When we think of Cuba, we picture the things we heard about but never saw - the sensuous Havana of the '50s, where Frank Sinatra sang at the Tropicana and Ernest Hemingway dined at El Floridita.
Combine these feelings of nostalgia with America's obsession for everything Latin - from the first Latin Grammy awards to Cuban coffee - and it was only a matter of time before interior design caught Cuban fever.
"Americans have always been fascinated with Cuba because there is a certain mystique about it," said Jackie Hirschhault, vice president of public relations for the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. "Cuba is also well-known for its colorful style and rich cultural heritage. So it's no surprise that the country has been a source of inspiration for designers and furniture manufacturers. In fact, I think consumers will begin to see more Cuba-inspired products, especially in home furnishings."
This trend we'll call "Old Havana Style" is turning up in everything from furniture to fabric to artwork. Much of the furniture resembles European colonial or plantation-style with caning, carving and dark wood accented with decorative wrought iron. The fabrics range from linen the color of old tobacco leaves to patterned cloth with geometric designs composed of colorful cigar bands. And the artwork often reflects symbols of Cuba's heyday, such as a Havana sugar mill or a steamship poster.
Nationally, "Havana" has become the new design buzzword. Pennsylvania House and Thomasville stamped the name on recent furniture lines. Scalamandre and Mulberry Home have introduced fabrics. Even Pottery Barn featured a woven Havana trunk in its Early Fall 2000 catalog. And publishers are cranking out books on Cuban art and architecture, such as "Living in Cuba" (St. Martin's Press, $40) by Simon McBride and Alexandra Black.
So why Cuba now? Michele Lamb, a trend tracker who publishes The Trend Curve, sees the focus on Cuba as part of the overall Latin mania and an offshoot of design's current interest in tropical style.
"The Latin community within the U.S. continues to grow," she said. "There are people who understand this design from a cultural viewpoint and others who are more exposed to Latin culture than ever before. Finally, we have the notion that Cuba may open up once again."
This design trend, experts agree, most likely started to emerge at the October 1998 International Home Furnishings Market with the introduction of Pennsylvania House's "Old Havana" and the "Havana" segment of Thomasville's "Ernest Hemingway" collection of furniture.
The Pennsylvania House design team studied Hemingway's homes and visited Key West and Miami's Little Havana for inspiration, according to Christine Rantz, director of case-goods development. The furniture was "very tropical" with faceted posts, pineapple motifs and wood finishes the color of old tobacco leaves. The standout is a bench done in pine with a carved accent and sea-grass upholstery ($800-$1,000 retail).
Thomasville designers borrowed from Havana's scrolling ironwork, rich carvings, supple leathers and other Spanish European influences for their inspiration. For example, the Havana iron canopy bed is a four-poster that features iron scrollwork reminiscent of elaborate gates to Cuban gardens ($1,500-$2,000).
At Scalamandre in New York, design director Donna Mae Woods created "Havana" as one of the fabrics in the "Arcadian" collection that also contains tropical prints. Woods said she pictures using "Havana," a colorful, geometric pattern of cigar bands printed on linen sateen, as Roman shades, drapery or upholstery in a very clubby environment.
"The collection had a strong Cuban influence based on conversations that everyone is going ga-ga over Cuba," said Woods. "It's the forbidden fruit concept. It is the romance of our parents' generation, who were there or spoke of their parents' trips there. There is something seductive about something that has to live in the imagination rather than dealing with how it actually is today."
Nicholas Quintana, an architect who practiced in Cuba from 1950 to 1960, said in those days architects designed the inside as well as the outside of the homes. European Bauhaus furniture was the rage, but he and his peers found it too cold and uncomfortable.
"Metal was flying all over the place," he said. "We went back to wood. We took the proportions out of the colonial chairs and created a different kind of furniture that was simply Cuban and very comfortable."
Quintana, who is an assistant professor at Florida International University's School of Architecture in Miami, said the furniture created in Cuba was very beautiful, very useful and worth copying. He understands quite well the romance of the reproductions. In fact, when he saw a copy of a Cuban chair in a Miami shop, he bought it without hesitation.