Open-Floor Plans, Artisanal Details, and Woven Textures: 3 Filipino-American Designers on How Their Roots Inform Their Interiors

published Oct 31, 2020
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Straddling two cultures simultaneously is a special kind of talent. Even though my everyday existence is an example of this talent in practice, I couldn’t tell you just how I do it. Such is life for immigrants—and especially children of immigrants—who often struggle to establish ties with their motherlands, all while also struggling to feel at home in a foreign place. Yet somehow, the home manages to come together, as imperfect as the individual pieces in it may be. 

When I think about my childhood home, mostly furnished and decorated by my mother who emigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s, one word comes to mind: cluttered. Not an inch of that space went unused. In my experience, that’s to be expected from the typical immigrant home. Nothing is ever beyond repair or repurposing. You always have extra “just in case.” If every nook and cranny isn’t packed to the brim with things, you’re simply not doing it right. 

It’s a design philosophy rooted in the security of perceived abundance. The more you have, the safer you are. In a country like the United States, where materialism is a marker of life achievement, that kind of thinking can lead to some interesting relationships with the home. I know that for someone like my mom—she’s not particularly concerned with the size of her modest house. The fact that it’s entirely hers is what matters most. To this day, her home is still as cluttered as can be: papers and magazines stacked like makeshift ottomans, plastic bins filled with knick-knacks she says she’ll ship off to the Philippines one day. The clutter, though, is hers to own. 

While I like to think that I’ve scaled back on my family’s decorating tendencies, the truth is that I’ve frequently caught myself holding onto items longer than I should, often out of deep-seated guilt. How can I just get rid of something if it’s still perfectly functional? I am constantly in deprogramming mode, trying to navigate the divide of making a home that honors my cultural heritage but that also feels distinctly mine. 

In honor of Filipino American History Month, I reached out to three Filipino-American designers to chat about this exact challenge, their paths into the industry, and what they’d like to see more of in the future. Here’s what they had to say.

Credit: John Shum

Karen Nepacena of Destination Eichler

Karen Nepacena led her first design project at age 12. “I remember wanting to design my bedroom, picking out wallpaper and bedding,” she recalls. “My parents helped me build a canopy bed out of PVC pipes. Thinking about how to make a home and space more enjoyable has always been a part of my life and way of thinking.” 

Nepacena was deeply influenced by her mother, who was often experimenting with different looks for the home. “My mom was constantly changing out decor in our home, from sewing new curtains to creating accent walls in our home before that was even a thing,” she says. 

Credit: John Shum

As the personality behind the popular blog-turned-business Destination Eichler, Nepacena has opened up the doors of her own home with her audience (take a look at her kitchen above) and helped countless clients create their own dream mid-century modern homes. She notes that while the idea of an open concept home is considered a more recent design trend here in the United States, communal living space concepts have always had deep roots within Filipino culture. On some level, she may have an affinity for this style of architecture and decor because it feels so culturally familiar for her.

“A traditional Filipino bahay kubo is a one-room dwelling where the family’s day-to-day activities happen within the same space, from sleeping to eating,” Nepacena says. “Interestingly, I’ve been drawn to mid-century modern homes and design, which share some [of those same] principles. Many of the homes I work on have architecture designed around indoor-outdoor living and are reminiscent of my family’s homes in the Philippines, which were built to bring the outside in.” 

Credit: Monica Mejia

Ruby Ramirez of  Studio Ramirez

With more than two decades of design experience under her belt, designer Ruby Ramirez is a certified pro. It took some convincing for her family to view design as a viable career path, however, all those years ago. 

“I was pre-med going into my junior year of university,” Ramirez says. “I distinctly recall sitting in microbiology class learning about ferns and realizing that it just wasn’t the path for me. It was a chance encounter with a high school classmate that just finished her first degree and was seeking a second degree in interior design. My curiosity was piqued.” 

Today, Ramirez is an alum of YOO Ltd.’s in-house design studio, where she worked alongside the likes of big name designers Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders, Kelly Hoppen, and Jade Jagger on a variety of marquee projects across the world. Ramirez now owns a design studio in Miami, and she frequently pulls from her cultural heritage to bring her projects, one of which you can see above, to life. 

“Being Filipino-American, I inherently go back to the artisanal hand,” she shares. “The Philippines is well-known in the design community for its hand-woven techniques. That touch of the hand is one of my favorite counterbalances to contemporary design. I love working with artists across all mediums, and I am always on the hunt for new collaborations.”

Credit: Teddy Nguyen

Lauren Reyes

A creative path was somewhat of a given for designer Lauren Reyes, the founder and owner of LVR—Studios, a California-based design firm. Growing up, she gravitated toward the arts, at least in part because it was in her family’s DNA. 

“I come from a background of artists on my mother’s side, and my parents not only supported my venture, but they also nurtured it very early on,” Reyes shares. “Since I was a child, I loved to draw. They recognized my talent right away and enrolled me in every extracurricular art class throughout my middle and high school years. When I made the decision to go to design school, they didn’t bat an eye at all.” 

The Philippines often shows up in her work through pieces that have a distinct island flair. “Design-wise, our culture is so rich in culture and texture,” Reyes says. “I personally love that rattan and the cane-and-basket texture/pattern has been making its comeback recently. In most of my residential projects, I try to integrate this wherever I can because it just feels so much like warm island vibes.” 

Credit: Teddy Nguyen

When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the design world, Reyes said she’d like to see it anywhere and everywhere, especially in the places most visible to younger generations. “Through magazines, through design shows, through any medium made available to a young, aspiring person who might even be slightly considering this as a possible career path,” Reyes says. “I get the biggest bursts of motivation and inspiration whenever I see Asian-Americans, especially Filipino-Americans, on the forefront of major media. It makes me think, ‘If they can do it, I can be that, too.’”