In 2010, then first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, opened the Maison et Objets, one of the world’s largest furniture and accessories exhibit, in Paris.
While touring the venue, she spotted lamps from the Philippines made of slender, black metal bases and black abaca shades. They were adorned with silver-plated ostrich eggs from Cagayan de Oro, semiprecious stones and cascading silken tassels. She then placed an order for 12 floor lamps.
“Very Parisian,” says Markus Schmidt, creative director of Firma Home and Accessories, a manufacturing and export company that specializes in lamps, throw pillows, coasters and stationery. For the Manila Fame event this week, it is coming up with updated versions of its signature pieces such as lamp shades with traditional abel Iloko patterns.
Shells with tassels
Established 12 years ago with Richard Danao, Chito Vijandre and Ricky Toledo, Firma was a famous boutique in Malate, known for artisan fashion and home accessories and striking window displays. After a few years, they went their separate ways. Vijandre and Toledo established the multi-awarded Firma store in Greenbelt. Danao and Schmidt put up a separate company Firma Home and Accessories with Danao as the president.
Because of its proximity to the Manila Fame venue, local and foreign buyers would come to Firma in Malate to purchase pasalubong. One day, a Filipina buyer from Guam was fascinated by the semiprecious stones and tassels adorning the throw pillow, a signature design by Vijandre. She asked if Danao and Schmidt could customize her request—shells with long tassels—and produce it in bulk. It marked the start of the export business.
In 2005, Citem deputy executive director Rhea Matute invited Danao and Schmidt to join the Manila Fame fair. Still testing the market, they shared a booth with a handicrafts exporter. Firma Home and Accessories’ initial offering consisted of shells with tassels and decorative tassels with pendants of mother-of-pearl. The products were a hit. However, buyers asked what could be done with the decorative tassels.
The following year, Firma Home and Accessories confidently set up its own booth, selling lamps with their signature tassels. They showed how decorative tassels could also brighten up knobs of cabinets and doors and be utilized as curtain tiebacks.
The company has since been exporting to Germany, France, Italy, the Caribbean, Australia and Latin America and some parts of Asia. In 2006, Rustan’s Department Store invited them to be a consignor in the home section. One of Firma Home and Accessories’ regular clients during Christmas is Lady Lucy Tang, the wife of Sir David Tang, founder of the luxury brand, Shanghai Tang.
Antlers from Slovenia
Each of the company’s trademark looks has a story. One of its salable styles is the egg lamp that was introduced in 2000. “This was inspired by some crappy, rusty old lamp with an egg on top which I bought in Hong Kong in the early ’90s. Crude. Now, the ostrich egg comes natural, lacquered and plated in sterling silver, 14-karat gold or copper. It has become a classic,” says Schmidt.
Resin corals are also a component of Firma lamps. Made of lacquered resin, they sit on top of the egg and have become a signature.
Then there’s the Oriental look such as the sunburst and chrysanthemum designs. Chinese cutout dragons are either carved in mother-of-pearl and blacklip mother-of-pearl or laser-cut in silver- and gold-plated metal. Schmidt explains, “I have a close affinity with them, as my ‘Asian roots’ are in Hong Kong. I lived there for five years before I finally moved to Manila in 1995. I met Richard in 1993 so we will celebrate our 20th anniversary next year in April. The dragon symbolizes our time in Hong Kong—a happy and prosperous one.”
The ordinary coiled land snail gets a luxe feel with metallic plating. It becomes a pendant for the decorative tassel. “The ensaymada (because it looks like one) snail was completely overlooked. In natural form, it is rather nondescript and boring, but when plated in silver or gold it becomes very precious,” he says.
Schmidt returns to his native roots by using deer antlers from Slovenia.
“My parents have a 10-hectare farm in Slovenia,” says Schmidt.” It’s a hobby farm as they are both retired. They grow their own vegetables and raise farm animals, conventional ones like cattle, sheep, chicken, geese and not-o-conventional animals like deer and mouflons (wild sheep). The deer lose their antlers (the males only) every spring. We brought some back to Manila and had them silver plated. They became part of a new lamp design. As the orders have become too big, we make the antlers in resin and then plate them. You can’t tell the difference. Only one German client still insists on the real deal.”
Going ethnic, he uses abel Iloko binakul pattern, characterized by whirling geometric patterns, on lamp shades. These patterns originally were believed to ward off evil spirits. “Don’t look at it when you’re in a trance,” Schmidt says in jest.
“These fabrics are traditional patterns woven by Ilokano artisans. They look like psychedelic fabrics from the ’60s and exude a modern appeal. Soon we will develop those traditional patterns with those artisans with our own yarn and will make more luxurious versions in linen and silk or abaca with modern colors.
“Aside from lampshades, we will then turn them into bags, pillows and placemats. Our contact person/middle man is from Ilocos and he, in turn, will make sure that the elders will pass on their knowledge to the young. Indirectly, this is a livelihood project and heritage conservation.”
One of Firma Home’s salable fun pieces are the canvas throw pillows with designs culled from turn-of-the-20th century cigarette packs.
“Richard’s father, the late Rodolfo Danao, left us the largest collection of authentic Filipino cigarette and cigar box labels from the late 1800s to the present. The 1,200-piece collection was started three generations ago by Richard’s great grandfather. We scanned those images for the pillows and placemats and lately on marble coasters.”
Firma Home is coming out with stationery using the cigarette pack patterns for the gift shop of an upcoming Makati hotel.
“We’ve developed a distinct style which is a symbiosis of European and Asian sensibilities,” Schmidt says. “I was born in Germany but spent most of my adult life—22 years—in Asia. Richard and I tied the knot in Stuttgart last August.”
“Most important is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our style is both elegant, modern Asian with European influences, but it can also be whimsical and light.”