Edith Oliveros – the Grand Dame of Philippine Interior Design
A student, colleague, and friend recalls the “fits of euphoria” with La Doyenne
October 6, 2017
Written by Leo Lino M. Almeria
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” An enigmatic reminder that my mentor, Edith L. Oliveros, liked to say, and one that I cherish. My years at the Edith Oliveros Design Studio was a totally serendipitous experience, like hopping aboard a flying carpet—an exquisitely handcrafted silk one—with my guru.
The first time I learned about her, I was in Tacloban, a teenager reading a broadsheet supplement. It showed a series of hand-drawn interior illustrations by the members of the Philippine Institute of Interior Designers (PIID). One of them was she. I was excited, bewildered and hooked as I studied the renderings in black and white on newsprint, although I didn’t dare dream of such a wondrous divergence of path for myself!
Years later, when I was in the seminary in Cebu, I met Conrado “Dado” Laurel, a close friend of the Oliveros family. He observed my penchant for decorating and suggested meeting with La Doyenne. Again, I felt stirrings of excitement, but didn’t dare expect.
The meeting finally came through someone else. While attending my first term at PSID, I received a phone call from Hedy, her secretary. Ms. Oliveros had heard about me though Mrs. Suzie Winternitz, who had shown me her native belen collection just the month before. Meantime, my PSID teacher, Arch. Rosemarie Bautista, had also mentioned me to Ms. Oliveros for a possible apprenticeship. I am so grateful and amazed at how three people, totally unrelated, ushered my entry into the wonderful world of interior design.
Meeting La Doyene for the first time, she impressed me as a very warm, compassionate, fair and intelligent person with a contagious laugh. She exuded a relaxed but regal presence. Her gestures were composed, and her speech soft-spoken. She was deep, sincere and selfless—the epitome of generosity. Showering people with compliments was her nature.
Equally entrancing was her way of dressing. She had a flair for the unexpected, with eye popping designer jewelry, ethnic and vintage/heirloom pieces, amazing finds she dug out of nowhere, and even the bizarre. I remember the late Edgar Ramirez commenting on one of her avant-garde accessories, a finger ring topped by a free-form flat stone wide enough to make a miniature coffee table!
She conjured spectacles out of nothing. I remember the beautiful multi-colored tablecloth she lifted from a design showcase, a gift from fashion designer Steve de Leon. With only pins and not a single stitch to hold it together, she wore it with élan—a cowl around her shoulders while she stood as guest of honor in a religious ritual inside a Malolos private chapel; after which she casually flipped and tucked it to one side to reveal a Venus-cut contemporary sarong ensemble for the rest of the evening reception. Amazing!
My habit of rehearsing an outfit with props and dressing inside the car are from her. La Doyenne’s daily routine included hopping from jobsites to evening cocktails and grand parties, and she had perfected the art of retouching her makeup, changing outfits, hairdo and accessories while en route.
The Edith Oliveros Design Studio was my second home for more than eight years (1978-1987). We did it all—residences, restaurants, offices, hotels, restorations of ancestral houses and more. The work included organizing and styling events, stage productions, exhibits and product design. It was the era of custom made pieces for interiors, furniture pieces and accessories. Among the notable exhibits is the first CITEM show at the Folks Arts Theater. My first major exposure to heritage conservation work was the Metropolitan Theater in Manila.
Ms. Oliveros’ interior design style was very contemporary with a flair for tropical and Filipino design. Her creations exuded spontaneity and elegance, and never felt contrived. Editing an interior was her forte. She insisted on utmost attention to research, conservation and proper maintenance, too.
How she dealt with clients was an art form. She always negotiated for win-win situations. “Listen and read between the lines,” she would say. “Create rooms with character expressions of the clients,” she would insist. “Deliver what you promise,” was her dictum. We prepared plans and rendered perspectives based on instructions relayed by landline—there were no cellphones and fax machines then. When blueprints or scaled floor plans were not available, she would measure dimensions of a room by counting the square tiles on the floor or plywood panels on the ceiling. Location of fenestrations was based on compass orientation. I am amazed at how uncomplicated our system and procedures were. We did them with ease. We delivered on time.
She made the keenest observations during jobsite inspections. From her, I learned the art of compromise without sacrificing the integrity of the structure and aesthetics of the project. More often than not, we revised drawings and designs to conform to the actual conditions of jobsites. In other cases, she would reconsider the materials/finishes according to the level of expertise of the client’s contractor and his team, so as not to jeopardize workflow or budget. She simplified complicated jobs.
Office camaraderie was utterly inspiring, never a dull moment. Although the manual drafting workload in the design studio was heavy, the atmosphere was intimate, creative, fresh and invigorating. Sharing food, jokes, caricatures and funny anecdotes were always part of the daily agenda. The studio was a tambayan ng bayan. Friends in the industry, especially suppliers, contractors and even vendors, would drop in for coffee, entertainment and friendly ribbing. Sometimes, clients would join in the laugh fest, too.
Office attire was an excuse to be as fashionable as one desired, and a source of daily entertainment. Being an early bird, I would find Hedy, who lived nearby, clad in a bed sheet for an early morning briefing with our barefooted Boss. Slim Arlyn was always safe with scarves and bangles. Tina’s mannish Annie Hall look was always a knockout! Edith T’s red was a trademark; Ines was always elegant in her designer footwear. Another early bird, Yoya, was usually fully made up, while Ate Chit always had a string of beads to show. Tirso’s ensembles from Eloy’s and Bambang’s were forever amusing, especially the pull-up pedal pusher and the visually provoking “cucur” (cucurtinahin) outfits.
Manny created a stir one day when he came in with an exquisite bowtie from Dior. We instantly spoofed the look with anything we could grab our hands on. One fashioned his bowtie from a scrap sheet of tracing paper with pencil drawn graffiti on it, another a crudely folded colored paper, and mine, a red and white striped bookstore wrapper. In another instance, Manny came in with his signature beige and brown designer scarf. Over lunch that day we all silently stole away to our seats to don scarves courtesy of Ms. Oliveros! Gone was his customary nonchalance, and his silent gestures of surprise made our day! It was a blast!
I am quite blessed to have been a part of her talented design staff together with Vic, Jimmy, Sonny, Edison, King, Edwin, Mang Vic and others. Our studio extended to the teachers and staff of PSID as well as the fabulous ladies of Accent store (at the Quad), whose husbands’ archaic names marked their passport for entry into the magic circle. The party-loving but cause-oriented Bayanihan Dance Troup (now Baile Foundation) would also join in, as well as the Friday Group who would gather then to meditate and share current issues, gifts and food.
Occasionally, we make an effort to reunite and relive those good old days, touching base with the rest of the studio alumni such as Willy Bu and others.
I learned from her to appreciate and collect local crafts, antiques and contemporary artwork, especially abstracts. She taught me to memorize color through association, pay attention to details, avoid expensive mistakes, to troubleshoot and to simplify. The skills I owe her may include sensible budgeting and dealing with the suppliers, construction crew, and the proper handling of motifs, materials and finishes.
Staff lunches are on top of the list of memorable events. They revealed the creative genius in her, turning mundane events into fun-filled exercises. Whenever our housekeeper, the late Manang Pacing, would go on vacation, Boss would divide and assign us to groups. Each team would come up with a presentation in an assigned motif on a budget complete with food, beverages, table settings, decorations, scents, music, and even attire. The task included cleaning up, too. Organization, working within a budget, creativity and ambience were the order of the day, making Manang’s absence a productive exercise, with Manny Castro always reaping the accolades by a landslide.
Our Christmas parties and out of town gatherings weren’t far behind with witty impromptu programs by Mike San Miguel, attended by guests clad in clever outfits. There was the annual all-white summer attire during Alay kay Santa Maria in Santa Rosa, Laguna, held on the Boss’ May 8 birthday. There was our turn of the century production number first unveiled at the Centennial party at Manny’s restored Balay nga Tisa in Carcar, Cebu, and performed encore at the Santo Nino procession in Malolos where we paraded to the applauding gestures of Des Bautista as he gazed down along with the caryatids of his ancestral home.
Friends and acquaintances often asked to be invited to our spectacles or “fits of euphoria” as the late Dr. Bob Walter would describe them.
In my last year at the Edith Oliveros Design Studio (the mid-1980s), our country’s economy was unstable. Ms. Oliveros saw fit for the studio staff to move on, and she recommended me to work for Russell Emmert and Associates and EM et Cie in the US. I gratefully obliged. Upon my return in 1988, Ms. Oliveros generously provided me with a space for my small staff at her studio until I finally settled in the hills of Batasan years later.
In her last few years, I visited her every so often. Her unique views on current trends and issues still amazes me. She never complained about her failing health or whether she was uncomfortable. She kept herself busy creating framed shadow boxes, artistically packed with cherished mementos and treasures. They were phenomenal. I don’t know where they are now…I hope with people who will cherish her memory as she made us feel cherished.
Edith Oliveros’ legacy has inspired me to mentor generations of young designers. My colleagues and I still fondly call her “Boss.” She will always be my “white light,” whose example guides and teaches me to this very day.
Madamo ng salamat, Boss!