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History of Interior Design in the Philippines: Evolution of Filipino Architecture Traditions

History of Interior Design in the Philippines: Evolution of Filipino Architecture Traditions

The art of interior design is integral to architecture. It involves the planning, design, and execution of building interiors and their furnishing. The interior designer, by training and experience, is qualified to oversee all the phases of production and the application of various arts and crafts essential to their completion.

In the Philippines, the term “interior design” came into general usage in the 1950s. Interior design was institutionalized as a profession in 1963, when the Philippine Institute of Interior Design (PIID) was founded. The Philippine School of Interior Design (PSID) was established to train professionals in 1965. Today, several colleges and universities offer formal courses, and professionals may apply for a license.

Through the ages the form, function, design, and decoration of the interiors of Philippine habitations have been determined by the environment and culture. Nomadic man sheltered in caves, in trees, and in makeshift windscreens while hunting and gathering. The development of agriculture encouraged population clustering and house architecture.

Inter-island, and later, international trade, brought about larger concentrations of population. The homogeneity of architecture and art by region roughly corresponds to present ethnolinguistic boundaries.

The shift from nomadic to sedentary to urban life is seen in the number of household artifacts found in increasing amounts in archaeological sites from the Stone to the Metal to the “Porcelain” Ages. Stone and metal tools and artifacts, as well as actual structures, attest to the degree of ancient Filipino woodworking skills.

Archaeologists have found traces of the haligi (massive wooden posts) of protohistoric houses in many places.

The Indigenous Tradition

European chroniclers provide a glimpse into 16th-century Philippine houses. In 1521 Pigafetta described the house of Cebu’s chief as being “built like a hayloft” (Blair and Robertson XXXIII, 121). He added: “Their houses are constructed of wood, and are built of planks and bamboo, raised high from the ground on large logs, and one must enter them by means of ladders. They have rooms like ours; and under the house they keep their swine, goats and fowls” (Blair and Robertson XXXIII, 153).

Interior of Tboli house in Lake Sebu, Cotabato
Interior of Tboli house in Lake Sebu, Cotabato (Provincial Government of South Cotabato)

His impression was that there was little or no furniture in Cebuano houses. The visitors sat on bamboo mats “with feet drawn up like tailors” (Blair and Robertson XXXIII, 121). The people slept on reed or palm leaf mats, with pillows made of leaves. However, Pigafetta noted imported porcelain ware, storage jars, and bronze gongs inside the houses. He was told by Awi, Butuan’s chief, that “all of his dishes” and “also some portion” of his house were made of gold (Blair and Robertson XXXIII, 121-123).

When the Spaniards reached Manila some 50 years later, they saw a large, prosperous, and fortified town. The house of Manila’s ruler Rajah Sulayman, before it was burnt to the ground, “was very large, and it contained many valuable things such as money, copper, iron, porcelain, blankets, wax, cotton, and wooden vats full of brandy” (Blair and Robertson XXXIII, 103).

At the turn of the 17th century, Chirino observed that in the more typical Luzon house, natives ate seated on the floor, their tables being “small, low and round or square in shape,” and after eating, “they removed the tables and cleared the house” (Blair and Robertson XII, 308). The anonymous author of the Boxer Codex, writing at around the same time, confirmed the lack of substantial furniture: “They are not accustomed to sleep in beds nor do they have them, although they find them comfortable, because they could make them from a certain thing taken from trees which they call in their tongue baro, which serves as mattress like wood. They sleep on the floor of their houses, in the elevated portion which they inhabit, as the portion below is not used. They place beneath their bodies only some palm mats. Others sleep on some hammocks made by cotton cloth, which they hang with two pieces of rope from the poles of bamboos of the house” (Quirino and Garcia 1958, 413).

Philippine architecture has been compared with basket weaving. The similarity rests not only on the structural technique but, more importantly, in the spatial concept of the traditional house. The basic structural volume is that of a cubic room raised on posts, topped by a pyramidal, hipped, or gabled roof. All of the space under the roof is regarded in terms of vertical containment, or “space upon space.” The interior of the archetypal Philippine house does not have walls. The partitioning of areas, based on the concept of “spaces within a space,” is a feature of more advanced interior design.

The traditional house has no ceiling, with the under layer of the roof left exposed. The upper interior space may be used to store firewood, grain, valuables, and even dead ancestors. Between the roofing tie-beam and the floor are shelves and platforms that define levels of space.

In many regions the space below floor girders and between the house posts is enclosed, thus utilizing the ground level for storage, sheltering livestock, or working on crafts.

The walls of the house are also often extended outside the basic structural frame to the limit of the roof eaves, creating “space surrounded by space.” The peripheral extensions are raised slightly from the floor level, functioning as sleeping platforms, seats, and shelves. When built with slatted flooring material, they also help to ventilate the house.

The dapugan and batalan (stove and washing areas) may have originally been, in the same manner, extended shelves. The next logical step was to extend the dapugan and the batalan into a protruding annex with a slightly lower flooring, wall, and sibi (awning). The latter term also refers to the extension creating a front porch. It is roofed over, like the batalan, but without walls, only railings. On one side, the access ladder cuts into the guard rail. With such annexes, the central space is maximized.

The traditional one-family house shelters an adult couple and several children below the age of puberty. The bahay kubo (nipa hut) structure is typical in the highland communal villages in northern Luzon where, upon adolescence, children move to gender-specific dormitories, as well as in lowland cultures where children are encouraged to marry at an early age and set up their own households.

In communal cultures where larger houses shelter extended families, the same interior space planning concepts are also applied. There is still one open multifunctional common hall. Individual and nuclear family areas are defined only by mats, low storage chests or woven boxes, and fiber screens.

In such longhouses the head of the household and his mate sleep behind a partition, while the rest sleep in the common hall. In more developed communities, the partitioned area is a room, i.e., it has permanent walls and a door. The room, aside from being the master’s sleeping area, also stores valuables and serves as a dressing room. It is called the silid, which in Tagalog means “to keep safe,” referring perhaps to the original function of the space as the place for storing valuables.

In Islamized communities, the women stay behind a partition in the common hall. The segregation of women was carried to the extreme in the late-period torogan (datu’s large house). Behind the panggao (sleeping area) of the datu was the gibon, a room specially built for the princess and her ladies, manga raga. Here they were trained in the arts of gentility and kept away from the prying eyes of commoners. Even more exclusive households had a one-room tower extending from the center of the roof. The airy room, accessed only from behind the headboard of the datu’s bed, was called the lamin, and its occupant, the liyamin.

Essentially, the concept of the house as “spaces within a space” or an enclosure assigned to particular members of the household and with specific functions, came only in later stages of cultural development. This can be gleaned from the appropriation of Hispanic terms: cuarto (room); dormitorio (bedroom); canon principal (main hall); sala (drawing room); galeria (hall); antesala (reception room); cocina (kitchen), and sala comedor (dining room).

In the northern Luzon highland house, interior ornamentation is minimal. As the climate makes windows inadvisable, everything inside the house is blackened by soot from the open hearth. Pamadingan (walls) are of hardwood planks, sometimes with chiseled patterns. Among the Ifugao, structural embellishment consists of carving anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures on the hogohog, the shelf mounts over the hearth, and on the halda or patie, an open shelf for displaying luxury items like imported jars; the underside of the shelf has hooks in the form of animals, from which baskets and utensils are hung. The roof’s main vertical support, the kinabigat (kingpost), is the major interior architectural detail. Among the wealthiest lfugao, it is carved in the form of an upright human figure.

Kept inside the house is the anito or house guardian, and sometimes the bulol, the pair of harvest ritual figures. At the ground level of the house may be displayed the hagabi, a long bench carved out of a massive tree trunk. It is shaped like a high bench forming an apex at the center and terminating on both ends in huge, stylized animal heads with large round ears. The bulol, the hagabi, and the kinabigat are ascending status indicators, granted to a family by the village only after a prescribed series of ceremonial feast giving.

In some lfugao districts, the po-kok (grain storage) is so large it is almost part of the architecture. It consists of floating large planks pegged and grooved to vertical supports, with a removable door sometimes carved with a human figure. The lfugao also use the dulong (sleeping platform), a massive plank of wood carved so that a narrow siding and a wide headrest are left raised and the foot open. They also use dalapong (low stools), sometimes with its base and its stem-handles carved to suggest abstract animal feet, heads, and tails.

Among the Tinguian in northern Luzon, status is indicated by the number and quality of ceremonial weaves hung about the house upon the death of a family member and during other rites of passage. The textiles are taken down and put back in storage after the event.

Textiles also play an important part in Maranao interior decoration. The ordinary Maranao walay (house) is functionally and spatially indistinguishable from that of the northern Luzon bale, Tagalog bahay, and Visayan balay. Likewise, there is minimal architectural detail in the Maranao interior, although royal houses are highly ornamented in the exterior, with panolong (protruding okir-carved facade elements), and wall and window panels. However, the Maranao sleeping area is surrounded by mamadiyang (curtains) and topped by a kolambo (canopy) to catch insects falling from the roof. These textile hangings are more elaborate in the torogan. The canopy, also called riniped, would be of silk and satin, and embellished with libot (applique work), embroidery, spangles, and headwork. The central panel, visible to the datu lying down on the bed, would depict the Ka’aba in Mecca or the borak, the mythical winged horse with a woman’s head which brought the Prophet to heaven, or a floral pattern. During a kalilang (festive gathering), the walls are covered with lalansay or continuous hangings which may surround the interior of the torogan from the beams to the floor. Hangings may also decorate the facade of the torogan. Decorative vessels and utensils displayed during such occasions include the gador, silver-inlaid brass urns; the lotoan and the salapa, silver-inlaid brass and heavily gilt betel-nut boxes, respectively; the bintang, a heavily gilt presentation tray; and other prestige objects.

The Hispanic Tradition

Hispanic acculturation altered Filipino interiors. The houses of the more affluent began to reflect the social, economic, and cultural changes brought about by colonization. The houses of the poorest peasants changed the least.

Anteroom of Alunan-Lizares Ancestral House or Balay Tana Dicang in Talisay, Negros Occidental, 2022 (Photo by Elmer Gatchalian)
Anteroom of Alunan-Lizares Ancestral House or Balay Tana Dicang in Talisay, Negros Occidental, 2022 (Photo by Elmer Gatchalian)

The Spaniards, first of all, transformed habitation patterns. Indigenous settlements had been linear, in strategic locations along bodies of water. Church-and-State rule imposed concentration of the populace bajo las campanas or within hearing distance of the church bells. Towns were planned in a grid pattern, with a central plaza dominated by the iglesia (church) and the casa real (town hall).

The bahay pari (priest’s house) or convento, beside the church, served as the model for the hispanized Filipino house. Initially, the materials and basic construction methods remained indigenous, although the friars must have required more interior partitioning than was traditional.

In Manila and major missionary centers, where conventos housed more than a handful of clerics, the planning would have departed radically from the indigenous pattern. There would have been more celdas or aposentos (individual rooms), a larger refectorio (common hall), a more commodious cocina (kitchen), servicios (privies), and a reception area for parishioners.

Disastrous fires and typhoons soon convinced the Spaniards that traditional Filipino building materials were impractical for their purposes. From the late 16th century they began constructing casas de canteria y teja, houses of wood and stone with tile roofs, in the colonial style of the period. When earthquakes during the first half of the 17th century leveled many such structures, local builders began to adapt Spanish colonial design to local conditions using native construction methods: the roof was supported by haligi, and masonry was utilized as curtain walls.

As towns consolidated through the 17th century, the bahay pari, of permanent materials like those in the major mission centers, were constructed by Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese maestros de obras (master builders) in the countryside. Perhaps masonry was so costly that certain walls of stone were utilized only around the ground story, or wood was considered a material more suited to the climate, or there was need to reduce the weight borne by the load-bearing ground floor stone walls. Perhaps for all the above reasons local builders invented the half-stone, half-wood bahay na bato (stone house). The preferred types of structural timber were mulawin or tugas or yakal for their strength and resistance to rot. Interior members were made of narra and ipil.

As in traditional houses, the upper level was where members of the household lived. The zaguan (ground floor), was used for storage of rice and other agricultural products as well as carrozas (processional floats), or as an informal receiving area.

Once structures were built of solid materials, interiors became dark and ill ventilated. Windows, which were traditionally grass or bamboo screens hinged at the top and extendable like awnings, became cumbersome when fashioned of solid wood panels. This was solved by making sliding panels, the sills of which also served as additional structural supports.

In some 17th century-style houses the Chinese Ming period building plan was adopted, with the house constructed in a rectangle around an airwell or open courtyard with a garden.

The conventional convento plan consisted of a rectangular main block with celdas, refectorio, and galerias (galleries), with an annex for the cocina and service areas. In the modest bahay pari and its offspring, the bahay na bato, the house proper was smaller, with only a few rooms and a drawing room used only for ceremonial occasions. Meals were taken in the enlarged cocina; often this became a formal sala comedor, while still another annex would later be added to function as the new kitchen. An extension of the cocina was the azotea, an unroofed area where the cistern or large water storage jars were located. The azotea was where messy household work was done, including laundry.

Thus domestic buildings gradually evolved into an “L” plan, with the dining, kitchen, and services areas forming the short side.

In general, the development of art during the Spanish colonial era can be divided into two: the Mission period, from 1565 to 1762; and the Hacienda period, from 1762 to 1898.

The first period was characterized by the growth of the missions and towns in the countryside, on the one hand, and the development of Manila as a metropolis and as an international entrepot, on the other.

Manila was the center of the colonial bureaucracy, both civil and ecclesiastical, and the mercantile sector which engaged in Asian and trans-Pacific trade. In the countryside, the colonial presence consisted principally of the friars, since civilian authorities were, initially, encomendero families who administered populations for only two generations. Appointees later occupied their positions for only short periods. Consequently, most permanent structures were built by missionaries.

Emphasis on the ceiling was an important innovation of colonial design. In traditional houses, fiber netting and textile weaves were used as functional and decorative canopies. In lowland architecture, sawali (woven-bamboo strip) matting functioned as kisami (ceiling). Overhead decorations were given importance during the Mission period; the baroque-style coffered or tray ceiling camouflaged the heavy trusses of clay-tile roofs. The strapwork painting on the barrel vault ceiling of a chamber in the San Agustin Convent in Intramuros is an early example of ceiling ornamentation. Some 18th-century examples are still extant in some houses south of Cebu City.

As in Western houses of the period, the stairway leading into the upper level was incorporated into the house, and the main door was moved to the ground level. The door became massive, swing-in gates in the process, with masonry portal formed into an arch. The stair banister was supported by flat slats with a carved outline and later, by turned balusters. Newel posters were sometimes carved with local floral patterns which included stylized katmon. An outstanding motif of the period was the piña or pineapple, adapted from the pigna or acorn motif of European classical decoration.

Another architectural feature that lent itself to ornamentation was the corbel. In the early bahay na bato, the corbels were at least partially exposed since the ceiling commenced at the joists. They were carved, sometimes into the form of chimera and anthropomorphic figures, sometimes in a floral pattern.

Living room of Alunan-Lizares Ancestral House or Balay Tana Dicang in Talisay, Negros Occidental, 2022 (Photo by Elmer Gatchalian)
Living room of Alunan-Lizares Ancestral House or Balay Tana Dicang in Talisay, Negros Occidental, 2022 (Photo by Elmer Gatchalian)

While houses in Manila may have been richly furnished with European and Oriental muebles (furniture), as wills and inventories testify, houses outside of Manila may have been sparsely furnished. Most houses would have had a bed, a cabinet, several chests, a chair or two, an altar table, a candlestand, a dining table, long benches, a food cabinet, and little else. Preferred woods were molave, tindalo, and kamagong, until deforestation made the use of narra and ipil more practical.

Reports of the 17th-century Manila state that even Europeans slept on mats on the floor, since it was more comfortable. The low cabinets and chests would have been in the bedrooms. The altar table would have been in the master’s bedroom; over it would be a small religious painting on wood, santos, and candlesticks. To store valuables, the altar table would have some drawers with locks.

Comedor or dining area of the Alunan-Lizares Ancestral House or Balay Tana Dicang in Talisay, Negros Occidental, 2022 (Photo by Elmer Gatchalian)
Comedor or dining area of the Alunan-Lizares Ancestral House or Balay Tana Dicang in Talisay, Negros Occidental, 2022 (Photo by Elmer Gatchalian)

In the common hall long benches would be lined along the wall, and near the windows would be one or two chairs for the master of the house or important visitors. The dining table in the comedor would be flanked by long benches with the food safe and plate storage cabinet nearby.

By the 18th century the Iberian domination of the world was in decline. The Dutch and the English preyed on Spanish ships, and they established lucrative plantations in their own colonies. By no means was Spain crippled; its silver was still the recognized currency world over.

In the Philippines the galleon trade remained Manila’s major source of income. The friar corporations controlled a large part of the trade, and with their estates and royal patronage they maintained their position as the economic elite.

The Chinese sector or the comprador or trader class began to ally themselves often by marriage with the native principalia or aristocracy, many of whom had earlier intermarried with Europeans and who controlled land and had influence over the populace. The result was the Filipino mestizaje or half-breeds, who were heirs to three cultural legacies: the native, the Oriental, and the Occidental. This was reflected in the architecture of their houses, their interiors, and furnishings.

As the Philippines was integrated into the world economy, other Western influences began to affect local culture and society. During the Mission period these influences were mainly Flemish and Italian (what we call “Spanish”). The subsequent Hacienda period was influenced by French and later by English trends. This was reflected in the succession of baroque, rococo, and neoclassical styles through the 18th century.

Particularly from the latter part of the century, landed estates began to be consolidated and transformed into haciendas that raised cash and export crops. The Spaniards lost political prestige and, for a while, the economy went into a tailspin with the British occupation of Manila, 1762-1764; the peninsula itself was undergoing changes with the ascension of the Bourbons in Madrid, and later, the rise of liberalism.

The wealth of the colony was increasingly generated by the mestizo elite, who sought to express their new status. These changes were reflected in domestic construction and innovations in architecture and interior design. Instead of the squat, low, and sparely furnished houses of the Mission period, large, spacious, and better-furnished homes were built during the Hacienda period. There was an increased emphasis on the sense of spaciousness, ventilation, and light. Houses had to be open and congenial.

Cross-ventilation for the rooms was achieved with the use of an architectural element similar to the Japanese rama, i.e., pierced panels over doors and the upper portion of partitions. It may have been at this time that windows with shell panels, also found in mariner towns in England and China, came into popular use.

Awareness of design and style grew, particularly in the late 18th century. Functionality became only one consideration; embellishment grew in importance.

One indication of the design trend at that time is the table found in the Taal area, identified as the work of a “Batangas Master” ebanista. Made of tindalo, it retained the basic form of Ming-style altar tables: a chest of three drawers raised on cabriole legs on a skeletal stand with short ogee feet. But the flanges and apron have curved outlines and trellised piecework. The tabletop is edged with angular-section and dentil moldings, and the drawer frames are step carved on the front.

This exuberant “confusion” of design traditions, also a feature of the Morong church facade, has been dubbed the estilo de compuesto or composite style.

By 1815 the galleon trade ceased, depriving the religious orders of a major source of income. As the church could spend less and less on art, the principalia slowly advanced as art patrons, eventually superseding the clergy by their sheer number. Unlike the religious, this new elite imbibed the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment, which they worked in architectural or art form, into their houses. With this new elite, there is a heightened sense of individuality and self- importance, of style and grandeur.

The 19th-century bahay na bato balanced the considerations of privacy and public function. Generally, houses became bigger. More bedrooms were built. Entertainment areas had to accommodate not only the resident extended family but whole clans gathered for ceremonials. The important houses had a salon de baile (ballroom), as in the Lizares house in Talisay, Negros Occidental.

Two developments shaped the look of Filipino interiors in the 19th century. First, there was a succession of stylistic revivals throughout that era ranging from neoclassicism, the second baroque movement, the Gothic revival, orientalist, and other trends. Second, the increase in international trade resulted in the flood of foreign manufactured household items. Ships that came to load sugar, rice, indigo, wood, and other native products unloaded Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Chinese furniture, Bristol glass, Austrian crystal, French porcelain, and others.

Interiors first composed during the late 18th century may have begun as neoclassical, spare, and symmetrical spaces. Houses stored and displayed riches, with the characteristic Isabelina or mid-Victorian look. Houses were also expanded or renovated by succeeding owners in a later revivalist style resulting in eclectic interiors.

The Henson house in Angeles City is one example. The original, early 19th-century part of the house, now the master’s bedroom, retains the bahay kubo form, with a steep pyramidal ceiling. The sala comedor has a coffered ceiling, bordered by tin sheet panels stamped with a baroque revival design. Off to one side are bedrooms which were added even much later. The discontinuous interior style is typical, reflecting the changing styles and fortunes of successive generations.

The attempt to rationalize space and to create a tighter unity between interiors and furniture began in the late 19th century. There were several factors. First, illustrated periodicals from Europe began to reach the Philippines regularly, particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Knowledge of trends and the availability of imported materials made possible the recreation of European interiors. Second, a succession of destructive earthquakes moved the government to require the approval of drawn plans for new construction. Prior conceptualization forced house owners to coordinate interior elements. Third, professional architects like Felix Roxas began to make their mark.

These developments, together with other factors, gave rise to the production of furniture in multiples, an indication of the prevalence of fashionable trends in interior design. Perhaps the most successful furniture atelier during the late 19th century and the early 20th century was that of Ah Tay, a Chinese artisan in Binondo. Extant examples of his furniture are in the second baroque style, with Gothic revival elements.

Facsimiles of imported furniture also became fashionable. The bentwood birch chairs designed by Austrian Auguste Thonet, the first knockdown furniture to hit the international market, were imported to the Philippines and became a staple of dining rooms and the growing restaurant market. It was copied in the Philippines using tropical hardwood, which was carved rather than steam bent. An inexpensive, hence popular, version in rattan and rattan solihiya or caning was known as batibot.

The interiors of colonial churches, aside from a very few casas reales (municipal government houses) and tribunales (court houses), are surviving examples of interior design in public buildings during the Spanish regime. The interior space of the church—nave, transept, sanctuary, and dome—was the object of architectural planning. However, the ornamentation of the interior could be regarded as interior design.

The portion of the interior given the most attention was the sanctuary, with its retablo or altarpiece, and main altar, and such particular features as the communion rail, the tabernacle, and the sanctuary. Features outside the sanctuary that were diligently designed and executed were the side altars, the pulpit, the choir loft, and the baptistry. If the church had a dome, the ceiling of the dome would be decorated with paintings. In the absence of a true dome, a dome-shaped ceiling is hung from a pyramidal roof. Portraits of the four evangelists were traditionally painted on the pendentives, the triangular wall sections that link the dome to its vertical supports.

Although the roof was not a stone vault but of wooden frames, a ceiling of tabique or metal sheets was curved to give the appearance of a vault. The ceiling of the nave was sometimes decorated with paintings of biblical vignettes, the Mysteries of the Rosary, the lives of the saints, religious symbols, and architectural ornaments in trompe l’oeil paintings.

On the walls were the Stations of the Cross, which could be painted, carved wood, or molded plaster. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Interior design as the collaboration between architect and sculptor was exemplified by the interior of the neoclassic San Ignacio Church in Intramuros, built in 1889 and destroyed in World War II. The building was designed by Roxas, and the interior was adorned by the sculptor Isabelo Tampinco. Fluted Corinthian columns, an intricate coffered ceiling, high-relief human figures at the ceiling of the transept, and a richly decorated pulpit and canopy were all rendered in exquisitely carved wood.

During the fin-de-siecle, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the art nouveau style released the creativity of designers and artisans.

The construction of three major churches in Manila, i.e., the San Ignacio, the Santo Domingo, and the San Sebastian, encouraged a new generation of artisans. Among them was Tampinco, who set up an atelier in Quiapo, Manila which accepted commissions for architectural details and furnishings, such as valances and frames. Tampinco is credited with creating Philippine Art Nouveau in wood carving with his use of anahaw, banana, and areca leaves, and other native flora as motifs. His son Vidal maintained the atelier well into the 20th century.

It is the painter Emilio Alvero who is usually credited with matching architectural details with furniture design. However, Alvero was not the only practitioner of interior design at the turn of the century. The architects Juan, Arcadio, and Otilio Arellano are known to have been as concerned about decorating interiors as well as exteriors. Arcadio designed the house of Don Ariston Bautista Lin in Quiapo around a set of Vienna sezession furniture. The Juan Arellano house on P. Guevarra, San Juan, Metro Manila was conceived by the architect in the Mediterranean or Italianate style. The unprepossessing foyer leads to a sala-comedor with a two-story ceiling. Overlooking the sala is a balcony, emphasized by heavy molding and pierced rails, leading from the master bedroom. The focus of the dining area, which is raised several steps, is a tall oriel window that fills the room with light. The comedor is further emphasized by a high dividing arch painted with murals. Wrought-iron doors and even wall sconces were designed by the architect.

The American Colonial Tradition

By the late 19th century the crowding of population centers changed the Filipino concepts of domestic space. Furniture became smaller to fit accesorias, which were annexes for rent in old compounds. During the American colonial period, apartments or row houses were introduced. Art deco style mass-produced furniture sets for the bedroom, dining room, and living room became popular.

Andres Luna de San Pedro, Juan Nakpil, Pablo Antonio, Fernando Ocampo Sr., and Tomas Mapua, among others, hastened the development of Filipino art deco and modernist interiors and furnishings. The “ambassador-style” sala set of rattan or narra, with a three-seater and side chairs and a coffee and magazine table, resulted from this era. A typical low-slung set with strong geometric lines, went well with the architecture of the house Mapua designed for his family, as shown in photographs of the time.

Old Senate Session Hall of the Legislative Building in Manila, now the National Museum of Fine Arts, 2016 (Kiko del Rosario)
Old Senate Session Hall of the Legislative Building in Manila, now the National Museum of Fine Arts, 2016 (Kiko del Rosario)

When it was inaugurated on 16 July 1926, the Legislative Building, restored after World War II, it became the Executive House occupied by the Senate and the Prime Minister, and presently the National Museum’s Museum of Fine Arts. It was described by A. V. H. Hartendorp (1926), editor of the Philippine Education Magazine, as the “most magnificent and impressive structure ever erected in the Philippines” and “the first of the great works of Juan Arellano ... The Senate chamber on the second floor,” reports Hartendorp, “is the most splendid hall in the building,” with its “carved wooden ceiling, painted in bright primary colors ... mural paintings in the impressionist style done by Juan Arellano himself, assisted by Emilio Alvero.” The hall was also adorned with two large statues representing War and Peace, and 16 statues of the great legislators. Above the doors were busts of Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Juan Luna, and Gregorio del Pilar.

Hartendorp, in the January 1932 issue of Philippine Magazine, also described the interior of the then newly opened Metropolitan Theater, another masterwork of Arellano. “In the auditorium, the beautiful rectangular proscenium opening is dominant. It is decorated on top with bas-relief figures emblematic of Music, Tragedy, Comedy, and Poetry, and with a ribbon of jewel-like plaques in silver on both sides. The vision is uninterrupted anywhere by pillars or by old-fashioned boxes, and the impression of spaciousness thus produced is heightened by the clear bareness of the lightly tinted walls, ornamented only by high tapering tubes of translucent white glass in the shape of bamboo stalks which serve as lamps. In contrast, the ceiling is gorgeously decorated in deep relief with stylized fruit and leafage designs.”

Before World War II quality pieces were manufactured by the Ortoll furniture atelier. The master carver Nuguid is said to have worked there. When he opened up his own shop, he evolved what came to be known as “Betis baroque,” the baroque revival style of the 19th century, adapted to the mid-20th century.

The Period of the Republics

After World War II Ernest Korneld, an Austrian-Jewish stage designer, became the first professional interior decorator in Manila. He was known for restrained decoration and adherence to stylistic unity. Dr. Arturo de Santos, an interior designer by avocation, became known for his elegant interiors and his work on hotels. The contemporary architect Luis Araneta did very few interiors but influenced many decorators through his own residence. Both de Santos and Araneta collected art and antiques assiduously and, by their example, led many others to do the same.

Interior of the residence of National Artist for architecture Leandro V. Locsin
Interior of the residence of National Artist for architecture Leandro V. Locsin (Photo by Akio Kawasumi in The Architecture of Leandro V. Locsin by Nicholas Polites. John Weatherhill Inc., 1977)

One interior designer who integrated traditionalist and modernist trends was Rosario Luz, who had a firm grasp of modern minimalism and an eye for good period pieces.

Among the designers active in the 1950s and 1960s were Wili (Guillermo) Fernandez, who pioneered the use of Philippine ethnic motifs, folk colors and crafts; Ched (Mercedes) Berenguer-Topacio, whose subdued and tasteful interior and furniture designs revealed her grasp of the basics; Edgar Ramirez, whose opulent designs were inspired by period styles; and Lor Calma, whose furniture designs, like the “carabao chair,” were daring and sculptural. Later, Calma was associated with Gus Gamboa and Tony Cancio. Also active were Phyllis Harvey, a Russian stage actor, and her American husband Dave, originally a theater set designer, who promoted “space planning.” Other important designers of this period are Antonio Zamora, the founding president of the PIID, and Joaquin Imperial who, after living in Spain, came home and established a successful design atelier.

The innovative trend in Philippine interior design was pursued in the mid-1950s by a group of young interior designers hired by Aguinaldo’s Department Store in Echague, Manila to upgrade its furniture section. In the 1950s and 1960s the architectural types most favored were the split-level bungalow and sprawling ranch house, so furnishings had low perspective. Comfort and functionality, rather than grandeur, were stressed.

Significant designers of the 1960s and 1970s who promoted the “mod” or eclectic style were Johnny Hubilla, Gerry Contreras, Edith Oliveros, Sonia Olivares, and Evelyn Vales Garcia.

In the 1960s architects Araneta, Leandro Locsin, and Gabriel Formoso integrated gardens into interiors. This trend was continued in the 1970s and 1980s by the Antonio brothers, Ramon and Luis. Another major influence of the 1960s was art collector and dealer Eleuterio Pascual, a conservative who championed the period style and the use of fine and old furnishings and objets d’art.

The dominant trend from the late 1970s through the 1980s was the “ilustrado revival” style which recreated interiors in the decorative spirit of the 19th-century Filipino elite. It began with the construction of the Nayong Pilipino, a park in Pasay City which featured scaled-down models of traditional houses in the country’s various regions. The Guevarra Foundation’s Museo ng Buhay Pilipino in Parañaque, Metro Manila and the book Philippine Ancestral Houses, 1980, by Fernando Zialcita and Martin Tinio Jr., also catalyzed this trend. Casa Manila, the recreation of a late 19th-century nouveau riche residence in Intramuros, decorated by Martin Tinio Jr., marked the culmination of the trend.

In the late 1980s, the postmodern style with its playful allusion to classical design elements, became fashionable with young architects. Furniture in the same spirit were introduced by Eric Diaz, who studied furniture design in London; Dr. Joaquin Palencia, associated with Ben Hughes of Steven-Heach, a Hong Kong design firm; Impy Pilapil and lately Claude Tayag, furniture sculptors. Deconstructivism began to be taken seriously, after its introduction in the mid-1980s, in the store designs of Rico Ocampo and his family. Their stores’ house furnishings section has influenced the youth market.

Since the 1950s, interior design has become a highly regarded specialization. Professionals and practitioners not only select design and arrange furniture, wall and floor coverings, and accessories, but also help conceptualize space for functionality and aesthetic impact. Interior designers not only help decorate a space but also plan the way a person lives and works.

The uniqueness of the Philippine interiors was highlighted by Filipino Style by René Javellana, Fernando Zialcita, and Elizabeth Reyes. This followed upon a popular series on different regional and national styles, lavishly illustrated with full color photography, published by Archipelago Press, later Periplus, which focused on styles of houses and interiors in different countries. Reyes produced a sequel to this book, Philippine Style: Design and Architecture, 2013. Publication by an international publishing house and for the international market pointed to a growing recognition of Philippine interior design. Predictably, what the international market and audience is looking for is what is native and vernacular, on the supposition that these characteristics set Philippine architecture apart from others. While this may be criticized as an outsider’s view that does not take into account modernist and postmodernist designs, nonetheless attention to the nativistic has placed the Philippines in international consciousness.

As Philippine design enters the 21st century, Philippine-designed products like furniture for homes are being marketed abroad to an appreciative market.


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  • Access Date: March 09, 2023. URL: Copyright © 2020 by Cultural Center of the Philippines

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