Saturday, December 26, 2015

San Vicente (Ilocos Sur) - Maker of the Finest Furniture


San Vicente was dubbed the little Florence during the Spanish times. It  was in Florence, Italy where the seed of Renaissance grew and spread throughout Europe, and to other parts of the world through colonization, the Philippines being a colony of Spain for four centuries.     
Dr Abe V Rotor
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If you are a native of San Vicente IS, you can instinctively identify if a piece of furniture is a product of your town. It is experiential, too, that has rooted in your mind the standards of your judgment and conclusion. You are in your own right a natural born critic, a connoisseur of fine products truly Vincentian.






Old narra chest  retains its antique quality with relief carving of the typical grape vine design popularized during the Renaissance in Europe. 
Upper photo: detail of an intricate carving of an antique narra apparador.  
 Antique chairs and open cabinet. There was at one time a big demand for antique furniture. For an untrained eye, fake and original ones are difficult to differentiate. Today there are furniture that are like lemon cars. They look attractive when new but they do not last long. Plywood, particleboard, canvas upholstery, glued-joint instead of mortise-and-tenon joint, linings to hide defects, and other shortcut woodwork have destroyed much of the integrity of the original industry. 
 These framed paintings are giving way to borderless paintings with the subject spilling out to the sides.  These are sample products of a framing shop I put up after I opted for early retirement from government service in 1989 which lasted for ten years when framing business declined. I learned the trade from artisans in San Vicente and from industrial art classes I attended in elementary and high school.  
Frames still have a market but selective, such as this special frame of narra made for a memorable photograph.   


Details of fine hand carving and rattan instead of modern upholstery. A medieval ambiance of drapery, ceiling and wall, plus a conventional piano and painting could be added to enhance such atmosphere. 

Fine furniture products, among other products of the Ilocos Region such as Basi wine and Añil (Indigo Dye), found their way to Europe by way of the Galleon Trade, based on Seville Acapulco, Mexico. Records are scanty on the interchange of products and their value between East and West, but this opened up the first-world economy undertaking set to grow in modern times. 

As there are preserved icons from Europe in our churches and homes of prominent Filipinos, so with the fine products of our country found in Europe and elsewhere in the world particularly colonies of Spain. Filipino artisans excel in duplicating fine works, and even innovate them to the point of largely modifying their originality. The ocho-bados wooden glass cabinet for China wares is an example. Dressers bearing oriental touch yet retaining their European design are not rare to find - original or close imitations. Wooden chests are distinctly carved bearing the name of the local artisan. And if you would probe deeper, furniture making is linked to sculpture, as evidenced by religious icons sculpted by local artists. If you have seen the pieces of furniture in Rizal's Shrine in Calamba Laguna, you would think they came all the way from Europe. So with many museum pieces all over the country, including those in the capital town, Vigan, three kilometers east of San Vicente the principal market for its products. 


Vigan, then Ciudad Fernandina, was on the regular route of the Galleon trade. It was second to Manila in economic importance. This lasted for more than two centuries. No other international link surpassed the importance of the Galleon Trade in its own time. It provided stimulus for multicultural growth and development in the region which explains the rich variety of art in the Ilocos from massive churches, to local industries which include furniture, exquisite lanute wood fan, icons of saints and important personalities.




Hand carved dining set, a prized collection for its narra wood and finish, royal design, and intricate woven rattan seat and backing. Ilocano homes take pride in having fine furniture sets from Cleopatra bed to Louis XV sala set distinctly made by San Vicente artisans  
Solid narra cabinets with relief carving show strong influence of European Renaissance art of the 15th century.  Renaissance art was brought into the country from Spain, and became a symbol of affluence. Classicism and Romanticism are the two schools which dominated this age which later gave way to Realism, Impressionism, ultimately ramifying into several movements which we collectively term as Modern art.    


Jewelry box of solid narra is preferred over fancy designs today. Miniature wooden furniture set attracts tourists and collectors preferring them over mass produced plastic and metal casts. 

Go to San Vicente if you wish to see a double size bed made of all-kamagong (ebony), with Persian design. Ebony is a dense black wood, most commonly yielded by several different species in the genus Diospyros. Ebony is dense enough to sink in water. It is finely-textured and has a very smooth finish when polished, making it valuable as an ornamental wood. Complimenting the bed are a bedroom table, chest, chairs and cabinets of the same material. I saw a whole set in Bernardo "Berning" Ruelos' residence in San Vicente. The set has become too personal the family would not part with anything.

Spanish folding fan made of lanute wood, exquisitely carved in lace design, can compare with the world's best. In fact you may not know that you would be buying a San Vicente lanute fan in Madrid marked Made in Spain. Mr. Lorenzo Mata Sr is the local wood fan industry leader with beautiful designs of his own. If you have a Mata fan, you might simply save it for very special occasions.

Carro (Ilk), carriage of religious icons during procession is in itself a masterpiece. The carro of the grieving Mother Mary and that of Christ carrying a cross are the most exquisite and decorative, Both carro and religious icons that attract tourists are the works of the Castillo and Lazo sculptors, the late Mauro Castillo and Jose Pepe Lazo Sr, among them.. .

Customized corner arranger rack and telephone table 


Custom made furniture like personalized doors, apparadors, rocking chair, Cleopatra bed, lounging chair (butaka and silyon Ilk), picture frames, jewelry boxes, can be traced to leaders of the industry, the families of  Repulleza, Roc, Riotoc, Rigunay, Lazo et al. each work having a distinctive flavor, so to speak, that among us natives to the place can identify the artisan, or the barangay it was made.  Bantaoay, Pudoc, San Sebastain, Bayubay.are major carpentry barangays.  Or simply "west" or "east" of the church, Or north or south of this point of reference. In my time the industry was so popular, carpentry is part of growing up.

Our home in QC is graced by the works of three Vincentian master artisan-carpenters: a sala set Victorian in design made by the late Damaso Rotor, an uncle of mine, who won a national prize during the Commonwealth era for his fine furniture, a dining set for eight, also hand carved solid narra with rattan "upholstery" by Vicente "Bitti" Regocera, antique apparadors and chests made by the late Andong Ruelos, and Angel Requilman, veterans of the industry.

My father had a furniture shop before World War II broke. It was the first mechanized furniture shop north of Manila, so I was told. Dad had just returned from his studies in the US finishing Bachelor in Commercial Science from De Paul University in Chicago. As his shop grew, so with the threat of war. Finally the country was placed under Japanese occupation and the shop was destroyed. Memories of the war are old pieces of furniture made in that shop. In later years dad said that things have changed unexpectedly, fast and radical. Even after Philippine independence, furniture making - so with other local industries - were never the same again. Entrepreneurship soon gave way to corporate business and many small businesses were swallowed up. 


Today the furniture industry, while it retains its San Vicente signature, has undergone radical developments, mainly through the use of basic machines as envisioned by my dad in pre WWII era, and use of substitute wood materials to the famed narra (Diptherocarpus indicus, national tree of the Philippines), acacia (Samanea saman), molave (Vitex parviflora), and kamagong (Diospyrus discolor) - four threatened species under strict protection of DENR. The supply of wood threatens the industry as a whole, exacerbated by today's market demand trends preferring cheap and mass produced plastic and metal crafts and wares mainly products of China. And with homes getting smaller, and perched on high-rise condominiums, pre-fab and convertible designs hardly called furniture, have virtually displaced the bulky conventional types.   

The masters and their generation may have gone, but their works are legendary evidences of a golden era that has put San Vicente on the map as the maker of the finest furniture in the region - if not over the world. ~.. 

Marker of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon that carried Philippine products to the other side of the globe  which included fine furniture, basi wine and añil (indigo dye) from the Ilocos. It paved the way to international trade, precursor to modern world economy.  

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