Ito Kish’s modern cabinet of curiosities

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The Ito Kish showroom is a meticulously curated and decorated space that has been divided into sections: mid-century, classical, Asian inspiration, and modern contemporary. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — From the outside, it’s a little difficult to tell what the showroom of Ito Kish on the very residential Nicanor Garcia St. holds. It’s certainly eye-catching in its simplicity: all white with an angled roof, square windows with tasteful displays, and a solid door under a sign that says the store’s name in a thin, uppercase sans-serif typeface.

Inside, it’s an entirely different story — or stories, if the philosophy of the shop’s eponymous owner is to be taken into consideration. For people unfamiliar with the designer Ito Kish, it’s a pleasure to discover that the seemingly unassuming, nondescript shop actually houses countless pieces and objects for the home. You name it, they have it: furniture, art, decor, cutlery, mirrors, storage, books, even fake flowers. Anything that’s interesting and slightly strange has a place in Kish’s shop.

All that, and we still haven’t gotten to what exactly Ito Kish is.

“We decided to rebrand recently,” says Kish, who invites me to sit on a sofa I would later find out costs ₱140,000, right in the store. It was a rebranding that meant changes in the logo and a relaunched website. But most important was putting together Ito Kish’s three divisions — Kish, the retail shop with curated items from the world over; Home, which deals with original furniture; and Interiors, for interior design services — into one main brand to avoid confusion, partly due to the unforeseen impact of the furniture design division, which, contrary to popular belief, happens to be the newest. 

Ito Kish 1.jpg Ito Kish, the designer, started in retail 16 years ago with a shop, now a branch of his brand known as simply Kish, that brings together items that caught his eye during his travels. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS  

Kish began 16 years ago as a small lifestyle store in Glorietta, relocating once before settling into its current address five years ago. The designer Kish branched out to interior design after popular demand from the people whose interest was piqued by how well-curated the shop had been. It was only in 2012 that he truly began to design furniture, entering the Baluster Gregoria chair, now a modern classic, in the Manila Fame lifestyle event in March 2012, where it won best product design for furniture.

According to Kish, who took marketing in college instead of design, he tries to remain hands-on when it comes to all three divisions of the brand. For the store, that means the selection of items, the look of the interiors and exteriors, and every creative decision down to the positioning of lights. He has teams for his furniture division and interior design, but he maintains creative direction. “For the furniture, I start with an initial rough sketch of the idea,” he says. “I have a black book — every idea that pops up in my mind, it’s written in there. Even the name that I want to call it.” After, the team develops the concept, with lots of discussion with and input from Kish. “It takes about a year for everything to be finished and to be exhibited,” he says.

Kish also talks about maintaining what he calls “the Ito Kish aesthetic,” which he describes as “something that’s really very eclectic.” “It’s a well-curated story,” he says. “I think a lot of us, when we go through life, whatever age you start, you collect things through the years.” “Stuff for the home are not things that you just easily throw away,” he adds, whether it’s a piece of decor from your travels, an object bought because it was trendy, or an expensive gift from someone else. The products themselves are found all over the globe when Kish travels. The store is divided into several sections: There’s one for mid-century, vintage furniture from Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia; one for classic pieces from Europe; one for Asian inspiration; and a modern contemporary collection, which Kish calls “organic modernism.”

ito kish For Ito Kish, customers never have the same visit twice. "I think that’s the only reason to evolve," the designer says. "For people to come back, [and for them to] look forward to it." Photo by ERWIN CANLAS  

When it comes to designing furniture, however, Kish maintains an identity that is strictly close to home. A big part of it, he says of his approach, comes from his heritage: “The inspiration comes from who I am as a Filipino. So that is always the first thing when I come up with the concept. That’s a very clear point of view that I have, that I design as a Filipino. I think that differentiates me also from the rest of the designers, locally.” He adds that the names and stories alone bear the mark of the Filipino: from the balustrades of the Baluster collection, to the intricate woven rattan of the Basilisa collection, to the Manila Metropolitan Theater-inspired Arellano collection. “I design furniture inspired by Filipino culture that can be appreciated by the rest of the world,” he says.

Kish has a very clear idea of what it means to innovate on the basis of well-loved Filipino touchstones. “Most of our design really is based on the fact that it should be appreciated by a new generation,” he says, citing the batibot chair as an example. “We are all familiar [that it’s] very Filipino, but it’s always relegated to the back of the house. Either as a patungan, or tungtungan.” Kish’s design team reviewed the design value of the chair, whereupon they came up with the idea to turn it into an accent chair meant to be a major statement piece for the main rooms of the house. “We were very successful doing that because we changed the material to copper and chrome, with a brass finish. We changed the seat to a 16 mm acrylic with designs and everything. But, you know it’s still a batibot; the inspiration is there.” 

If he believes that interior design and everything that goes along with it is a story, then to him, it begins with the characters. “For me, [it’s about] who the people living there are,” he says. “Their lifestyle, what do they do, what do they love. And knowing that, everything should evolve with that and what they have.” He stresses the importance of staying true to what the customers find pleasing to the eyes, even if he doesn’t quite agree. “They have to appreciate what they have, and they have to be with things that they love,” he explains. “I have no problem with marrying different styles or cultures inside the house as long as it’s done beautifully.”

Ito Kish 4.jpg Two of Kish's award-winning furniture designs, part of a larger brand called Ito Kish Home: the Gregoria chair (left) from the colonial Hispanic architecture-inspired Baluster collection, and the Binhi indoor chair from the organic form-inspired collection of the same name. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS  

As for the curated pieces, he believes in quality as opposed to quantity, and makes sure to keep stocks updated, maintained, and well-presented — not to mention changed every few months — so customers never quite have the same visit twice. “We don’t carry [with volume in mind], so most items only have four, five pieces,” he says. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone. You will never see them again, because we keep changing the products. And I think that’s the only reason to evolve, for people to come back also because they know we change the store two to three times a year, and they look forward to it.”

How does Kish want to affect the people who walk into his store, whether they walk out having purchased something or having just had a look around? “I want them to be inspired,” he says. “The objective has always been to change the way people live and for them to get inspired. When you enter, anywhere you look, it’s a well-curated space. Even when you look at this, you still see how we put it and create a story and a composition. That’s very important.”

Having gone beyond the midpoint of his second decade in the industry, Ito Kish remains a trendsetter, unique and leading the pack. “It’s not an easy business,” he admits. “I didn’t even know I would survive 16 years. I did not come from a well-to-do family, so basically my funding in everything is a result of my working very hard. And I think the only reason I am still here is because I love what I do.”

Ito Kish 3.jpg According to Kish, his aesthetic can be described as “something that’s really very eclectic,” a story that is told through things people have collected through the years. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS  

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Ito Kish is located at 233 Nicanor Garcia St., Bel-Air II, Makati City.