By John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) | Updated March 7, 2015 - 12:00am
MANILA, Philippines - You see it, that burnished stamp found in international furniture shows, upscale island resorts, and even in the bedrooms of celebrity power-couples, that, when it comes to Filipino design, the watching world never doubts one that was made in Cebu.
"The design world has what they call the 'Cebu look,' characterized by a rich use of natural materials, excellent craftsmanship, and astonishing creativity," shared Cebu Furniture Industries Foundation (CFIF)'s Ruby Salutan, who proudly showed us the grooves and joints of the thriving design industry.
In a province home to over 200 furniture manufacturers representing 40 percent of the total Philippine furniture export, the CFIF serves as the main network of support for the country's furniture capital.
So, in the game of thrones at the country's oldest city, just what does it take to live up to the gilded repute?
The Cebuano furniture boom found its first spark during the late 1940s, when an enterprising American, John McGuire, collaborated with Maria Aboitiz, a local matriarch who held a rattan workshop in her backyard. With McGuire’s technical expertise and Aboitiz's store of manpower and exotic cane, they revolutionized the rattan trade with international patents and trademarks, that by the '60s, it was all the rage in porch furniture abroad.
Murillo Cebu founder Allan Murillo said, "My father used to work in the second oldest rattan factory here in Cebu, Cebu Rattan. I used to go with him when I was only nine years old and help out with small jobs. And because you’ve lived with that environment, you get used to it, and fall in love with it."
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In his Lower Inayawan showroom and workshop in Cebu City, Murillo still maintains the hands-on processes in treating and assembling his heritage medium, mixing the humble cane abundant in the area with industrial metals and innovative silhouettes.
In his 3,000-sqm. Metamorfose showroom and factory in Lapu-Lapu City, on the other hand, Dutch designer Hein Chrispijn champions the same endemic Cebuano cane, this time, in what is called the arurog. "The first collection that I made here 24 years ago is still among the collections in my showroom. It's made from arurog, which is the material that made me fall in love with the Philippines in the first place," Chrispijn remarked, showing a statement wall in his showroom clad in the rustic yet sleek material.
This first collection, which he called the Manila Collection, is a series of multi-seat pieces fashioned from a slimmer type of rattan, resulting in a finer weave like wicker but with a warmer color and texture. Now, to match the rising demand in the outdoor furniture market, Chrispijn revealed, "We've maintained its shape, but now, we use plastic material in the weave to make it more modern, but still native."
This plastic material is usually polyethylene (PE), the world’s most common type of plastic polymer used in anything from shopping bags to soda bottles. Yet, the ingenious folks in the furniture industry developed a certain type of extruded PE material that can be woven just like its native counterpart, making their articles friendlier when left with the elements.
One manufacturing facility, Lenbert Manufacturing in Canduman, Mandaue City, is the oldest polyethylene manufacturer in the province, producing the material for their own consumption and to supply the other furniture factories in the area. Yet, other than this rather popular component, Lenbert decided to focus, too, on churning out an underrepresented material, the PVC. "I am proud to say that we are the only ones here manufacturing PVC for furniture," remarked Lenbert's 80-year-old marketing manager and operations officer, Jim Castles.
"PVC lasts forever. The eco people don't really like that idea, but the beauty of it is that it’s recyclable,"shared Castles, while showing his million-dollar machines rolling out black irrigation pipes fashioned off Lenbert's recycled plastics, making the company one of the top suppliers of these multipurpose tubes in the country as well.
For Murillo, while the bulk of his factory's yields is still made up of natural materials, it wouldn’t hurt to keep up with the times. "You have to apply technology, as much as possible, to be more competitive in terms of pricing and efficiency. You can't just use all indigenous materials. If there are some industrial materials that you can use to limit the use of resources or minimize the damage to the environment, then, all the better."
In an export industry that is valued at almost US$280 million annually, or a commanding 5.1 percent stake of total Philippine exports, it is easy to assume that Cebu will always have its sights on the international market. Yet, with the global economic hiccup of the late 2000s, demands for Cebuano furniture exports have drastically dwindled down.
"When the big crash came with the economy all over the world in 2008, everybody's business here fell to about 50 percent, including us. Forty-seven companies right here in Cebu went out of business," recalled Jim Castles. With a large volume of their products then intended for the recession-hit United States, Castles and his company had to quickly change tact, in an adapt-or-die attitude.
"We just went really hard at the local market and now we average up to two containers a month of sales equivalent, just out of the local market," shared Castles, walking us through one of the recession's developments for the company, its local outlet Rain or Shine All-Weather Furniture. In its multi-level showroom, which used to be Lenbert's export operations and logistics office, the company now sells to restaurant, café, or bar owners, as well as new homeowners of the real-estate boom.
Yet, if there was a local market that Cebuanos have always dominated, it is the resort market. Hein Chrispijn's Metamorfose supplied outdoor furniture among 90 percent of Mactan's resorts, including Shangri-La, Waterfront, Crimson, and Plantation Bay. "Seventy-five percent of our sales are in the Philippines. It's our biggest market at the moment. We have 7,000 islands, and most of the clients we have are resorts, and we can make furniture in any number, shape, color, or size," shared Chrispijn.
"Furniture is all about design, not art. They're produced with a purpose in mind. Because of the changing needs of the people, I adjust my designs to suit them. People are living in smaller spaces, use less resources, being more green and eco-friendly, so I try to use these concepts in my design," Allan Murillo quipped.
Jim Castles also echoes this sentiment, saying: "Trends change all the time. Rather than achieving an award for some really mysterious looking design that you would win an award for but only one or two people would buy because the price is so high, I think that's not happening anymore. We're going to go more for functional design. You can get a nice design but should also be functional. It should work for the people and their homes."
For Hein Chrispijn, it's all about maintaining the same dedication and diligence he had since day one.
Yet, above all else, in a land that has given a lot and continues to nurture these furniture manufacturers' growth and development, for all of them, it's as simple as keeping the pride and passion alive.
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Catch these Cebuano furniture manufacturers and designers as they display their newest collections at the Philippine International Furniture Show from March 13 to 16 at the SMX Convention Center, SM Mall of Asia Grounds, Pasay City.