Grabed in a turquoise and crimson Berber gown, the lady of the house beckons her guests into a courtyard furnished with hand-stitched leather pouf ottomans and a small table set for a Moroccan tea ceremony, in a scene one might find inside a traditional North African abode.
The graceful hostess, however, is artist Jia Santos Estrella and the exotic home is actually La Maison, an exhibit featuring her functional artwork at the Pinto Art Museum and Gallery in Antipolo, Rizal. Drawing from her experience in fashion and interior design, she has transformed an empty space into a livable installation inspired by the classic subtlety of French design and the vibrant allure of Moroccan aesthetics.
The show was conceived at the request of dedicated art patron and Pinto founder Dr. Joven Cuanang, who saw Estrella’s work at Artinformal Gallery in Greenhills and offered the museum’s original exhibit space if she would present her pieces in context as a home.
“This place is all about giving opportunities for emerging artists so that they can express themselves and people can become acquainted with their artistry,” Cuanang said.
“He didn’t give me any restrictions [in creating this space]. I had a free hand to do as I wished,” said Estrella. As a unifying theme, she synthesized design elements from France and Morocco, two historically connected cultures that she has visited often. A particular inspiration was the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, a masterpiece botanical garden created by early 20th-century French artist Jacques Majorelle and once owned by legendary haute couturier Yves Saint-Laurent. This connection between fashion and spatial design resonated with Estrella’s own background in interior and furniture design, and 16 years overseeing high-end fashion brands for Rustan’s.
For La Maison, Estrella kept the gallery’s stark white walls unadorned, except for the occasional hanging objet d’art and several mirrors that serve to reflect rather than detract from her original works. A striking shade of blue known as bleu Majorelle provides commonality throughout the rooms, beginning with the foyer where a brocade and tufted velvet cocktail chair dubbed “Happy Hour” is accessorized with a bottle of Champagne.
The adjacent dining room features a wooden plate rack displaying a mix of real and trompe l’oeil objects. Hand-painted dining chairs hark back to Estrella’s very first art pieces created for Art in the Park in 2011.
“Each chair represents a part of me,” she confided, describing the various personal themes. Pointing to a seat populated by tropical fish, she divulged, “My husband is a diver, so I call this ‘Fishing Expedition.’” Yet another, called ‘Iconic,’ depicts signature shoes from designers such as Gucci and Ferragamo. “These are my actual shoes!” she admitted with a laugh.
Another hallmark of Estrella’s artwork is her use of “found” items. “When I see [a discarded object], I envision it to be something else. It’s a challenge to turn a not-perfect item into something more polished, to make a beautiful thing out of useless objects,” she said. She certainly achieved such beauty in the main salon with a stunning bench crafted from a salvaged piece of old railing and upholstered with an eye-catching geometric fabric of her own design.
The living room is an exhibit of varying shades of blue, from the faded gentility of French toile panels hanging on the high walls to the sky blue background of gaily-hued birds and flowers painted on a pair of wooden seats, to antique birdcages awash in Estrella’s thematic bleu Majorelle.
Flowing from the living area, the bedroom showcases a changed color palette of aquamarine and pistachio that nevertheless remains faithful to the French-Moroccan inspiration. Here is perhaps the most literal interpretation of the Jardin Majorelle, where the covered floors approximate green turf and the furniture is emblazoned with whimsical images of birds, insects and flora inhabiting what she calls the ‘Secret Garden.’ However, Estrella strays from her cultural theme with the room’s centerpiece.
“The most important piece is the dresser—a collaboration with [Philippine Art Awards winner] Art Sanchez,” said Estrella. Entitled “Mirror, Mirror,” it depicts the natural dualities of beauty/ugliness and good/evil. Snow White appears as the front image in the ornately framed mirror with the Evil Queen lurking behind her, yet both share one flaming heart. “We tried to incorporate things that are not supposed to look pretty, but make them pretty,” she explained.
Whereas the main rooms adhere to the multicultural theme, a private loft above the salon holds the most intimate glimpses of Estrella’s personal life and her journey from art collector to artist. She shares portraits of friends and beloved children painted at the start of her training, and a unique mosaic of postcards from myriad art exhibits she has attended over the years.
“I try not to make it too much about me, so that each piece means something different for each person,” she observed, acknowledging the need to balance personal expression and remaining relatable to her audience.
Nevertheless, Estrella wants to leave them with something that speaks of her as an artist and helps them to recall the individual who created the work. “It should still have my personal touch.”
La Maison is on exhibit at the Pinto Art Museum and Gallery in Antipolo until Jan. 15. Call 6971015.