder for independent travelers to visit the island. So, the insider access offered by Havana Living Today: Cuban Home Style Now (Rizzoli) feels all the more special. The book’s author is Hermes Mallea, an architect and cofounder, with Carey Maloney, of (M) Group design firm in Manhattan, whose family originated in Cuba. He has long explored and documented private houses on the island, which he calls “one of the few destinations left in the world with its own identity.”
This is Mallea’s third book about Cuba, and it is full of revelations, documenting the resourcefulness shown by homeowners in maintaining the beauty and integrity of a wide variety of architectural styles, from Beaux Arts classicism to Art Deco to Spanish Colonial revival to International Style modernism.
“This is the untold story of Cuba’s one percent — in contrast to the often-told hardships faced by ninety-nine percent of the island’s citizens struggling with overcrowding, scarcities, political isolation and financial insecurity,” Mallea writes.
Each chapter focuses on a different group, among them the old guard who managed to keep their houses after the revolution, the diplomats who rent mansions the state confiscated after 1959, the expats, the artists, the art collectors and the entrepreneurs who turned family homes into restaurants. The book, Mallea writes, “portrays the end of a world that has existed in isolation for fifty years.”
In the 1920s home of artist Sandra Ramos, the master bedroom is outfitted with Renaissance Revival furniture and bold pops of color.
“This is the untold story of Cuba’s one percent — in contrast to the often-told hardships faced by ninety-nine percent of the island’s citizens struggling with overcrowding, scarcities, political isolation and financial insecurity.”
Lan Gomez and her late husband, Rodolfo “Fofi” Fernández, purchased this apartment a year before the revolution. In the kitchen’s pass-through, a portrait above the counter by their friend Raúl Martínez depicts the couple and their children. Martínez also painted the Pop art piece on the right.
At the Norwegian ambassador’s residence, Pepe the dog lounges in a recently completed addition to the porch, which is used as a space for entertaining.
Cuban tiles from the 1920s cover the floors of conceptual artist Wilfredo Prieto’s kitchen in an Art Deco apartment he has renovated.
Mosquito netting surrounds the bed in Spanish architect Carlos Ferreira’s master bedroom.
Left: A Sandu Darie painting from the 1950s hangs above an Italian giltwood armchair in art collector Ella Cisneros’s home. Right: A marble staircase winds behind Gothic arches in the French ambassador’s residence.
This neoclassical-style home, built in the early 20th century, is shared by several generations of the owner’s family. The living room contains Louis XV–style seating, as well as Victorian, Art Nouveau and Spanish Renaissance pieces.
Aquiles and Ruiz’s living room features vintage furniture and a turn-of-the-century light fixture. The original wallpaper is exposed above the painted wainscoting. One of Aquiles’s metal spheres is visible through the window.
Perhaps that is why the interiors brim with so much personality, whether the furniture is Cuban colonial, Rococo Revival, Victorian or mid-century modern. Many are jam-packed with contemporary Cuban artwork. Most retain their original vibrant tile floors, colored-glass windows, wood shutters and wrought-iron balconies.
The owners represent a who’s who of Havana: Dagoberto Rodríguez, of the wildly successful Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros; film star Jorge “Pichi” Perugorría, Cuba’s leading man; and Pepe Horta, a founder of Miami’s Café Nostalgia.
Some are self-taught decorators who, Mallea explains, are “appropriating the aesthetic of decay.” Incredibly resourceful, they know how to repair, repurpose and recycle. “They kept alive a design culture that existed before the 1959 revolution,” he writes.
The book is an insider’s guide to Havana.I know this, as I was fortunate enough to be among a group of American supporters of the Sir John Soane Museum in London on a weeklong architecture- and design-oriented trip to Havana with Mallea as guide.
We were welcomed by the Swiss ambassador, who has a pristine modern house designed in 1956 by Richard Neutra for a family of Swiss snowbirds, with lush landscaping by Roberto Burle Marx. We also visited the British ambassador’s residence, a 1916 neoclassical mansion with an indoor pool designed to resemble a Roman bath. Built for the banker Pablo González de Mendoza by architect Leonardo Morales. it has been a diplomatic residence since 1934, when the owners rented it to the Italian legation. The spectacular pool house was added in 1918, constructed to the specifications of New York architect John H. Duncan, who designed Grant’s Tomb. We also dined in the private house-cum-studio of the painter Damián Aquiles and his wife, Pamela Ruiz, a mover and shaker from New York. Here, wallpaper has been stripped off most walls, leaving distressed surfaces on which contemporary paintings are displayed. Vintage furniture from the 1950s and Aquiles’s colorful metal spheres sit on intricately patterned tile floors. At a festive buffet, we happily discussed the world with Cuban writers, photographers and painters.
“This family home performs a dual profession role — as both a gallery for Damián’s work and a site for cultural diplomacy where two worlds connect,” Mallea writes. These three residences are among the 41 beautifully photographed by Adrián Fernández for this remarkable book. It makes you want to jump on the next plane before the door to Cuba closes.
Hermes Mallea’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs
Adrian Pearsall Havana chair and ottoman, ca. 1960, offered by The Edit
“Mid-century Havana was glamorous — a feeling captured in this Adrian Pearsall–designed Havana chair and matching crescent ottoman. The piece reminds me of the elegance of the Maison Jansen–designed interiors I featured in Great Houses of Havana.”
Mahogany Cuban piano stool, ca. 1840, offered by Tucker Payne Antiques
“This William IV piano stool from Charleston, South Carolina, reminds me of the neoclassical and Second Empire–period furniture found in many Cuban houses. I love pulling up a stool to join a conversation.”
Dujo Cuba architectural stools in mahogany and goat skin, 1970s, offered by Interieurs Modernes
“I love the simplicity of this pair of 1970s Dujo Cuban stools, executed in Cuban mahogany with goatskin seats. They represent the inventiveness of Cuban designers dealing with the scarcity of materials after the revolution.”
Terrazzo coffee indoor/outdoor table, 1960s, offered by Porter & Plunk
“This low table with a round stone top is reminiscent of Jean Royère. I picture it on the terrace of a mid-century modern Havana apartment, surrounded by whimsical wrought-iron seating and lots of tropical plantings.”
Juan Cunba Beltran, Havana, Cuba, 1993, by Kurt Markus, offered by Staley-Wise Gallery
“Although this Kurt Markus photograph was taken in 1993, it feels evocative of Havana’s mid-century spirit.”
Cuban crocodile doctor's bag, early 20th century, offered by Dos Gallos
“This Cuban crocodile doctor’s bag completes the tableau.”
Florence Knoll sofa, 1954, offered by Gazelles Of Lyndhurst
“In the mid-1950s, Knoll had a Havana showroom where all the enlightened homeowners and decorators found furniture for their tropical modern houses. This 1954 sofa designed by Florence Knoll preserves its original Havana leather upholstery.”
Untitled No. 45, 2014, by Adrián Fernández, offered by Yossi Milo Gallery
“Adrián Fernández is the photographer of Havana Living Today. Carey and I own several oversize images from this series of photos commenting on the use of artificial decorations on an island of tropical abundance.”
Victorian wicker Emma rocker, 1890s, offered by The Wicker Shop Of Old Saybrook
“Havana has some of the most interesting Victorian wicker furniture I have ever seen. Fanciful shapes with the most quirky decorations – all imported from the U.S. Today, it is not unusual to see Cubans pair these historic pieces with cutting-edge contemporary art.”
Rope-edge Eames rocker, 1958, offered by Vintage Home
“Rockers have been a staple of the Cuban home since the mid-nineteenth century — rocking helps you cool off in the tropical climate. Designs have been updated over the years, as in this fiberglass rocker by Charles Eames from 1958, which I have seen in several vintage photos of Havana interiors.”
or support your local bookstore