I would say that, as far as I am able to predict, in the field in which I work, the publishing world is in good health
If we were to examine many of the numerous Cuban posters, as well as the copyright pages of the countless titles put out by the Latin American and Caribbean Literature Collection of the Casa de las Américas Publishing Fund in the course of over 20 years, we would quickly find the name of graphic designer Pepe Menéndez.
Adding to his many prizes, Pepe is the most recent winner of the National Book Design Award 2017, which was presented to him during the 27th International Havana Book Fair in 2018. The award was granted unanimously by a jury made up of Ubaldo Ceballos, Alexis Rodríguez Diezcabezas, Ranfis Suárez Ramos, Gipsy Duque-Estrada and Nelson Herrera Ysla. In their report, the jury highlighted Pepe Menéndez’s “extraordinary contribution to contemporary Cuban visuality” and his “20 plus years of prolific editorial career at the helm of Casa de las Américas publications, whose distinctive visuality is recognized by the reading public.” Although he has a multifarious biography (whose imprint appears in innumerable top-level films and cultural events in Cuba, subsequently included in catalogs and magazines), most of his work can be associated with editorial design.
His real name is José Alberto Menéndez Sigarroa. Passionate, with a proven philanthropic vocation, a man of his time, with the soul of the teacher who he once was at the Higher Institute of Design (ISDi), and the conviction of an artist who considers that a designer needs to be an intellectual, Pepe chatted with Amano.
What are the major challenges facing Cuban editorial design today?
For many years, we have been wondering whether books and magazines are destined to disappear. It’s like a sword of Damocles. Apocalyptic believers say that there are books, digital books, Kindle editions… But the action of writing will not disappear and, therefore, neither will the subsequent job of editing and publishing. Now, publishing is the end of the chain; prefinal implies (or not) printing. And distributing. Yes, distributing, because e-books are distributed through networks, through the web, and they also need to be advertised to find their readers.
Recently, I was sitting here with a Spaniard, an editor and owner of a publishing house. When I showed him my most recent book, he said to me not without a certain bitterness: “This is very fortunate because books are bound to disappear.” He tried to convince me that what I was doing was for nothing and that it was better to go digital. There was a private conflict there, because, indeed, the competition among printing presses is such that they’re beginning to eliminate each other. And he told me, “Years ago, there were many printing presses in Madrid and today there are only a few.” This is information that I don’t have, but I suppose it’s true. However, I’m receiving now essentially the same number of editorial design commissions as I did 10 years ago. I’m not seeing a downwards curve, but stable or upward. Essay, poetry, narrative, picture books continue to be published and there’s a lot of history that can be recovered in books. From a Cuban editorial point of view, there’s the huge pothole of the 1990s, when almost nothing was being published. The publishing industry, like so many others, was seriously depressed. Tons of books are pending and it’s an imperative necessity. Society needs to put all that in black and white, it needs to be read, it needs that legacy for the future. Both in pictures and words, there’s still a lot to be printed. This doesn’t mean that books may take other forms in the future. I would say that, as far as I am able to predict, in the field in which I work, the publishing world is in good health.
As Design Director of Casa de las Américas, what are your plans for keeping your editorial collections alive and revitalized?
I started working at Casa de las Américas in publishing. My first job was designing a graphic profile for the Latin American Literature Collection (later on, it would include the Caribbean Collection) in 1997. The Casa director asked me to take a look at that collection because its visual codes were worn out, since its profile had been the same for many years. So they asked me to submit a proposal. Then I designed magazines, catalogs… but I started out with books and nothing less than a collection, which, if not the most important, it’s at least one of the two most important. The other collection is Premio, the Award Collection. The Latin American and Caribbean Literature Collection includes classic books, whose graphic profile had been created by Félix Beltrán in the early 1960s. It was carried on for many years by Umberto Peña, and then others. I believe that one of the essential functions of a publishing house is keeping its visual codes up to date and offer the reader an attractive product—I’m not going to talk about the content because I assume that, if it’s the classics, it will always be in the best hands possible. Care should be put into its form, which has to do with printing and design, and that’s up to the publishers.
This is a collection of around 200 published titles, which seeks to maintain suggestive codes for the reader. I do not necessarily believe in “modernizing,” a misleading word because it can imply making a concession to fads: we need to go to the essential. The office I am in charge of is responsible for being aware when the codes need to be reformulated, when we need to make changes to avoid being boring and outdated. The reader’s context, of course, is one of changing signs, of forms that are brought up-to-date, of designs that need to be refreshed and that’s my job, along with the publishers. In many instances I have sat down with them and said, “Okay, we’ve been doing this for quite some time, maybe it’s time to update the code,” and, particularly, it was the Latin American and Caribbean Literature Collection’s turn to change and now it’s breathing a new visual life. We’ve already published five different titles with this new profile, which has been successful, by the way, because it was a prize-winner in the design competition held by the Cuban Book Institute.
What was the nature of your collaboration on the notebook/volume Modernity, Identity and Social Value. Design in Cuba from 1960 to 2000?
It has to do with an event led by Professor Lucila Fernández. She is a historian, passionate about consolidating the studies of our design tradition, and several years ago, she invited me to take part in a book for which I wrote a chapter on the history of graphic design, while she dealt with industrial design. For this more recent project, which was published by the Higher Institute of Design, I brought the text up to date: “Chronology of Graphic Design in Cuba,” which is not an essay per se, but rather putting verifiable facts in black and white. The first version included some information about design in the Republic, in the era of US-style advertising agencies. This new version, which covers from 1959 to the end of the 20th century, starts with the Revolution, with the transformations that began to take place in Cuban graphic design. I believe it is a useful text because it compiles important facts, names, dates, with which the readers can make their own interpretation and establish a hierarchy as they feel appropriate. My text, deliberately, hardly has any qualifiers. I do not say: “This is good, better than that one…”
There’s a very important book by Jorge Bermúdez about Cuban posters, but because it focuses solely on that manifestation, although it inevitably runs through many others, there are areas that the book does not touch upon at all, like brand design and others. His research, however, is very serious and, therefore, is the only antecedent in summarizing many years of Cuban graphic design, which is a marvelous history of events, names, facts, never written before. I set my mind to writing it and it came out, with errors, because it has omissions and typos. People will tell you, “This didn’t happen like this, it happened in a different way, So-and-So wasn’t there, it was someone else…” But the story is there.
You have the privilege of living in an Art Deco house that was built in 1938 by your uncle, graphic designer and visual artist Enrique García Cabrera. Moreover, you have evoked his important career in articles published in Revolución y Cultura, like “Enrique García Cabrera or the Mistaken Painter,” and in a book aimed at recovering his name. To what extent did this family circumstance influence your vocation for design? What prompted you to work on this book?
Having been born in this house and living in it all my life has an undeniable effect on me and my relationship with art and culture. It’s difficult for me to put it into words. The easiest thing would be to say that the images produced by my mother’s uncle—who she got to know but I didn’t because he died in 1949—were part of a “reference bank” from an early age. Then I became more aware of them when I was studying design at ISDi, until eventually they have become an object of study for me. The book is the climax of all that. But it is, above all, the gesture that the family has eagerly made to repay the enormous favor that this man, indirectly and involuntarily, did us by bequeathing us his home and his artistic legacy. I did not become a designer because I am García Cabrera’s great-nephew and I live in his house, but I think I’m a better designer because I have always derived great pleasure in his wonderful art.