The ‘B’s’ of Important Philippine Furniture
- 10 March 2022
Ensconced in the opulent houses of the principalía and the hacenderos. The most coveted of these originated from the “Three B’s”: Batangas, Baliuag, and Bohol.
In the Baliuag town of Bulacan, the burgeoning carabao slaughter houses and the abundant supply of bones gave way to a secondary craft industry of bone inlay (imbute) and wood inlay (hilas). Inlay is the application of bone (more commonly the ribs of carabaos or water buffalos) or wood (usually kamagong or lanite or a combination of the two to create contrasting dark and light color effect) inserts to decorate furniture. Hand-cut in various geometric shapes and sizes, they are then glued and affixed onto conforming recesses on the surface. Then they are sanded to create a smooth, flushed surface, drawing out beautiful decorative patterns. This time-consuming and intricate art form has been handed down from one generation to the next, and inlaid furniture has become Baliuag’s hallmark and specialty.
Recently, I had the privilege of seeing a number of fine examples. These included a Tambol (mirrorless) aparador from a private collector in New Manila. In precious kamagong and narra wood, this type of aparador is one of the most sought after. Similar to the silhouette of the Manila aparador but with distinct patterns of leafy tendrils and dainty flowers in quatrefoil shape of all-bone inlays on the frieze, it would have been placed in the bedroom, where it was used to store starched, ironed and neatly folded clothes, blankets, and linens. Important documents and valuables would also have been kept inside its drawers.
I also saw a four-post comoda, another cherished bedroom piece where servants would have neatly folded away the clothes of the patrician Santos family of Bocaue, whose devotional santos made of wood or ivory would have been placed conscientiously on top for their private veneration. There was also an unusual chest of drawers: a type of bedroom comoda composed of a stack of drawers—two small drawers on top, flanked by a pair of kahonitos for candles, rosaries, and estampitas, and four large drawers below. Its popularity reached the Philippines in the early 1800s. This piece was found in situ in a Baliuag ancestral house owned by the same family for over two centuries.
The private collection of revered antiques dealer and collector Cris Montoya are the origin of the other Baliuag beauties that I laid my eyes on. I was charmed by what I was told to be a rare petite altar table with four drawers, a convention only found in large altar tables. Placed in the living room to display a collection of devotional santos, before which family members would pray together every night like clockwork, its drawers would have stored a Bible, prayer books, rosaries, estampitas, and candles. I am utterly fascinated by our ancestors’ sectional tables—“Magic tables,” as our town’s chirpy antique collectors call them. This particular sectional is composed of two demi-lune or cabesera end tables and two to four (in some cases even more) rectangular tables in the middle conjoined to make a long table when the need to seat a lot of people arose—not an infrequent occurrence among the ilustrado classes with visitors dropping in unannounced, not to mention the occasional self-invitees to their glittering affairs! This particular piece, however, is a very rare bespoke piece, most probably a singular item, having a central altar table instead of regular rectangular tables. It was produced in Norzagaray, a town east of Baliuag, which historically preferred not to decorate its furniture with inlays. Yes, it would seem that Quaker—“of the best sort, but plain”—sensibilities somehow found their way into these baroque isles of ours!
What had started in the Ming dynasty as a table of simple framework without decorations and the ancient technique of mortise and tenon joinery by Chinese migrants living in Batangas in the late 18th century that would then be incorporated with Rococo influences would be later credited by furniture historians to the so-called Batangas Masters of Taal, Lipa, and San Pascual towns. In the 19th century, the clase alta furniture of the hacendero who owned vast sugarcane, coffee, and rice plantations featured aristocratic French-inspired and elegant Neoclassical elements became de rigueur to match the high standing of its owners. A prime example of this is an aparador de poste that I marveled at. Smaller in size than regular aparadors, this cabinet—sometimes called prinsesita or princess cabinet—would have been especially made for the beloved daughter of the family, placed in her bedroom to store her crisp clothing, much like the equally crisp masterly carvings found all over the cabinet, crown, and detachable large drawer.
Bohol is known for its instantly recognizable polychromed case furniture, urnas or home altars, and santos using natural plant and mineral dyes in fiesta colors of vermillion, yellow, orange, and green, reminiscent of the rustic painted furniture produced in the pueblo of Sante Fe, New Mexico. A striking example of this is a vestry cabinet made of balayong and molave wood which, in stark contrast to its more colorful counterparts, celebrates the natural color and grain of the material, and allows for better appreciation of its surface laden with masterly in-carved and appliqued flowers, foliage, moldings, as well as religious symbols such as the “Auspice of Maria” (Ave Maria) and crosses, signifying its ecclesiastical origin and purpose. A singular piece, it was whispered in hushed tones that it was formerly from the collection of a renowned business magnate whose prime was in the 1970s. There is also an impressive gigantic 18th century balayong retablo mayor Marian crown topper, decommissioned from a church a long time ago. The jury is still out on whether it is indeed from Bohol, but let’s just say that judging from its make and style, the “B” here is safely “Bisayan.”
In appreciating important Philippine furniture, of course, one must step beyond “The Three B’s” and add a fourth one—Binondo! Connoisseurs would, of course, bristle at the thought of adding another ‘B’ to the vaunted triune sources of colonial Philippine furniture, but was it not Binondo which was the location of the renowned Manila talleres of Ah Tay, not to mention being the birthplace of the great sculptor Isabelo Tampinco? You must see to believe this glorious original and unrestored Ah Tay matrimonial bed from the heirs of Don Andres and Dona Maria Luciano, paying particular attention to the divine macopa fruit carvings that are carved as decorative motifs dangling gracefully from the canopy’s vaulted crests. Juicier than the macopa is the story that it was once featured in a film titled *‘Ina, Kapatid, Anak’ *starring Lolita Rodriguez, Charito Solis, and Rio Locsin, and that Don Andres its original owner was the first medical doctor in Magalang, Pampanga, and was a former mayor and member of the Philippine Assembly. So much to channel as you lay on this divine bed! My Ah Tay appreciation tour continued with an elegant marble-topped console table that used to belong to the celebrated fashion designer and “Dean of Philippine Fashion” Ben Farrales. That this table passed his exacting standards was reason enough to be in its presence.
Not to be outdone of course is Tampinco, and you have to see to believe the sheer magnificence of this Neoclassical aparador. Masterfully executed, it is the epitome of fin de siècle sophistication, its side columns supported by each hand of a pair of bare-chested Atlantes (the plural form of “Atlas”) while the other pair of hands clutch the drapery that parts at the sides and continues downward to become foliated scrolls. The most impressive feature of the cabinet are the pair of carved caryatids of young maidens whose visages are unmistakably Filipina, each one having unbound hair framing their faces, gazing serenely straight ahead, their arms placed ostensibly—but failing—to cover their exposed bosoms. And what more emphatic way to underscore the social stature and financial standing of the original owner of this tour-de-force than the coin stack motif underneath the caryatids, symbolizing prosperity.
As I soaked in these impressive examples of local artisanship, museum-worthy by any measure, I found myself asking, why stop at a third and fourth “B” when it comes to important Philippine furniture when one can also add a fifth “B”—“Best!”
This column article originally appeared in Manila Bulletin Lifestyle