The challenge of capturing a “Filipino-ness” in his designs will absorb product designer Stanley Ruiz for many years to come. But it is a “struggle” that he welcomes, being the artist that he is, forever drawn to new and untried avenues of creativity.
He explains to Furniture and Furnishings Export International: “While certain materials are associated with Filipino design such as abaca, rattan and bamboo, other countries have been using similar, if not exactly, the same materials in their products. If you walk into a room with three rattan chairs, one from Thailand, one from Indonesia and one from the Philippines, how can you tell which one is from the Philippines? Material alone is not enough to signify identity unless that material is endemic, and only exists in that country.
“I think asserting one’s identity is vital, but we can approach it in more inventive ways.”
Ruiz, who graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Industrial Design from the University of the Philippines and holds a Graduate Certificate in Interactive Media Arts from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, believes he may have found a response to his questioning. He says: “I was thinking of the word ‘kumpuni,’ which in Tagalog means to repair.
“Improvisation plays a big part in our culture – repairing, altering, adding-on, appropriating. Perhaps, this could be one way of showcasing our identity?”
“I think we need to be more confident in our design sense, and not be insecure.”
Ruiz, who works out of a home-atelier in Metro Manila, has travelled distances to find himself, and while that journey is far from over, it has ultimately led him back to his native shores.
As a student, Ruiz was already immersed in product design, and more so after graduation when he satisfied full time the needs of small-and medium-scale enterprises in the Philippine provinces. In late 2001, a job in Bali, Indonesia jump started an overseas odyssey that would last 13 years. In an environment not unlike the Philippines, he worked for a company that exported craftware to the U.S., Europe and Australia. Toward the end of 2004, he accepted a tempting offer to move to New York – after much thought, as he says, life in Bali was a pleasure – to design homeware. “I wanted to experience living in New York as well as to study there. Being at the center of it all was the selling point for me,” Ruiz recalls.
For almost a decade, he dedicated his talents to several companies: an importer selling to Bed, Bath and Beyond, celebrity potter Jonathan Adler; and Real Simple, for whom he launched their first product line under Time, Inc. (yes, the magazine!). His last employer was Soho Studios set up by top creatives from West Elm.
These experiences, plus exposure to the intricacies of the export-import field and the global design market, joined to convince Ruiz to strike out on his own and fashion his own brand line. The 2008 US recession had also made him redundant, and with some free time, he created a collection, exhibiting it at Designboom Mart during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York’s Javits Center.
Says Ruiz: “I decided it was time for me to start my own studio, and I registered my company in 2008. I started it part time in the beginning because I still had a day job.”
The thrill of going it alone was always tempered with ever mounting expenses as well as the reality of foregoing the security of cushy employment, a reliable paycheck and health insurance. When he decided to pull up his U.S. roots to return home, he knew it meant saying good bye to friends and giving up the benefits of living in an advanced economy. But being a pragmatist, the significantly lower operating costs (at the time), a larger workspace and the availability of a dynamic and knowledgeable workforce made relocating to the Philippines a no brainer.
“I knew that Asia was where the action was, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Ruiz adds. “I also wanted to contribute to the design landscape in Manila.” He took the plunge, rebuilt his network and tried to convince the market, which was unaware of his international stature, he was worth their attention and custom. Luckily, the Center for International Trade Exposition and Missions (CITEM), the export promotion arm of the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), soon took notice of the returned son, including him in its stable of design consultants for Manila FAME, the annual premier showcase of Filipino craftsmanship and design innovation. “That helped a great deal,” he says.
Back to that niggling issue of defining “identity,” Ruiz observes that it’s outsiders and the market oftentimes directing the path of creativity. “They say: ‘Oh, this looks too modern, too Western, or this is too clean. Should we make it less clean then to make it Filipino? Add more bells and whistles like the Jeepney? Or use rattan or bamboo because that’s what they’ve been buying from us since the 1960s?”
The opposite. He declares that it’s time for the local design world to opt for a new design paradigm. “We need to break out of stereotypical Filipino-design mold. That is one way of evolving our material culture.”
To adapt to Metro Manila’s horrendous and frustrating gridlocks, Ruiz has established a home-office, from which Estudio Ruiz, his own self-produced brand and ER Design Consultancy that thrives on commissioned projects, operates from. He is Creative Director and Chief Designer of both, working with one full-time staff, one part-time freelancer and an intern. “I’m very hands on,” says Ruiz of his management style. “I do the designing, make sketches and explain the overall direction of every design project. I’m mostly in the office if I’m not travelling.”
The upside of being back, he agrees, is that “everything is flexible and people here are quite helpful. There are many downsides true, but if one learns to navigate the Filipino psyche, understand us, as a people, then maybe we can turn the negatives into positives. I think we just need to be more disciplined as a people, including me!”
His creative process starts off simply enough “reducing elements to their essential forms and re-arranging them…breaking the components down, and re-combining them…I like permutations, division and fractions.”
Here, his narration gets more interesting: “I am also into set theory (unions, intersections). Like how would the form look like if I subtracted a half-sphere from a cube?” He enjoys the scenario of ‘disruption,’ citing a glass project for Spektacularis, a local brand that collaborates with Czech glass makers. “I designed this line of organically shaped blobs called ‘Growth,’ and ‘Mono,’ as sculpture and lighting pieces respectively. Not familiar with glass blowing techniques, I found out during prototyping that my designs were difficult to make!
“Even the glass master, who had 30 years of experience, found it quite difficult at first but after a few tries figured out a way to make them. Apparently, asymmetrical forms are difficult since the rotation of the blow pipes dictate the overall form of the newly blown glass (mostly symmetrical). Inadvertently, I ‘disrupted’ their
process by accidentally injecting a minor change in their usual glass blowing practice.”
Another project, dubbed the Areté Bench, involved furniture Ruiz designed for the newly opened Ateneo Art Gallery. He says: “I designed a custom geometric typeface that spelled the letters A-T-E-N-E-O. I then cut these letters in half, jumbled them so they were not easily recognizable and turned them into three-dimensional wood tiles. These were then inlaid into the solid wood bench, looking like abstract relief sculptures.
“That was my idea of infusing a very subtle ‘sense of place’ into the work. Up to now, not a lot of people know what those abstract wood tiles are, or the meaning of it.”
Responding to the dynamics between form and function, he says: “Function is always considered, and it is of paramount importance when designing for industry. But you can have that, you can have the most functional product that only a few would appreciate due to the negligence of form.
Form is our first interaction with an object–it must communicate clearly what it means to say,
otherwise, communication breakdown. Form connects the designed object to the user.
“After satisfying the object’s form and function–I pursue what I call the “meta-qualities of design”– things like context and meaning. I like to work on experimental and conceptual pieces from time to time.”
Wood happens to be Ruiz’ the common denominator in his creations, saying he “really like its warmth, smell, texture and rawness–plus knowing that it is a living, moving material… that means there is still interaction as time progresses.”
While Ruiz appreciates technology’s formidable impact on design techniques and its future, he believes it’s still important to explore one creative reserves, rather than rely on the Internet’s vast online library. “The challenge (of today’s designers) is probably the over-abundance of stuff online–information and visual overload,” he says. “This makes it difficult to come up with fresh ideas as most of what we conceive may have been influenced in some way by what we see on line.”
He makes it a point to discourage his staff and students to go on Pinterest, deeming it “not a good practice,” and adding: “They need to learn to conceptualize. They need to understand that a product begins with an idea, which, perhaps, was borne out of a certain need. They need to see the value of design thinking.
He cites the example of one young colleague who habitually drew straight on a 3D program in the computer. “I told him to sketch first, refine the drawings by hand, make multiple studies,” says Ruiz. “Why? Because ideating on a computer is very limiting. You are only as good as your knowledge of that program. There is nothing wrong with technology. It is in the way we use it.”
So speaks the artist, who knows that ultimately, inspiration comes from one’s vast inner reserves.