RL Spotlight: Benji Reyes
Renowned furniture designer Benji Reyes talks about his design background and philosophy
"People call me an artist or designer... I call myself a karpintero."
Benji Reyes says this as he sits on a rustic bench in his backyard, quietly ruminating over the 20 years he has spent fashioning sculptural creations out of his favorite material, wood. "As a sculptor, ang pinakamahirap na material to work with is wood," he says. "Because once you chip off a part, that's it. Hindi mo na puwedeng ibalik."
As the sculptor, designer, and self-professed karpintero pores over his long-lived love affair with wood, it becomes apparent that his passion for the organic material goes far beyond the end product. "The real challenge with wood is that it's a very hard material that you have to make soft, comfortable, and ergonomic," he says, toying with a seed that just happened to flit by from the forested ravine that is his backyard.
Read the original article ("It Wood Be Nice...") in the January 2009 issue of Real Living Magazine. Download your digital copy of Real Living on the Real Living App now! Log on to summitnewsstand.com.ph/real-living for more details.
Benji does not just delve into the realm of art and design with his creations -- he plays scientist as well, taking into account the eccentricities and distinctiveness of the human figure. "In designing, I observe people-how they sit, how they relax," he continues. "My principle in furniture-making is that the human figure shouldn't conform to the chair. The chair should conform to the human figure. As a furniture maker, I have to ask, 'how can I make it comfortable?'"
It has taken Benji over two decades to perfect the process of transforming recycled wood, gleaned mostly from demolished houses, into visually appealing ergonomic furniture. "My family migrated to America in '82 and I had to fend for myself. I was a working student then at UP," says Benji, who spent three years studying architecture at the University of Santo Tomas before transferring to the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines.
Benji chose to stay home while his family started a new life abroad. An innate love for country ruled his mindset. "Pinoy ako, mahal ko ang Pilipino," he says. The years he spent supporting himself through school without his family have certainly paid off. He says that architecture school taught him the value of the design process, while Fine Arts educated him in the merits of balance and aesthetics.
His experience as a sculptor, on the other hand, gave him a keen understanding of wood, but it was different with creating furniture. "When I started designing furniture, may tao pa ako noon-matanda na siya, gumagawa ng furniture din," he recounts. "Nag-aaway kami parati! Binabago kasi niya ang design dahil hindi raw puwede." Benji put his pencils down, and trained under the old man to learn firsthand the rudiments of building furniture-a skill often missed in the classroom. "That's why I call myself a carpenter," he says. To this day, Benji builds his own prototypes-proving that from conception to the final product, his pieces are truly his own.
"The whole business began with just P300," he laughs. "That was 21 years ago, and doon nag-umpisa lahat." Back in the late 1980s, Benji's brand of contemporary, yet undeniably Filipino furniture with its organic, almost liquid-like lines, was groundbreaking and never before seen. Because his aesthetic was so out of the box, it took time for the public to warm up to his style. "People would come to my place-and wala naman akong pera noon so mukhang miserable yung bahay," he remembers. "Because of that, tinawaran ako talaga-I stuck to my principles and my price. Wala ka na lang magagawa kung hindi mabili -- kakain ka na lang ng tuyo."
It took some ten years for Benji to literally carve out a niche for himself in the market. "The only competition I had to deal with before was myself," he says. "Ngayon, iba na. People saw there was a market for furniture like mine, so they began to replicate it."
"When I build a chair, I combine about five to seven species of wood," he explains. "Each species has its own characteristics. So when I join them together, I know na matibay talaga yung furniture ko. Yung iba, hindi nila naiintindihan-they just feel that everything stops when you achieve a certain look. They don't know that building it a certain way can do more damage structurally." The quality of his furniture has people from all over flocking to his Antipolo home to view his work. "It started with word of mouth," Benji says. "You do something good and people follow. It's also one way of weeding out the non-serious clients. Kasi alam mo 'pag dumating na sila dito sa Antipolo, seryoso ito."
It goes without saying that Benji's clients are as well taken care of as his furniture pieces. Just recently, he and wife Carina built a guesthouse/spa where clients who fly in from abroad stay to rest. "We pick them up from the airport and take them here. The next day, they have breakfast, they look at what they want to order, and they fly out," he says.
The guesthouse is a showcase on its own, complete with Jacuzzi, outdoor lounge and treatment area, swimming pool and spa-inspired quarters. Everything is done up in Benji's signature tropical modern style, with a mix of polished wood surfaces and rough natural rock, glass doors, and smooth stones scattered in the most discreet nooks. The area overlooks the lush forest right behind the Reyes' property-where the stream running around the main home and through the ravine perennially purrs and where flora and fauna come together in perfect harmony. "The villa is a place we go to when we want to feel like we're on vacation," Benji says. "You walk through a small portal coming from the main house, and 'pag labas mo, parang nalipat ka na sa ibang lugar."
These days, Benji continually pushes the envelope by reinventing himself, and his identity as an artist. The past few years have given him the privilege of practicing in a design consultancy, working on resorts in Cebu and Bohol with a team of architects and engineers. The new experience has been enjoyable for him, not just because it is another facet of design, but because of the people it has allowed him to work with. "I like playing with peoples minds-educating the client and the people around you. Showing them how to think differently, helping them go beyond the familiar. The reward is seeing people evolve into better, more responsible versions of themselves."
Educating others is another passion, one he has taken to heart. "I used to run a program where we took in out-of-school youths and taught them...furniture making," he says. "Some of the best craftsmen are here at the compound. We work together on new designs." Putting together this new breed of craftsmen has proven to Benji that some people, even those who have quit school, just have the eye. "It's something you cannot teach, and there are people out there with talent who just aren't given a break." Benji's workshop allows these craftsmen to hone their skills and get formal training; much like the training Benji had when he was first starting out.
As Benji's "work in progress" home (first featured in RL May 2005, and in the book Real Home Ideas 1) is nearly complete after three years in the making, and with a recently concluded exhibit last December, he can sit back and think over the many roads that have led him to where he is today. Success has definitely come to him, but his definition of achievement is far from that. "One thing I teach my children is that success only follows when you're passionate about what you do," he says. "What matters is that people appreciate what you're doing. My designs aren't just inspired-they're part of the life I live."
And while Benji continually pushes the envelope and grows as a designer, an artist, a craftsman and a sculptor, he knows that his hard work doesn't end there. "You should always do checks and balances on yourself," he explains. "There's always room for improvement. There's always going to be someone who's better than you-but that shouldn't stop you from striving to be the best that you can be." One look at his furniture and there is no doubt that this karpintero, with all he espouses and strives for, certainly knows how to hit the nail on the head.
In 2009, to celebrate his 50th birthday and 21 years of creating functional art, Benji Reyes created a special collection of chairs that are innovations on the classic chair designs he started out with. Benji says that he will continue to make the classic designs "out of respect for it," and that the new pieces carry the same forms and concepts of the originals but with more streamlined details.
The new Rajah (foreground) has stretchers that connect to the legs more seamlessly, and retains the interwoven wood strips of the original.
The backrest of the 2008 Tumba-tumba (foreground) has more peaked corners than the original version (rear).
Placed side by side, both new and original versions of the Datu high chair maintain the same profile.
The low Yna chair, like most of the other new chairs, has a raised bump on the armrest to fit the curve of a wrist.
This is one of the most popular of Benji's furniture, the Careng chair.
Old (left) and new (right) versions of the aptly named Kasintahan loveseat.