Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Chasing Budji in Bangkok

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 08.06.2008

[Note: A blog entry reworked into a shorter piece that appears in today's issue of Inquirer Lifestyle. The original piece and pictures here.]


WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE of a mangrove swamp, motoring by boat to a coastal Muslim community south of Phuket, when Dave casually said, “I heard Budji Layug has opened a furniture store in Bangkok.”

I was hunkered down on the boat, jacket slung over my head to ward off the sun, but I felt my ears prick up. Budji Layug opening shop in a foreign land--of course I had to know more about it.

I wanted one more unique story wrung out of this trip, which in a few days would have brought our large media group not only to Thailand’s most famous beach destination, but also to Krabi farther south and Bangkok up north, on one of those familiarization tours offered by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Dave was TAT’s point man in Manila).

By the time we planed back to Bangkok I was antsy for something--anything--that I could pursue on my own. Since nobody seemed to have taken notice of Dave’s offhand comment regarding Budji Layug’s shop in Bangkok, which sounded like a legitimate Lifestyle story that hadn’t run in Manila yet, I decided to look into it. Even if I had no idea how to get there, and even if I had to do it alone since the rest were intent on going shopping for the rest of the afternoon.

I got initial help from the PR-Communications director of the swanky Four Seasons Hotel, who turned out to be a Filipina married to a Thai. A long-time Bangkok resident, she spoke the language and wrote the script fluently. She hadn’t been to Budji Layug’s place, but she knew the address, so I had her write it down, in Thai script, in my notebook.

I hailed a cab outside the hotel, showed the driver the address, and was on my way.

Layug’s showroom was in Sukhomvit in a district called Thonglor, an upscale commercial-residential area about 45 minutes’ ride from central Bangkok. I’d been warned about the infamous Bangkok traffic, but since I got a cab easily, and I intended to wrap up my planned interview-cum-visit in two hours max, I figured I would be back in my hotel room by 5 p.m. Night shopping at Suan Lum still loomed ahead. I had enough time.

The silence inside the taxi was oppressive, so I tried to strike up a conversation.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the driver.

“Noooo!”

Does “No” sound the same in Thai? I don’t know, but that was how I heard it. More to the point, the cab driver blurted his vehement “No!” while violently drawing back, as if I had said something evil.

“Ay, natakot,” I thought. I shut up for the rest of the ride.

Showroom and home
We found the place, I paid the driver who grunted what must have been “Thank you,” and I went in. Layug was in Manila, but Rocky, the VP for operations, was in.

Budji Living, which opened in June 2003, was a showroom and home rolled into one. It’s a house with ’50s architecture, which he transformed into a modern minimalist showroom. The second floor housed private quarters, while the spacious ground area was devoted to the distinctive furniture pieces and home accents that Mr. Layug and his Movement 8 co-artists (among them Kenneth Cobonpue, Milo Naval, Ann Pamintuan, Tess Pasola, Tony Gonzales, Luisa G. Robinson, Rene Vidal) designed and manufactured. Pieces by Claude Tayag and Impy Pilapil, and fabrics by Jeanne Goulbourn, were also available.

Rocky said Mr. Layug had decided on opening his shop in a residential area rather than in a mall because he wanted to “show the lifestyle and not just the furniture.” He had gotten acclaim for his aesthetic that has become known as “contemporary Asian living,” which did away with the traditional clutter of Orientalia and instead emphasized streamlined designs, natural material, an almost Zen-like ambience evoked by simple lines and earthy colors.

To this end, Budji Living was structured like a regular dwelling, with a living room, dining area, bedroom, a serene garden. In each case, the furniture and accents were arranged to give visitors ideas on how to achieve the same look in their own homes.

The artworks, too (abstracts by Lito Carating, paper art by Tess Pasola, among others), complemented the light and airy, almost resort-like feel of Layug’s design sensibility.

First-rate
All the furniture pieces on display were designed and executed in Manila and Cebu, and their first-rate quality testified to the bountiful talent and creativity of Filipino designers and crafts people.

The customer base of Budji Living in Thailand, said Rocky, ranged from foreign expatriates to wealthy locals attracted to one or two pieces of Budji furniture and who would ask their advice on how to blend these with their existing home fixtures.

The then Thai prime minister’s son had bought a bed, and an ex-prime minister’s residence was also being redone according to the Budji Living philosophy. In other words, Budji Layug and his all-Filipino band of artists had become a big hit in Thai society.

I had nine pages filled with furious notes, plus loads of pictures, by the time I was done with the interview. It was now 4 p.m. I bade Rocky goodbye, walked toward the main highway, and confronted a horrendous sight.

The traffic was backed up as far as my eye could see. But at least it’s moving, I told myself. I found another cab and settled in. About an hour later, we were effectively becalmed. The highway had become one giant parking lot. I was stuck in the middle of a city completely unfamiliar to me.

The driver, who also spoke no English, repeatedly pointed his finger upwards. I understood it to mean he wanted me to take the city’s spanking-new LRT. I was frankly getting worried at this time, and the thought of jostling my way through unfamiliar technology didn’t appeal to me. Instead, when I saw a Subway store, I promptly got out.

“Siguro naman me nag-e-English dito,” I muttered. True enough, the guy at the counter understood me when I ordered a sandwich and requested a map of the city. He brightened up considerably when I told him I came from the Philippines.

“Philippines! I always want to go to Philippines!,” he said. That eased my fears somewhat.

Worst traffic
Armed with a map, I began walking down the clogged highway, stopping only now and then to search for landmarks. Dusk was setting in, but the bright lights of big hotels and establishments along the way helped me breathe more easily.

I walked for nearly seven blocks, then, tired, hailed another cab waiting by a curb. The driver sullenly nodded when I showed him the address on my hotel room card.

It took us two hours more to reach the hotel. My colleagues had been looking for me, since it was already 8 p.m. I had endured what the concierge later said was the worst traffic in Bangkok in months.

But I was happy. I had my Budji Layug story.

Back in Manila a few days later, I went to the boss, confident and excited.

“I have another story aside from the travel piece,” I said. “Budji Layug has this very successful shop in Bangkok, and I was able to visit--”

“Huh? That’s Thelma’s story this Friday,” she said (referring to Thelma San Juan, who writes the “Life-Styled” column for Beauty & Fashion every Friday, and a friend of Layug).

“Aaaargh!”

That was about four years ago. Thelma San Juan is now back as editor of this section. Budji Layug’s shop, thankfully, has remained unchanged--a showcase home and proud citadel of Filipino artistry in a strategic corner of Asia. He’s hardly there these days, I heard, as he’s busy with new projects in the Philippines.

My story never got written up, and the pictures never saw print. Until now.

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