Still life with Fili's rattan baskets

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Born in Bicol, home object designer Julia Villamonte nods to her town’s weaving roots. Photo courtesy of JULIA VILLAMONTE

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Growing up in Bicol, Julia Villamonte says she grew up with the typhoon.

“The strongest typhoon that I've ever experienced was when I was in sixth grade, I was 12 years old. Typhoon Rosing — the name I can still remember! We didn't have power for maybe three weeks. The difference now is that this magnitude of typhoons are happening more frequently.”

Starting out at the firm of Ed Calma, the architect by training has since taken up a master’s in Strategic Design in Milan, where she currently resides while running her business, a line of woven baskets, rugs, planters and home objects called Fili. Through the help of her brother, who coordinates with their partner weavers back home, Julia designs the shapes, patterns and colorways that are produced in different towns in Bicol in small batches.

The charm in receiving a Fili package is the handmade quality of everything, from the Manila paper and abaca twine that wraps each piece, to the wordmarks on the labels of the dyed rugs that Villamonte stitches in red thread in the brand’s cursive — her own handwriting, which she scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop.

Lately, she has even been able to create prototypes of rattan baskets and trays on her own. Visiting her hometown last year, she took classes from a woman named Nenita. She spoke to CNN Philippines Life about the slower pace that she’s come to accept, and the weaving lessons she’s been getting even under the strict Milan lockdown.

Julia Villamonte is currently in Milan where she's also running her business, a line of woven baskets, rugs, planters and home objects called Fili. Photo courtesy of JULIA VILLAMONTE

How are the weavers that you work with? Have you been able to communicate with them?

Typhoon Ulysses hit mostly where I'm from, Camarines Norte. That's where the weaver of the baskets is. Until now we still don't have power and then the signal is also not stable. My brother is there and I can communicate with the weavers through him, but still it's difficult. Why would they think about making the baskets again or making a living when they're so busy fixing the house or tending to other stuff that are more important to them, like their family?

I just tried to ask them how they are and if they need anything. Sometimes I feel like... nahihiya sila to be helped. When I was telling my brother to ask Nenita how she is, he was telling me, I'm going to wait to go there in person. Because sometimes when he asks these things, she thinks he's rushing her to finish the basket.

Since you’ve been working on the brand for a focused period of about two years now, how do you see Fili compared to when you were just starting?

I feel like before it was more product driven, like, okay, I'm going to do a basket, a carpet. But now it's more like, okay, what is the expertise of Nenita? What is she good at? She can do the vases, she can do the basket. She's good at that. She loves doing that. So I'm going to produce that.

Funny story — when I was learning basket weaving with Ate Nenita, there was a day that I went there and I said I want to learn how to make this [other] weave. She answered, yung friend ko, siya yung magaling diyan. Let's go to her house and ask her to teach you. So it's fun, you know, yung mga weaver even though they're from the same community parang may iba-iba silang favorite na gawin. Or favorite na weaves.

Of course, I'm going to provide them with maybe a loose framework that this is what I'm planning to do, but then it's still going to depend on what they do best.

How do you make it attractive for them to keep working with you?

Aside from the fact that it's more work and they're getting financially rewarded, I feel like they also take pride when you tell them, okay, I'm going to sell that abroad.

How do you set the price? It’s per piece right?

This is kind of another struggle with her. Because she was like, a, hindi ko alam kung magkano yan ipepresyo. So I would suggest, and then ask, okay, is this enough for you? Then she's not going to answer. So I make it more expensive, and ask, ito ok na ba? Then she’ll say: Ay, baka masyado na yang mahal, baka hindi mo yan mabenta. Sabi ko sa kanya, hindi, ok lang. As long as you think this is right for you. Ang haggling namin, pataas, hindi pababa. (Laughs)

What’s the toughest part about working on Fili?

I guess we have our own standards of working. And then they have their own. For example I’m talking to the weaver, magkano yung presyo ng ganito, ganyan. Kailan matatapos, kaya ba natin yung ganito? They won't reply. And then they would leave you for days without anything. So you're already so frustrated. But you have to understand that actually, it's not only up to you, and you cannot have everything as you want it.

Were any of your plans delayed?

Actually I was planning to release the new collection of baskets that I made with Nenita this year, for summer, but now I'm planning to release it maybe next year. The lockdown in the Philippines is really strict. The borders are per region, even per province. If the abaca is coming from Camarines Sur, and it's going to Camarines Norte, they will not allow the material to pass, kasi hindi siya necessities like food, medicine. So I had to learn how to deal with that, like, you're not going to be able to launch anything this year.

A sampling of pieces from Fili. Image courtesy of FILI

How do you cope with the lockdowns in Milan?

During the first one, I would be online a lot, talk to family, talk to friends. Also I would take online courses and I would make the baskets here at home and practice with the materials I have here.

The routine was good. But then there were also some months during the latter part that I cannot do anything, I felt so unproductive. It came in waves.

I saw you started weaving out of your apartment! What was your learning curve like?

The whole of December, when I went home to the Philippines, I was learning from Nenita... and she was taking care mostly of the materials. I didn't understand that I needed to do that, too. When I started weaving here, it was kind of frustrating because the rattan would snap. Because it has been in the box for a long time and then it was so dry here, it's not humid. I thought, I don’t know how to do this anymore. And then I remember that there was one time when I was doing the weaving with Nenita that she told me, okay, I'm going to soak it in water for a bit. So I remembered that and I was thinking, okay, maybe I can do that too. So, I soaked it in water and then eventually, okay, this is how I'm going to do it. This is what I needed to do.

It also comes back in waves.

Yeah, it comes back. All the things — even the small stuff, like doing the base for the circular vase, Nenita had some techniques that I reviewed by looking at the pieces that we made together. I was like, she didn't tell me this, but she added another stick, or cut one stick.

And the weave reveals that.


I’ve been wanting to ask you, I know you shoot your products yourself, and I saw on your Instagram during lockdown that you were making still lifes.

So I was on Instagram one morning, and then I saw that there was this hashtag, #stayhomestilllife. So I was like, you know what, I can do it here at home. And then I looked around the house for materials that I can use. Pasta, toilet paper, paper towels, and then some dried flowers that I have here.

Last question: how do you sit with a day like you described earlier, an unproductive day?

I cook. So I’m able to achieve something still. I remember after a meeting I had with a potential client, I came here and then I made lumpiang togue with sprouts, some carrots, tofu, patis, pepper, salt.

Julia Villamonte’s Shortlist:
Social media: Pinterest
Blog: Sight Unseen
Newsletter: T Magazine
Shops: Folka (London) and Wilder (Antwerp)
Notebook: Moleskine (with plain, blank pages)
Mental health practice: Leaving notifications unanswered, and being OK with it
Place: The shower. “It’s where I think about how the day is going to proceed.”