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Opat Hermano, Herminia Cancio Layug, and Dolly Perez.

These 7 women are the pioneers of Philippine design

Men may have built our skyline, but these women have shaped the Filipino design industry as a whole.
Rachelle Medina | Mar 29 2019

When talking about the history of modern Filipino design and architecture, men immediately come to mind: Juan Arellano, Pablo Antonio, Leandro Locsin, Francisco MaƱosa, and the Nakpils—along with their iconic concrete-and-steel creations—are all in our recent memories.

But beneath the veneer of male-oriented Filipino design are the works of women—not totally neglected, but slightly forgotten. After all, who worked on the public spaces and office interiors behind the International Style-facades? Who designed all the custom furniture and accessories? More importantly, who championed the vision of modern Philippine design through schools, organizations, and publications?

They were all women. And behind the soft furnishings were design professionals with a steely resolve to go beyond what was expected of their gender in the 1950s and 60s. During this era, interior decoration was often mistakenly regarded as a “finishing school course” for young women who would eventually be married off to settle in as housewives. Female architecture graduates who joined large firms were often shunned from the male-dominated drafting pools, relegated to the more ladylike tasks of client presentation and clerical work.

Aside from establishing their own design firms and practices, many of these women were instrumental in the professionalization of the practice of interior and furniture design, and garnered international acclaim for it. These seven women are the pillars of the industry, and have paved the way for the advancement of the design careers of future generations of women—and men.


Interior design: Edith Oliveros

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Oliveros in an artcard for her alma mater, PWU.

Oliveros was a graduate of Home Economics at the Philippine Women’s University, and through a Fulbright-Mundth scholarship, earned an MA in Interior Design at the Drexel University in Philadelphia. From the 1960s up to her death in the 2000s, she was one of the country’s foremost interior designers.

“She was a team player who was so well-respected and loved, a professional who was sensitive to her clients’ needs,” relates Dr. Raquel Baltazar-Florendo, an interior designer and professor who co-authored the 2013 book Interior Design in the Philippines with Oliveros. “She had extensive practice in all design formats, [and] what makes her an icon is…she epitomizes the core values of what a Filipino interior designer aspires to be.”

Oliveros went on to create the curriculum for and help establish the Philippine School of Interior Design (PSID). “She initiated an educational format to provide structure and address the competencies, skills, and values [not only] for PSID, but she was also involved in other schools,” says Florendo.

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Oliveros created the curriculum for and helped establish the Philippine School for Interior Design. Photograph from the Official Facebook of Philippine School of Interior Design

“She also promoted the profession in both formal and popular literature, writing magazine articles and being a columnist, but she authored books as well.” Young designers in the 1980s to the 1990s awaited her weekly column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, reading her design tips and taking inspiration from her impeccably drawn interior perspectives. Oliveros passed away in 2013.


Furniture and interior design: Ched Berenguer Topacio

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Topacio at home. Photo courtesy of Cristina Topacio Litton.

Mercedez “Ched” Berenguer-Topacio was one of the first interior designers in the country, practicing as early as the 1950s along with other noted Pinoy designers Wili Fernandez and Edgar Ramirez. Aside from designing residential projects, she also created “model rooms” for the furniture floor of Aguinaldo’s department store in Echague. These vignettes served as style inspiration not only for homeowners but also for budding designers.

The interior designer formed the Berenguer-Topacio Design Corporation with her husband Hector Topacio. She then went on to design her own line of furniture, which featured local materials and wood transformed into modern forms and contemporary renditions of traditional pieces. Her metal Klismos chairs are versatile, modern classics and could go well with most interiors.  Topacio won two Roscoe Awards for Furniture Design in the US. Berenguer-Topacio passed away in early 2018.


Landscape architecture: Dolly Perez

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Perez signing a copy of her book.

Filipino landscape architects are few and far between even in the 21st century, but Dolly Perez was already one in the 1960s. According to her niece Peggy Vera, Perez studied landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and was “the first female landscape architect in the Philippines.” Perez is also fondly known as the “Mother of Landscape Architecture” who has mentored many future generations of Filipino landscape architects.

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Perez had a hand in creating the Rizal Park landscape. Photograph by Bondyag112665 from Wikimedia Commons

Aside from landscaping many gardens for residential projects by architects Lor Calma and the Nakpils (one of her styles was combining freeform plantings with square and structured hills and hardscape), Perez designed high-profile public projects such as the Rizal Park, Dambana ng Kagitingan in Bataan, and the Libingan ng mga Bayani. She has since published two books, Home Haven Heaven and Your Garden Your Eden, and currently lives in Pasig.


Design education: Herminia Cancio Layug

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Cancio Layug

Layug's first venture in the the field of design was through Cancio Associates, Inc. a furniture manufacturing firm with showroom at Isaac Peral Street (now U.N. Avenue), Ermita, Manila which she established together with her brother, Engineer Agustin Cancio. One of the designers who were tapped to design furniture for their firm was architect and designer, Wili Fernandez. After a partnership was formed with Architect Lor Calma, the firm became known as Cancio-Calma Associates, Inc. with showroom at their own building at Pasong Tamo, Makati. Realizing the need for a specialized interior design school, Herminia asked interior designer Edith Oliveros to develop a curriculum, with the help of the school’s founding board of advisers, Architect Lor Calma and National Artist Napoleon Abueva. It was thus that the Philippine School of Interior Design (PSID) was conceived in 1967.

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Furniture by Cancio Calma Associates, Philippine Arts and Architecture, circa 1970s.
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Mr. and Mrs. K.P. Yao residence, North Forbes Park. Furniture by Cancio Calma Associates, Inc., Philippine Arts and Architecture, 1970s.

Initially located at the Cancio-Calma Associates, Inc. Building in Pasong Tamo, Makati, PSID is the first specialized school of interior design and still one of the premier design schools today, with practicing designers as teachers. Now on its 52nd year, PSID has produced a roster of some of the finest interior and furniture designers in the country. Herminia likewise passed on to her children her love for design. She is the mother of world-renowned furniture and interior designer Budji Layug, who together with Royal Pineda, are principals of Budji + Royal Architecture + Design firm, one of the most renowned architecture and interior design firms in the country. 


Residential and commercial interior design: Sonia Olivares

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Olivares put up her own design consultancy.

After graduating from the Philippine Women’s University, Olivares attended the New York School of Interior Design for further education (noted American interior designer Rose Tarlow is one of the school’s alumna). Upon her return to the Philippines, she put up her design and consultancy firm Sonia Santiago Olivares & Associates (SSOa) which has been handling high-profile interior projects—most of which with a distinct modern but very elegant style—for more than 40 years.

Olivares’s daughter Maja Olivares-Co now takes over projects at SSOa, working on residential and commercial interiors for the likes of the SSI Group and Central Square Mall, Sheraton Hotel Manila at Resorts World, and Josie Natori boutiques.


Furniture and product design: Ely Pinto Mansor

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Mansor is champion of the Filipino design talent.

Launched in 1999, Movement 8 was a group that consisted of all-Filipino furniture and product designers Kenneth Cobonpue, Milo Naval, Al Caronan, Tony Gonzales, Tes Pasola, Ann Pamintuan, Renato Vidal, Carlo Cordaro, Luisa Robinson, and was helmed by Layug. Mansor had Movement 8 exhibit their works as a group in various international furniture fairs, promoting Filipino design to the world.



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Mansor passed away in 2005, but the members of Movement 8 (with Cobonpue currently being the most celebrated one) continue to make their mark in the design and furniture industry.


Design publication: Opat Labrador Hermano

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For interior designer and publisher Josephine “Opat” Labrador- Hermano, style should be infused into all aspects of one’s life, from fashion to the home. Photograph by William Ong.

Without Josephine “Opat” Labrador Hermano—local home and design websites and magazines wouldn’t exist. Though there were a number of home magazines published locally in the 1950s-70s, Hermano, a PSID graduate, broke ground in the media industry by creating the magazine Design & Architecture in 1989.

The magazine was revolutionary because it was the first serious local magazine to focus on Filipino design, not just “fluff” lifestyle pieces. Hermano’s beautifully shot features launched many Filipino designers’ and architects’ careers.

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Cover of Design and Architecture Magazine

“She took a few trusted people’s opinions seriously: Sylvia Roces-Montilla, architect Toti Villalon, Albert Avellana,” recalls her niece, executive editor of Metro Home Anna M. Rosete, of working with Hermano at D&A. “Back then, our tardiness on the stands weren’t a function of business, like waiting for ads. It was because nothing would ever be good enough for her highly refined taste and standards. I think she’d never succumb to a cover buy.”

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Trellised walls, filigreed wood cut-outs and black and white tiles render a distinctly Victorian air in the Vigan home Opat designed.

Design & Architecture magazine ran for 13 years, but its legacy lives on in the designers who were inspired by its pages, and the editors who followed in Hermano’s footsteps. “She was ahead of her time, and to this day, [Metro Home editor in chief] Anton Barretto and I aspire for a shelter publication as beautiful as D&A,” says Rosete.


With special thanks to Isidra Reyes for additional info and for helping us secure many of the photos. Layug pictures courtesy of Bong Layug.

REFERENCES: Oliveros, Edith and Baltazar-Florendo, Raquel: “Interior Design in the Philippines - A Retrospect of Spaces and Culture”. Hermano's portrait and photographs of her work courtesy of Metro Home and Entertaining, 2015.