In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the design team of Filaine Tan and Jeanne Wee became famous for the interiors of such discos as Subway and Billboard and boutiques such as 22 B.C. and Freeway.
Weary of interior designing, they took a sabbatical and would sometimes stay in bed until the afternoon, waiting for a new opportunity. To keep busy, they were active in the Charismatic community.
“We were on a spiritual journey and prayed, ‘Lord, please give us a business,’” recalls Tan.
One day, a common friend buzzed that an agent from B&B Italia, a high-end Italian furniture company, would be in town, looking for local representation. Although he had had previous discussions with another group of prospective partners, the sisters met up with the Italian businessman.
He was impressed with their knowledge of B&B Italia’s products. It also helped that they once worked in the family furniture business in Binondo. He saw the difference between the sisters’ enthusiasm and savvy and that of this other business group. Thus, their company Arbitare Internazionale Inc. was given the rights of exclusive distribution for B&B Italia.
Filaine and Jeanne bravely went on a buying spree for their initial merchandise, despite the fact that they didn’t have solid capital. Their Taiwanese father never supported them. In December 1996, he suffered from gall bladder complications. He ordered that his stocks be sold to be given to the children. The inheritance became their seed money for their furniture store in Salcedo Village, Makati City.
“When we opened in 1997 at the height of the Asian crisis, the clients were shocked at the prices. Over time, they got used to it,” recalls Jeanne. “The business was slow—one to three visitors a week—but we never closed.”
Other foreign boutiques had pulled out due to the economic uncertainty. On the other hand, the sisters trusted their instincts, knowing that there would finally be a demand for high-end Italian furniture. They started advertising, and B&B Italia’s reputation spread by word of mouth.
In the ’90s, the minimalist fashion and the influx of Italian labels introduced a different aesthetic to the Filipinos. The market was getting exposed to a restrained color palette and streamlined silhouettes. The early clients were designers and well-traveled businessmen who were buying sofas.
“The mentality of the clients then was to buy what would be showcased—items for the living room,” says Filaine.
Through the years, Arbitare Internazionale expanded its line to include Maxalto, a brand by B&B Italia that exudes a straightforward and timeless look (it furnishes all the Bulgari hotels); Walter Knoll, a German leather manufacturer; and Flou, which offers a wide assortment of beds. The store has developed its reputation for iconic pieces that are found in stylish homes.
Antonio Citterio’s Charles sofa set the trend with its sleek silhouette, prodigious proportions, and sturdy support. “Other sofas tend to sag over time. This one stays in shape,” says Filaine, adding that it feels very firm on the posterior.
Jeanne points out that the Italian designers’ classic Diesis sofa has been the most salable style. A triumph of engineering, it can carry several persons on an extremely slender frame yet still stays fluffy.
Citterio’s recent design is the Beverly chair, his take on the foldable director’s chair. Expressing his penchant for combining smooth contour with bold lines, the chair is a contrast of soft sheepskin and a sturdy aluminum alloy frame.
Jean-Marie Massaud’s Seven table is a curvilinear, three-sided table that can accommodate six and an extra person on the end.
Gaetano Pesce’s classic Up chair is made from expandable foam that resembles a woman’s silhouette. Patricia Urquiola’s Lens table has a glassy top with a prismatic design made from a film set between two crystals. In outdoor living, Urquiola appropriated the Spanish weaving tradition and infused it into oversized chairs and sofas to create the Canasta collection.
As most homes took to glass walls providing homes with panoramic views of the scenery, the store brought in the Living Landscape modular sofas by Walter Knoll. They are more flexible in design, as the end parts and chaises longues can be repositioned in any direction.
The store also carries the Knoll’s FK chair, popularized by the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.” Playing Vogue editor in chief, Meryl Streep’s character sat on this minimalist version of the classic Tulip chair with its leather bucket seat.
In the past few years, the market has been more discriminating in their choices of beds. Flou is an Italian bed specialist which allows the customer to choose each part of the bed and a variety of mattress sizes. “Flou has over 10 kinds of mattresses that offer support, from spring coil to memory foam. The spring coil provides better ventilation,” says Filaine.
The sisters observe that the market is very conservative—favoring black, beige and gray pieces. A regular client, a major architectural firm, is known for its Asian contemporary homes with color schemes that are in beige, off-white and dark brown. Hence, the firm’s choices of furniture are in the neutral and earth tones. The paintings in their homes are done by the usual suspects—National Artist Arturo Luz, Gus Albor and Lao Lianben, who also favor a controlled palette.
The Filipino market is still afraid of color. “We used to buy trendier colors. We saw this magenta upholstery and headboard which looked nice on the exhibit. But here, we don’t get to sell, so it’s back to black and beige. In other countries, the upholstery comes in light green, yellow, purple because they have the four seasons. Who’s going to buy pastel hues or purple here? We have to adapt to the culture,” says Filaine.
Nonetheless, with the construction boom, the furniture business is thriving. The sisters say a one-bedroom unit could be furnished with their furniture for a budget of P1.5 million for the basics—a four-seater sofa, dining set and bed.
On the other hand, there are shoppers who don’t need to look at the bottom line. One widow, after being controlled by a frugal husband, expressed her liberation by investing in B&B Italia pieces and changing the upholstery every season.
Arbitare Internazionale/B&B Italia showroom is at Crown Tower, 107 HV de la Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati City; tel 8921887