An innovative design cooperativeAriel Balmaseda
Once the establishment of non-agricultural cooperatives in Cuba was approved in 2013, the 20-member “Decorarte” cooperative was launched as the only initiative of its kind devoted to design, advertising and interior decorating.
Although Ariel Balmaceda was an artist for almost two decades, he insists that he is better off as an entrepreneur. With previous business experience in the self-employed sector, this photographer from Jatibonico speaks of the benefits of the cooperative sector for society. “Cooperativism allows a collective of members to own a small business, offering greater economic stability and complete protection.”
This president of the first Non-Agricultural Cooperative (CNA) in Matanzas, states that he now enjoys a security he didn’t feel as a self-employed worker. “Today I earn less, but I’m much more at peace.”
Once the initial experiment to establish CNAs in Cuba was approved in 2013, and following an analysis of the artistic creation groups that existed on the island, the Permanent Commission for the Implementation and Development of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines agreed to the formation of the “Decorarte” cooperative, as the only initiative dedicated to graphic and industrial design, advertising and interior decoration.
“Thus began a process of adjustment and market selection. It was difficult to incorporate ourselves, as the tourism sector found it hard to assimilate a different type of management. Decorarte was founded as the only non-state entity in the Hicacos Peninsula, open to work with any company or person. There is no difference in the treatment or offers we make to state and private clients,” Balmaceda explains, a participant in the Cuba-U.S. Business Forum held in Havana during President Barack Obama’s visit.
MADE TO ORDER GRAPHICS AND DECORATION
The cooperative of 20 members mainly works on design projects, while clients can arrive with set ideas they wish to be developed. “The complete product is also created: from the initial idea to the turnkey project, which includes construction and installation, furniture, light fixtures, marquetry, decoration, etc.”
However, he adds, “We try to avoid this and not become a construction company because there are already many on the island. Civil construction represents only ten percent of what we do, the rest is graphics and personalized items.”
Likewise, Balmaseda highlights, their graphic design line means they are a leading business in the sector, as they have invested in technology for some time. The cooperative also hopes to add high standard equipment to its digital workshop, in keeping with the demands of their main market: the hotel and tourism sector.
Emerging in the midst of the updating of the country’s economic model, Decorarte benefits from technological development. With equipment purchased through corporations such as CIMEX and COPEXTEL (Cuban import – export firms), the cooperative has rapidly increased its number of customers and its revenue.
Having closed 2014 with a total income of 10 million pesos, and 2015 with 29.7 million pesos, Balmaseda predicts they will see revenue of 70 million pesos this year. “This huge jump is thanks to constant updating and creative and technological growth,” he explains.
According to the cooperative president, their product offers are practically exclusive in the country, as they print on almost any material: wood, metal, acrylic, PVC, vinyl, canvas, glass, in small or larger formats. The wide scale offered ranges from a minimum size font of 0.1 millimeters, to prints of up to 1.60 meters by 50 meters.
While until recently, demand was greater than productive capacity, this CNA based in Varadero can now handle almost any order. Balmaseda notes that the cooperative has about one million dollars destined for further investment. According to foreign suppliers, this investment would allow the cooperative to establish itself across Central America and the Caribbean.
With a huge volume of contracts to provide interior designs throughout the country, Decorarte subcontracts other workers or cooperatives to respond to the orders from some 300 clients.
VARADERO IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Not without a glint of pride in his eyes, the young Balmaseda acknowledges that “People see us as the image group of Varadero because the main social mission we advocate is working hard to change the aesthetics of the foremost sun and beach destination on the island.”
As the image of Varadero is in need of an uplift, Decorarte hopes to achieve unique designs for the area, that bring together elegance and Caribbean warmth. According to Balmaseda, there is a lot of competition between tourist destinations. “For example, Copacabana has custom sidewalks and historical motifs, which visitors take away with them on souvenirs, towels, beachwear, etc. To create an identity that does not exist, we seek something well designed, that attracts tourists and becomes the icon of Varadero.”
Among the most recent projects undertaken by the cooperative, are the remodeling of a spa in the Hotel Iberostar, the public toilets located by the beach, and the restoration of the only Grade 1 National Heritage site in Varadero: the Xanadu mansion.
The cooperative has also begun works on reviving the sidewalks along Varadero’s main avenue, which will likely spread to the rest of the main arteries of the peninsula, to ensure consistency and good taste.
Working together with another cooperative, and with the full support of the Ministry of Tourism, the tasks along the main avenue include the installation of decorative tiles with graphics engraved or molded in concrete, ceramic or metal, more lighting, walkways and decorative benches.
Making visitors’ stay in Varadero more pleasant is the motivation behind Decorarte’s projects to transform the tourist signposting of the city, produce a city guide, design a mascot for the destination and undertake decorative works across its parks and public squares.
While word has spread about Decorarte from Pinar del Río to Guantánamo, the cooperative is preparing to launch three of its own brands at the upcoming CubaIndustria International Fair. “These will be new products we hope to be sold in the (domestic retail) shops network, because they are currently imported. We design and make them in Cuba to sell to the population, which is a virtually untapped mega market,” Balmaseda noted.
The cooperative, which has received awards at Cuban and international fairs, and co-sponsored various events, provides graphic printing services for personalized items such as backpacks, caps, pens, canvases, clothing, etc., to such an extent that it plans to open a store in Matanzas shortly, as well as a commercial office in Havana’s Náutico center. Further plans include a branch in Cienfuegos, where the cooperative has a clientele of over thirty companies.
Balmaseda appreciates the support received from the Ministry of Industry, while noting that “From the beginning, we have been very independent. We can develop strategies based on economic planning. We feel we have full autonomy and we don’t overlook our obligations to the community. As such, we help pre-school day care centers, children’s homes, and local theater groups.”
Decorarte is mostly composed of innovative architects, civil engineers, artists and graphic designers, and takes advantage of technology, market potential and the possibility of incorporating new graduates from the Higher Institute of Design to improve and expand. The cooperative also contributes to the health, food supply, and construction or repair of the homes of its members.
In addition, Decorarte is currently working on a website to secure international sales via a payment gateway. “A virtual store is planned, on a level with Amazon, with good visibility and interaction with the customer,” Balmaseda explains.
With a limited domestic retail market, the cooperative also supplies some state wholesalers, but “It would be good to expand to international companies because we have a secure market, and it would be interesting if someone were to purchase our products for export,” concludes Balmaseda, always seeking out the next challenge.