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Ito Kish Opens New Doors


A year after closing his widely popular store, the award-winning designer of furniture and interiors has found new spaces to express his art including a pop-event this month.

WORDS BY KENDRICK GO / IMAGES BY LEAH DE LEON

He may have closed the doors of his showroom about a year ago, but according to Ito Kish—one of the most successful designers of furniture and interiors in the Philippines—there are other doors that continue to open for him and his work.

Take, for instance, the ones that lead to the Retail Lab of Powerplant mall. On June 15, the place will begin hosting a pop-up event that will allow Kish to sell vintage, mid-century furniture and décor. This is set to run until the end of August.

Then there are the ones in New York; the man, in recent months, has been flying back and forth to the state for two interior design projects: a penthouse suite in the same building where Sir Paul McCartney lives and a country house in Long Island.

There’s also more work for him to do in his home front. Through his partnership with Robinsons Department Store, Kish will continue guide the group’s Curated Home brand by choosing the items it will be selling while providing direction for its marketing. He will also be at Karrivin Alley’s The Plaza in Makati on June 21 as part of a panel discussion hosted by Insight School of Interior Design Hong Kong. He will be there to talk about the business of interior design.

All things considered, the man who has closed his store to unwind still has a lot going on. His schedule is such that he had to change the date of his interview with Manileno to accommodate emergency engagements in between business trips. “I’ve been doing a lot of things,” he said. And on paper, this appears to be the case. But when asked what life has been like since the closure of his store, the man quickly rolled his eyes, visibly disappointed.

“Lazy,” he said. “I have to be honest.”

It was a statement that initially perplexed members of this publication. But after he explained the kind of work he used to do, the level of hustle he endured to get to where he is today, it made all the more sense why he thinks this.

Born with distant German ancestry to a modest household in San Pablo, Laguna, Margarito Galliano Kish did not grow up thinking that he would be a designer.

“I knew that I had talent when it came to being creative because, when I was young, I did Christmas or Valentine’s Day cards in practical arts classes and I ended up getting top scores,” he said. “But at the age of six or seven or nine, you cannot know you will be doing this.”

He did, however, know that life can be a challenge. It was hard to miss because of the number of times he had to sleep on floors and bathe in a bathroom with a broken ceiling.

“I didn’t come from a well-to-do family,” he said. “We were living in a 30-square meter house made of wood. All the windows were made of capiz and the house was on stilts. I don’t think it influenced me to be where I am right now except on the level of ‘I want to have a better life.”

It was a goal that fueled him into adulthood. And while he didn’t have much to help him achieve this, he did have a longstanding philosophy that served as an all-important advantage.

“I’m not a person who will say no to an opportunity that comes along,” he said. “It was my mom who raised me up with my sister and it was ingrained upon me to value the opportunities I’ve been given.”

And he did get a number of that. For starters, when he was a marketing student at the University of the East, he was offered a job as an usher in the Cultural Center of the Philippines. His decision to take it albeit the presence of schoolwork introduced him to what he eventually called “some of the best years of CCP.”

“I saw all the prima ballerinas, the Philharmonic concerts, the visual arts and everything,” he shared. “That sort of guided me to the direction where I am right now.”

And this wasn’t the only job he took. He also served as an alterations assistant for during the first Manila International Film Festival. And at the Philippine International Convention Center, he worked as a voice talent.

“I was even a tour guide for the Coconut Palace during its early years,” he added. “During that time, coming from the province, I was always open to all the opportunities. And I was grabbing them all; I was young and I had all the energy.”

But the job which really streamlined his route to being a designer was the one provided by Robinsons. During those days when the company only had one department store in Ermita, Kish became one of its management trainees. Through this, he learned more about visual merchandising and was exposed to the art of arranging items in a space. Coupled with the training he received from the Matahari department store in Indonesia, where he also worked for five years, the man eventually became something of an expert on the matter.

“The marketing in retail was what I learned from Robinsons,” he shared. And in Matahari, “I was doing advertising and promotions in visual merchandising.”

And all these came into play when he returned to the Philippines, eventually starting his own business.

“I can throw in things. But I throw in things and they look beautiful.”

During the early years of his eponymous store—back when it was housed in Greenbelt—it often encountered misconceptions. For example, there were people who, according to Kish, thought that he was a furniture maker and the store was the medium that allowed him to share his work to the public. History showed that it eventually became that. But, before it did, before it even moved to its last location along Nicanor Garcia, the venture was mostly a place that allowed Kish to sell furniture he liked. It also became a playground for his creativity, a venue that allowed him to apply what he learned from his previous jobs and arrange his furniture in a manner that would amp up their attractiveness. And this, he said, was how he really started getting into interior design.

“The interior design projects started because of the store,” he said. “Because I had the free hand to do whatever I wanted in the store; rearrange things, put this here and put this there. And because I never [finished school for interior design,] I never followed any rules so it became more original.”

“Original.” That’s one way of describing his work; another is “eclectic”—that which he acknowledges as word commonly used to euphemize questionable taste. But in Kish’s case, he employs it to refer to the wealth of influences surfacing through his aesthetic choices. After all, by the time he officially became an interior designer, the man has already been through numerous experiences; he has been exposed to different iterations of conventional beauty and he had a closet full of magazines that he can’t, until now, bear to even reduce. These have all helped him become the artist that he is today.

“I can throw in things,” he said, “but I throw in things and they look beautiful.”

Such was the case for his apartment: in his living room, trinkets from all across the globe representing various cultures converge seamlessly through an earthy color scheme. Unique details, like an encased replica of a human skull, catch the eye without keeping it through a sheer violation of the place’s somewhat gritty mood. It is this aesthetic grace that has long played a part in Kish’s success as a curator of spaces. And it is the reason as to why he has an impressive portfolio of past projects. Among them; the gala dinner of the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit where he served as a design consultant. And then there’s the project with AyalaLand’s Azuela Cove in Davao City where Kish employed his creative juices to renovate a business center.

But while it was interior design that put his name out there, it was really his capacity as a furniture designer that gilded it.

Ever since 2012, Kish has been conceptualizing furniture pieces. “It only made sense,” he said. “People already thought that I was already designing all the furniture in my store.”

This was a new avenue for the man’s creativity. But, once again, his capacity to bring together elements in harmonious fashion proved to be rewarding. Arguably the most well-known example of this was the Gregoria  Lounge. Named after his mother, the modern looking chair made heavy use of balustrades that are common in old Filipino households. It was a striking co-mingling of the past and the present and it was enough to garner the Katha Award for Best Furniture Design at the 2012 Manila FAME. A more recent exploration of his furniture designing chops is the Binhi collection, a series of seed shaped woven seaters that can double as plant pots. This too became an award-winning pursuit after bagging a furniture design award at the A’ Design Award & Competition in Como, Italy last year. Both award-winning pieces were featured when Kish designed one of the areas for the ASEAN Summit. Both also proved that there is merit to Kish’s persistent desire for exploration.

“I always want to open doors,” he said. “I want to see what’s out there.”

Which is partly why it was surprising when Kish decide to close a very important door of his life last year.

Kish with a few of his favorite things.

When news of Kish’s decision to close his store came out, the story was picked up by several publications. There were those that bemoaned the decision and those that touched upon the uniqueness of the story. The man after all had just won yet another furniture design award and his business appeared to be doing well. But it turned out that behind the scenes, success (and the all the work behind it) became a heavy weight to bear.

“We didn’t close because we weren’t making money,” he said. “We closed because I just got tired of it.”

“It” of course was the stress that came with running the business. For starters, despite how successful it got, Kish maintained a small team partly because of his desire to be heavily involved in his brand. Other sources of stress, he said, were the public expectations that came with the success. Naturally, working hours also contributed to the enterprise’s unattractiveness at that point.

“And I felt like I had to clean up myself,” he continued, “and just kind of relax.”

For a time, he did just that. Kish said that after the store’s closure, there were days when he would wake up, not know what to do and just go back to bed. On his Instagram page past June 2017, meanwhile, one would find pictures of the man with his family, shots of him casually dressed in various parts of the world, beaming as if a heavy burden has been lifted from his shoulders. He was living—for a time. But when a man has made his way through most of your life milking every opportunity, being as productive as he can be, such a state of leisure can lose its appeal.

“I kept telling my friends that I am starting to be lazy and I don’t want it,” he said. “It’s OK that for a few months that you wake up at 9 and you think ‘what will I do today?’ and you say ‘I can’t think of anything to do today’ and you go back to sleep. But then after every morning and you wake up and you ask the same question and you get the same answer, that’s a bit scary. I don’t want to be a bum.”

And he wasn’t. As mentioned before, Kish continued to operate his business albeit doing so in a less exhausting manner. The store may have closed but his company continued to operate online. He may have decline about 20 interior design projects last year (“because it’s very, very stressful”) but he nonetheless continued to contribute to the design industry. Still, the closure of the store left a void that needed to be filled. And now he’s looking to do so with something a little outside his comfort zone.

In the works this time is that I’m planning to develop local items that are totally out of the home,” he said. “More on fashion.”

Accessories, basically. Inspired by his role as a curator for ArteFino, a group that promotes local handicrafts, Kish plans to tap local artisans, like the ones from Isabela, to create pieces for his intended output. Should it push through, he believes that it will be a good way to promote local works while providing a good source of income for provincial craftspeople.

“I’m not entirely sure if it’s going to push through,” he said. But history has shown that such uncertainties are not enough to stop him from trying.

“My guiding principle is this,” he said. “You will never know what’s behind the door unless you open it.” And as he found out last year, you can also discover a thing or two from closing one.

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