Latest Stories

From ‘useless art’ to hip utilitarian objects

Designer Yola Johnson’s foray into home furniture was spurred by rejection. Now, her products are in the homes of high society–including Prince Charles


OVERSIZED–the typical proportion of Johnson’s furniture. Bordello sofa with imported printed fabric

Though she’s a successful furniture designer, Yolanda “Yola” Perez Johnson hopes she can return to her art “that nobody liked.”

A student of Roberto Chabet, proponent of conceptual art (art that expresses an idea instead of conventional aesthetics), Johnson was one of the first awardees of the CCP Thirteen Artist Awards.  However, her art was beyond comprehension by the average viewer. Her foray into home furniture and furnishing was spurred by rejections.

In the early ’70s, Johnson mounted a white-on-white show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Little Gallery. The exhibit was inspired by the white masking tapes that peeled off on the gallery wall.

RED CHAIR with woven seat

“I surrounded the gallery with white electric tape set on a grid on the white wall. I also put discarded egg crates,” said Johnson.

One day, an Englishman walked into the gallery. Seeing only a sea of white and broken egg crates, he asked where the exhibit was.

“The exhibit is here, but you don’t see the show,” explained Johnson.

“Is there one? Who is the artist?” asked the visitor.

“I’m the artist,” replied Johnson. “If you don’t see it, then maybe it’s not there.”

“Are you really kidding me?” the Englishman said in disbelief and he walked out.

“The initial rejection was painful, but I got used to it,” said Johnson.


Artworks by masters

LEATHER divan inspired by Carlo Molino and Jean Michel Franck

On another occasion, Johnson helped a friend buy artworks by masters to furnish the latter’s residence. The friend also offered to purchase a work by Johnson.

The artist wanted to give her work as a present on condition that it would be displayed prominently in the living room because of its size. Johnson was referring to an installation, composed of corroded galvanized iron sheets that were salvaged from a demolished soft drink factory. Fascinated by the golden patina of the rust, she displayed those sheets in her exhibit at the CCP Main Gallery.

During the exhibit opening, the friend arrived, fully dolled up. On seeing Johnson’s works, she left in a huff.

“We had no contact for a year,” recalled Johnson. The following Christmas, the friend gave her a coffee-table book on Fernando Amorsolo. She then explained to Johnson that she couldn’t understand the value of utilizing decayed galvanized iron sheets as a home decor.

“I was a single parent and I had to make ends meet. I had to put some function into my art. Since then, from that rusty iron, I made an object that is our bestseller—the candleholder with a distressed finish,” said Johnson. The candleholder has a rustic look, with its sculpted metal base and cylindrical glass cover.

NEW TAKE on the classic batibot chair using stainless steel

Spurred by the abnegation of her works, Johnson turned to rugmaking on seeing the woven products using banig, buri, tikog and raffia. She exported baskets and floor coverings. “After 10 years of working on shows, I gave up. There was no place to put my artworks.”

Abaca has been her signature material because of its durability.

“The rugs will last you forever because abaca is the longest and strongest fiber in the world. It’s abundant in the Philippines because of our soil and climate,” she said.  Her looms are found in Bukidnon and Camalig, Bicol. Johnson’s patented binding weave won an award at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in 1994.

The furniture design also started as a fluke. She and her husband, Patrick Johnson, lived in a large apartment which was sparsely furnished with a kitchen table, a few chairs and a bed. When her in-laws visited, Johnson was forced to create an entire furniture collection. When Johnson downsized to a smaller space, she had to sell her furniture. Prospective tenants of the apartment wanted to buy her pieces. Lawyer Tunting Cruz-Matters encouraged Johnson to set up a showroom.

 From pigpen to palace

“I can make a pigpen into a palace,” she said.

One of her landmark designs is the Shanghai Chair, inspired by the Brighton Chair, a 19th-century design in bamboo and cane back, made for the Prince of Wales. While the Brighton’s silhouette had a curvilinear line, the Shanghai Chair is rectilinear and very comfortable.

“I studied to get the right size and height,” she said. “The Chinese influence is as much a part of our heritage as the Spanish.”

Johnson’s signature pieces are made from old wood from ancestral homes, lamps inspired by Dada Art and candle holders made from Romblon marble. The mattresses and upholstery of her furniture are made fluffy with goosedown and cotton filament. “The filling is important. We don’t use kapok,” she maintained.

CHAIRS carved by Cordillera artists

Today, Johnson’s Soumak is a haven for artisinal home furnishing. The name “soumak” is both a type of Oriental rug technique and an abbreviation for South of Makati. Her abaca rugs have covered the floors of The Shard, Britain’s tallest building; Clarence House, the summer residence of Prince Charles; Ralph Lauren’s flagship store in New York; and the residences of the late Whitney Houston and Burt Bacharach.

In the Philippines, her furniture, beddings and drapes are found in the residences of the crème de la crème. Lizzie Zobel has been a fan. Her rugs were selected for Manny Pacquiao’s new Forbes Park residence.

Lately, she has been collaborating with artists such as Reg Yuson and Trek Valdizno to produce furniture pieces. Her vision is to set up a showroom for their works. “I pride myself in being able to harness the talents of young artists.”

Soumak is at 101 Bormaheco Condominium, Metropolitan Ave., Zapote St., Makati City; tel. no. 8907785.


Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Tags: CCP Thirteen Artist Awards , Cultural Center of the Philippines , furnishing , Furniture , furniture design , interior design , Philippine furniture , Prince Charles , Roberto Chabet , Yolanda “Yola” Perez Johnson

  • akimaxx

    Sa paningin at imaginasyon ng isang tunay na artista, 
    Kahit basura ay maaaring maging OBRA MAESTRA

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
  1. 12 other things you can do at Pico de Loro Cove
  2. Lover’s quarrel linked to hunger – study
  3. Encounter with a ‘Mangkukulam’
  4. ‘Kamias’ for fever, ‘siling labuyo’ for headache–first aid in the kitchen
  5. How Vitamin B can be a remedy for ‘manhid’ and neuropathy
  6. Summer treat for your aspiring astronomers
  7. Sarah Geronimo and Matteo Giudicelli sing ‘All of Me’–and we all swoon
  8. Marcos grandson to wed beautiful Rocha scion
  9. 90 percent of Filipino households don’t practice proper toilet hygiene, sanitation
  10. ‘Heaven is for Real’: Nonfiction book on life after death reaches screen
  1. Dominique–Gretchen and Tonyboy Cojuangco’s daughter–now an endorser
  2. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?
  3. Marcos grandson to wed beautiful Rocha scion
  4. France makes work beyond 6 p.m. illegal
  5. Sarah Geronimo and Matteo Giudicelli sing ‘All of Me’–and we all swoon
  6. South Koreans crave Asia’s smelliest fish
  7. Ever heard of HydroBob?
  8. How Vitamin B can be a remedy for ‘manhid’ and neuropathy
  9. 90 percent of Filipino households don’t practice proper toilet hygiene, sanitation
  10. Prince William fuels speculation of second royal baby
  1. Mary Jean Lastimosa is new Miss Universe Philippines
  2. Did Angara ruin Pia Wurtzbach’s chances at Bb. Pilipinas?
  3. Dominique–Gretchen and Tonyboy Cojuangco’s daughter–now an endorser
  4. Manila in shock over model Helena Belmonte’s death
  5. Vinegar test helpful vs cervical cancer
  6. From Jeannie to mom of suicide victim
  7. San Vicente beaches hidden but not for long
  8. Borgy and Georgina are back; others are off–again
  9. Sen. Angara: I thought Pia Wurtzbach gave a good answer
  10. Ex-Givenchy model fights for ‘Yolanda’ survivors


  • More legal woes for Cedric Lee
  • NATO ups military presence amid Russian threat
  • DOH issues official statement on confirmed case of MERS-CoV
  • Aquino to stay at home during Lenten holidays
  • Man charged with hoax near marathon finish line
  • Sports

  • Tenacious Iran frustrates Qatar to retain Asian Club volleyball crown
  • Floyd Mayweather is ESPN’s top-paid athlete
  • Pistorius trial: Judge sets 2-week adjournment
  • China, Taiwan rout foes for 3rd, 5th places in Asian Club volleyball
  • Ginebra’s new import Freeman arrives, makes PBA return vs ROS
  • Lifestyle

  • Are your favorite malls open this Holy Week break?
  • Celebrate Easter Sunday at Buddha-Bar Manila
  • Moriones feast: A slow, steady transformation
  • Weaving ‘palaspas’ a tradition kept alive in Tayabas City
  • Finalists announced for best translated books
  • Entertainment

  • Filipino rock icons to hold silent concert
  • Mommy Dionisia Pacquiao’s greatest hits
  • Deniece Cornejo posts bail—report
  • Miley Cyrus hospitalized, cancels US concert
  • Otaku Summer Jam 2014: Summer’s hottest J-rock/Cosplay event
  • Business

  • Russian economy hit by Ukraine turmoil
  • PSEi firms up ahead of Lenten break
  • I-Remit teams up with Lakhoo for remittances from Oman
  • Megawide nets P1.4 B in 2013
  • Longer TRO sought on rate hike
  • Technology

  • Smart phone apps and sites perfect for the Holy Week
  • Tech company: Change passwords or suffer ‘Heartbleed’
  • Filling the digital talent gap
  • SSS to shut down website for Holy Week
  • Another reason to quit social media this Holy Week: your safety
  • Opinion

  • We may never know
  • Couple of things
  • Mommy D’s magic
  • Stop bizarre and bloody Good Friday rituals
  • Holy Week taboos
  • Global Nation

  • Netizens welcome Japan’s visa-free travel plan
  • Visa-free travel by Filipinos to Japan still a proposal
  • Visa-free travel to Japan could boost tourism
  • 2 PCG men ordered arrested over Balintang Channel shooting
  • US Embassy closed on Holy Thursday, Good Friday