Owned by the Swiss Embassy, these Chinese ink washes by Swiss artist Sacha Cotture anchor the space in the living room. The Gaschens personalize the space with their Barcelona chairs, Artemide lamps, cultural artifacts and animal skin rug
Vibrant and laidback, the residence of Switzerland Ambassador Alain Gaschen and his wife Daniela bursts with contrasting artistic references. He credits Daniela, an interior architect and designer, for her gift of combining random elements that are tied in with stories from previous diplomatic postings.
When the couple and their two children moved in, the house had been prefurnished with big-ticket items, such as the formal dining set, paintings and the black leather furniture in the living room. The Gaschens personalized the space with mementoes from previous postings in Mozambique, Colombia and China.
Daniela notes that they would rather acquire art than souvenirs. “It could be a painting, a sculpture, something that speaks to us.”
Adds Gaschen, “Our choices depend on the culture of the country and the memories we made during our stay.”
Their artworks harmonize seamlessly with the existing setup. Daniela, a graduate of Ecole d’ Architecture Swiss Design Center-Athenaeum in Lausanne, instinctively layers the pieces according to shapes, shades and stories.
A roughly carved wooden king’s chair from Africa, studded with symbols of status and power, plays against the smooth leather sofa. Intricately woven Cordillera baskets are set atop sleek industrial steel cabinets from Switzerland. A mixed-media art installation of eyes and faces, recycled from ocean trash by Mozambican artist Radiante Alage, complements a streamlined leather tub chair at the foyer.
Although their purchases may seem spontaneous, Gaschen clarifies, each one was an informed choice. In most cases, he and Daniela met up beforehand with the artist at his atelier to learn more about his work. Or, knowledgeable sources tipped them off about antiques and exceptional animistic carvings by unknown artisans.
As in most embassy homes, the living room is divided into areas for conversation. On one side, an abstraction of spontaneous brushstrokes of warm colors by a Dutch artist dominates the black-furniture setting. Daniela picked a series of book cover artworks with companionable hues to complement this main art piece. Playful shapes of Artemide lamps set off the stark lines and colors.
Another living room arrangement tells more stories. Swiss architect Sacha Cotture’s sweeping Chinese ink paintings are flanked by Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs. On the sideboard sits the sculpture of a man holding a peace pipe made from rifle parts. One of the envoy’s prized tokens from Mozambique, that piece is said to have been created during the 1992 peace process that ended the 16-year civil war.
Gaschen says one of the embassy’s major activities since he came to Manila in 2019 was to assist in the Mindanao peace process. On a visit to Cotabato City before the pandemic, he suggested the creation of a symbolic artwork in the Philippines similar to the man with the peace pipe, made from surrendered armaments, from Mozambique. The proposed artwork would commemorate the first phase of the decommissioning of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s forces and weapons.
The peace sculpture shares its space with Chinese calligraphy brushes, Colombian stamps for textile patterns, and healing implements, including a wooden crocodile with jagged teeth from Africa.
Aside from works of art, the Gaschens have furnished the spaces with USM modular steel cabinets and shelves. They point out that metal sheets and steel tubes are sturdier and easier to assemble and dismantle. The understated elegance of this Swiss brand blends with most objects.
An inspired addition to a corner is an artwork from Colombia. Daniela says the female artist was only 17 when she painted two abstract figures against a background of red and blue. “Aqui viven dos seres humanos (Here live two human beings)” is scribbled on the canvas. Daniela was intrigued by an arrow from the word aqui (here) enigmatically pointing to an empty glass. She explains that the painter lived with an alcoholic parent.
When the embassy entertains, the furniture arrangement changes according to the number of guests. Upon the easing up of pandemic restrictions, diplomatic lunches or dinners have been held at the main dining room with an accent wall adorned with woven trays from Zambia. Adjacent to the wall, Daniela has clustered functional ethnic objects—bronze figures, a wooden milk bowl from Mozambique, a Colombian wooden tray and a carved Ifugao rice bowl—for their similarities in form and hues.
The dining area feels like a mini gallery of modern pieces of sculpture and woven Cordillera baskets displayed on top of the USM cabinets instead of the customary pedestals.
One of the pieces that the Gaschens particularly favor is a backlit artwork from China. The painting is a literal image of the proverbial glass that is either half-empty or half full.
“Artists observe restrictions when commenting on political issues,” explains Gaschen. “This artist achieved it in a clever way.” When lit, the painting reveals another painting—of former US President Donald Trump signing retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018.
“We were posted in Beijing when that happened,” recalls Gaschen. The painting hangs above a console decorated with an Ethiopian wooden bowl and Chinese printing blocks.
The Swiss personality
Throughout the lockdown, Daniela has been helping out local artists by purchasing artworks from them. Last year, she commissioned mixed-media artist Honesto Guiruela III, known for his detailed sculptures made from wood and metal scraps, to create a Filipino-themed piece for her husband’s 50th birthday. On top of an elegant Chinese cabinet, the whimsical, over-embellished jeepney carrying a colony of shanties and a water tower sets off the minimalism of the antique.
The jeepney’s color palette jibes with that of Joel Reglos’ trademark dream landscape acrylic painting which is adjacent to the cabinet.
“It’s a COVID painting. There are COVID monsters,” says Daniela, referring to the blobs of color with paint drips. “It expresses fear because it’s dark. Yet there is red and blue like the light on the sea and the sun’s rays. It’s typically Filipino.”
“That’s resilience,” notes Gaschen.
The seemingly random artworks are unified by more stories. There is a black-and-white image of an African king who is said to have waited three days before the tree spirits allowed him to be photographed beside it. Inside one of the USM cabinets are antique lace doilies, woven by Daniela’s grandmother. Switzerland was once the world’s top producer of lace.
A crocodile carving from Africa was used to diagnose ailments and prescribe remedies. A quirky painting of eggs and sneakers by a young artist named Jiang contrasts with the realistic historical images by his father, Guofang.
Beyond the exoticism and eclecticism, their embassy home reflects the Swiss personality, maintains Gaschen. “While we are proud of our traditions, cheese, mountains and snow, we are a modern country. We are No. 1 in innovations year after year. That’s why here we have a mix of the old and new in art.”
“These works have much to do with our journey,” says Daniela. “We simply follow what proves to be impactful in our lives.” —CONTRIBUTED