Essays, Journal, Photographs

Coming Home

It’s a testament to how much I love my new flat that I was actually excited to go home to it after my three weeks in Italy and Austria; my first trip to Europe since 2019. Usually I’d already be depressed on the plane ride home, and then I’d get even sadder upon settling back into my bedroom in my parents’ house. It used to take me a while to unpack my suitcase because a part of me still wanted to hold on to the idea of being away, and I’d always have this sense of ‘I wish I were anywhere else,’ which really meant ‘I wish I were back in Berlin instead.’

I think what I enjoyed most about my summers away from home was the freedom. Initially it was the freedom of anonymity, of being away from Manila in a place where no one knew who I was and no one cared. It was the most liberating feeling, especially for someone who grew up sheltered, from a family background that taught her early on to be hyper-aware of herself. In Manila, I had a curfew until I was 28. In Berlin, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and no one was ever watching.

Then I realised it was also the freedom of being alone in my own space. I’m an introvert and a homebody at heart; I loved having a place that was just mine, if only for a little while. I loved the ‘tedium’ of cooking and cleaning; I never actually thought it was particularly tedious. I still really enjoy going to the supermarket and doing the dishes. I loved knowing I could close the door behind me and just switch off.

For the first time in my life, I have that in Manila now, too.

I moved into my own flat — finally — at the end of February this year after a long and challenging renovation process, and it really is such a dream home. I always knew I wanted to write about the process upon its completion. It’s about 97% of the way, I figure that’s close enough.

If you’re reading this, then you probably already know I really enjoy telling an absurdly long-winded story, so you also already know what to expect, haha.

And I know a bunch of you have been waiting for the photos, so maybe scroll to the end for that.

In 2018, my family purchased the condominium unit that was going to become my home. I’m not going to make any pretenses about being able to afford something like this with whatever non-existent money I made while I was still working in publishing, because that would be disingenuous and absurd. We all know there is no money in publishing. My parents, bless them, always told me and my siblings that they wanted to give us each our first home and our first car, when we’re ready for them. Diametrically opposite to the traditionally Filipino reliance on one’s kids for support, my parents instead have always been determined to provide for us, to make sure that we would always be okay. It’s something for which I am so grateful, and I know my brothers are, too.

I am the eldest child but also the only daughter, so being allowed to move out at all was a big question mark for a long time. My parents’ joke was that I could move out when I was either 30 or married. I was 31 and very single in 2018, and very pleased that, for the most part, it looked like they were sticking to the deal (lol), albeit with some delays.

Now that it was a reality — there was an actual unit! — and I knew what kind of space I had to work with, I realised I needed to decide what I wanted it to look and feel like. I needed to figure out what exactly I had to have in my home. I’ve always just lived in the family house, so the aesthetic was very much my mom’s contemporary-with-hints-of-Mediterranean vibe. For the first time ever, I would be able to completely dictate the aesthetic of the place I was going to live in, and I could not be more excited about the prospect.

By this point, I’d already spent a couple of summers living in Berlin altbau, which I think was the greatest contributing factor to both my design sensibilities and my practical understanding of what I required in my living spaces. I can imagine I would have neglected to include a lot of things I would have ultimately needed if I’d never had the opportunity to live alone somewhere, even if only for a little while. I’m glad I got to give living alone a few trial runs before committing to the real thing full-time; I learned a lot.

I love the minimalism of Berlin. It’s almost Scandinavian, but grittier, in a sense. There’s a little more character to it, as if spaces have been cobbled together with a mix of furniture that you inherited from your grandparents, a couple of really nice pieces you saved up for, furniture that you found on the side of the road and refurbished yourself, and a bunch of stuff from IKEA. There’s a sort of haphazardness to it that makes it seem like it all just fell into place bit by bit over time, which it probably did. It always seems comprised of bunch of random stuff that works surprisingly well together. The old buildings have high ceilings and beautiful old-time mouldings, but the furniture is modern, structural, statement-making. I was all about that ‘industrial eleganza,’ as I liked to call it; all the interesting juxtapositions and contrasts, all the textures and finishes.

I knew I would never achieve any kind of minimalism because I owned too many things, but I wanted to bring some of that spirit I loved into my own home. It was just a matter of figuring out how.

It was important for me to keep track of my ideas, so I set up a second Instagram account called @homebodyrealness where I would post screenshots of things I liked, along with my notes on what I liked and why I liked it. It could be anything, from the paint colour, to the flooring, to the houseplants. It was very much my train-of-thought made digital. As early as 2018, I already knew I wanted mismatched dining chairs. Dark, perhaps polished concrete-like walls for my master bedroom. A four-poster bed. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with a ladder, always. A disco ball, somewhere. Little things like that. I figured it would be useful to have a record of things that tickled my fancy, and maybe my designer (because I was definitely going to hire one) would then be able to make sense of all the ideas and then filter and combine them to create a cohesive space.

And that is exactly what Mara Manalo and her team at Studio Mara did.

I saw Mara’s work on a friend’s place in Rockwell as the renovations were ongoing and loved it, and then looked at as much of her body of work as I could find and realised that it was exactly what I wanted for my own home — someone whose work always had a clear and distinct identity, but never the same one twice. Her work was beautiful, meticulous, detailed, and very carefully considered. It was polished, but not polished to the extent that it ever felt cold or inorganic. Spaces she designed always looked like spaces you’d love to live in. There always seemed to be interesting little elements tucked away in unexpected corners. Her work had so much personality to it. And as someone who also had a lot of personality, I wanted my home to reflect that, too.

The unit was turned over to us in 2019, and in January of 2020, I sent Mara an email inquiry, which included the link to my home design inspiration Instagram. I crossed my fingers. I just felt like it was going to be a great collaboration between us were she to say yes, and fortunately, she did. We took her to see the unit later that month. I signed the contract. The architect she frequently partners with on projects like this one, Ady Maglaqui, came over in February to take more precise measurements of the space, and we were all so excited to get the ball rolling on the project.

Then COVID hit in March.

None of us knew how long it would last. We figured, okay, two weeks, maybe a month of lockdown? No problem. Since we were only in the design phase, lockdowns weren’t really an issue. Armed with my hundreds of little notes and references, Mara asked me to write down every room, and then make lists of what I required in each of the spaces.

This is what it looked like before we did anything to it:

The front door opens into a big space that was meant to be both the living room and dining area, but I wanted it to be just a living space, because I wanted to be able to entertain. I loved sitting around a table shooting the shit with friends, and wanted to be able to do that in my home, too. I didn’t need a dedicated office in the second bedroom (which we had no idea what to do with yet apart from it being a guest bedroom), but I definitely wanted a small desk in the main area where I could park my laptop and write. And of course, I needed my bookshelves. Somewhere to put my record player and speaker. A big TV. Storage space for board games and video games. The aforementioned disco ball. Changeable LED accent lights (probably the most frivolous thing on a long list of frivolous things that I asked for, haha, but I work in events and I knew it would be so fun and so great for mood-setting). A large, ornate, full-length mirror. A chandelier. A bar cabinet. Storage space wherever we could put it.

The living space opens onto a balcony — a well-sized, functional one! — that I wanted to use as a space for lounging. I hadn’t yet developed my love for plants, but I wanted to have some greenery there, just to bring a bit of the outdoors inside. (I don’t think any of us realised how important even the smallest ‘outdoor’ space could be until the lockdowns forced us inside full-time.) I don’t smoke, but was glad I could provide a space for my smoker friends to do their thing.

The unit had a den across the kitchen which I wanted to repurpose into a small dining room that would seat six (and perhaps on occasion eight), and I’d already decided I wanted the dining room walls to be black. We have floor-to-ceiling windows in every room, so I knew I could go very dark in some rooms without it ever feeling too dark or too cramped; I thought black would be statement-making and dramatic, and that it would create a clear distinction from the living room. I wanted to place a dining bench on the side of the table by the window (because you’d never see chairs on that side anyway), and then four mismatched chairs opposite and at the ends.

I thought the kitchen looked pretty big when we first viewed the unit, but then came to realise that counter space was actually pretty limited, and that no space had been allotted for an oven and microwave, which I desperately needed since I loved to cook. There were no drawers, just cabinets, which would have been a disaster for storing all the kitchen tools I planned to own, so I made a note that drawer systems needed to be integrated somehow. And instead of the awkwardly-sized metal double sinks that had been built in, I wanted a big white farmhouse sink. (I had one in Berlin in 2018 and was fully obsessed with it.) I wanted the range hood covered, built-in cabinets removed, and open shelving put in. And if I could have it, my dream SMEG fridge.

The second bedroom was a question mark (‘bedroom for Mom’s hypothetical Eurasian grandchild’ was the joke), and for the master, all I wanted was dark grey walls (I thought it would feel cosy), a four-poster bed, and a vanity table. The master bathroom already came with a bathtub, thankfully, but I also wanted rain showers installed in both bathrooms. And I needed bidets put in! (Bidets are essential! Some Western countries do not have them and I’m like…how do you people wash your asses? You call this civilisation?)

And somewhere in the flat, I would need a shoe cabinet, a linen cabinet, and a cabinet with an outlet for the Dyson vacuum that I knew I wanted to get. Basically, as much additional storage as we could manage, because that’s really what is at a premium in a condo — storage space. As it was, I already knew I would have to drastically edit my closet to make my clothes fit into the small walk-in. I wanted the stone tile floors changed to something that looked like wood for a warmer feeling. We were starting with a brand new, empty shell and we were demolishing that empty shell even further to create something almost entirely new from the ground up. It was going to be a full renovation.

I had no idea how Mara was going to manage to incorporate all of this, but I was so excited to see what she and her team would come up with. I couldn’t believe we were finally working on my future home; it almost didn’t feel real.

Two weeks turned into a month, and a month turned into two, but the bright spot of my 2020 Lockdown (Pt. I) was that the video render for my flat dropped into my inbox.

It was so amazing to see everything I asked for all put together in the space provided; simultaneously more real but still surreal. Mara and her team designed the spaces exactly how I hoped, in ways that I would never have been able to come up with if left to my own devices.

In the living room, I loved that she created a separation of space between the lounging area and my desk by making the shelf such a stark, matte black in contrast to the rest of the room. A lot of my pegs had distressed/aged wall textures, and I loved that she incorporated that into the living room. It really is a space full of contrasts — modern furniture pieces mixed with antiqued or ornate touches and textures (like the mirror and the chandelier). I always need a bookshelf wall in every space I live in, and I loved what Mara did with this one. It also turned out to be the perfect place to put my record player and speaker. The changeable LED lights I asked for were going to be built into the cove lighting — obsessed.

I loved that instead of a traditional small table and chairs on the balcony, she put a lounge bed up against the glass. That way, whoever is sitting out there can still participate in whatever is going on in the living room. It extends the living room space, and can be used either as seating for two or three, or a space on which to lie down and relax. At the time, I wasn’t sure I would be any good with plants, but I still definitely wanted some. They really serve to create a homier environment. My spaces would be so cold without them.

The dining room was everything I wanted, and the black walls looked as gorgeous as I imagined they would. Even my mom, who is mostly fed up with my obsession with black and white (haha), loved the look of the room and decided as early as then that it was her favourite.

The kitchen made me unbelievably happy. Mara decided to remove the door to the utility/maid’s room and turn it into a kitchen extension, with more counter space, shelf and cabinet space, and space for the built-ins that I really wanted to have. In truth, I couldn’t see myself having a live-in maid anyway. I could easily manage the day-to-day maintenance of 120 square meters myself, and it would be easy enough to have someone come in once or twice a week to do laundry and/or more thorough cleaning. I much prefer (A) the privacy, and (B) the big, functional kitchen.

Mara went with black subway tile, which was such a good move because it’s neat to look at, and also so easy to clean. She gave me a lot of open shelving, which I was excited about because it would give me the excuse to decant all my pantry items into matching and aesthetically pleasing containers (haha).

The hallway in this render doesn’t yet reflect the cabinets we ended up building into the righthand side — we ate into part of the second bedroom to create more cabinet space, which was, again, a genius move on Mara’s part because we really needed as much storage space as we could manage to get without sacrificing aesthetics. The cabinet doors are all mirror panels, to create the illusion of space, which is also why we have so many mirrors everywhere.

Black doors and white walls were a peg I had in my notes, and I loved that they worked out so beautifully in my space. Dad was also thrilled that there were so many walls upon which to place artwork, and I was excited to have room for a gallery wall.

I joked that I wished I could have a mirrorball-tiled guest bathroom; I don’t know if that’s where Mara got the inspiration for the penny-round tiles she put in it instead, but I loved it. (There’s a lot of ‘I loved it’ going on in this text, haha! I really loved everything!)

The second bedroom at this point was still a big question mark, so we left it minimal, with the intention of coming back to it later on once its purpose was a little more defined. It was definitely going to be a guest bedroom, though.

As for the master, it was also everything I hoped it would be. Textured, dark walls, a four-poster bed with cushy white bedding, and a gorgeous vanity table patterned after one that I posted in the early days of my inspiration Instagram. It was perfect.

The master bathroom design went through some changes. Initially we tried to work around keeping the original tiles that were in there, until I realised I really hated them, haha, so I asked Mara to do a full overhaul of this bathroom as well. (Dad’s mentality surrounding this renovation was always “Fix everything you want to fix now because it will cost less and be less of a hassle in the long run.”) This video render has white mosaic tiles opposite the black mosaic. Mom vetoed the white mosaic because she knew cleaning grouting would be a pain, so we put white stone tile there instead.

The built-in master bathroom had two sinks, as most do, but Mara took one out. I loved that she did that because then it made it possible to have a statement mirror and lighting fixture (it would not have looked as good with two), and I also liked the statement that it made. At the time, I was single. I liked that I could walk into my bathroom and not have to think about how a second sink was going unused; a permanent reminder of my relationship status, haha. (Although of course, double sinks in a master bath would have more value were I ever to sell this unit, which is not something I’m going to be thinking about for a very long time anyway.)

After some very minor changes to the design, the plans then went to our architect and electrical engineer, and then the final, final plans were submitted to my building’s administration for approval in June; a process which took longer than we were expecting. We received approval in September, and then began shopping around for a contractor.

We decided to push the beginning of construction to 2021, because things always tend to slow in the -ber months in the Philippines, especially around Christmas. It was also in the hope that the COVID situation would normalise more. (We had no idea it was about to get worse.) We ended up going with one of Mara’s go-to contractors; we wanted someone we already knew she worked well with, who already understood what she wanted. They projected that the renovation would take 90 working days to complete. I’d already been warned (by someone else) that they would probably go over the projected construction time, but that the work would be very good quality, and that was the important thing for me since I still had a place to live anyway. What was another two months or so?

Boy, was I wrong.

We began renovations in the first week of February, only to have to stop mid-March because Metro Manila went back into a hard lockdown — Alert Level 4. We were only able to resume towards the end of May when restrictions eased up, and then had to shut down again in July because they tightened again. We never really knew when we’d be shut down and when we’d be allowed to resume work, because the government was terrible at giving advanced warning, and my building was also very strict regarding their own internal guidelines.

On top of that, noisy work hours were even more limited than normal, and workforce numbers were limited, too. Typically you would be allowed to do noisy construction work from 10AM to 12NN, then from 2PM to 5PM, but since residents were working and studying from home, we were only allowed to do noisy work in the afternoons. When you’re renovating a unit from top to bottom, all the work is noisy work. And we were also only allowed a handful of workers due to pandemic restrictions. Definitely not ideal.

In the end, we ended up moving in a little over a year after renovations began, in February 2022.

(And I say ‘we’ because by that time, I’d been in a relationship for a year and a half, and we decided he was going to move in with me since we’d spent most of the pandemic practically living together anyway. It made no sense to maintain separate households. From the outside it must have looked like we were going from zero to 60, but in truth, we fell right into being in an actual relationship like we’d already been in it for years because we’d known each other for so long. Moving in together so soon didn’t feel like it was really so soon. I love living with Josh. He makes me laugh all the time, which I suppose is the trade-off since he doesn’t like putting things where they belong. I do, so we balance out. I hope the feeling is mutual, haha, but it’s been so easy and it really works.)

The process was not without its hiccups, and all credit really goes to Mara and to her amazing team, who went above and beyond the scope of work that they were contractually obligated to perform. Honestly, I could not have asked for better people to be working with on this project because they made it so much easier for us than it would have been with anybody else. Mara’s attention to detail (even the minutest!) rivalled even mine and my mom’s obsessiveness, and it’s as though they were project managers on top of being such a brilliant design team. Mara promised us from the beginning that they would make everything straightforward and seamless for us, and she and her team absolutely delivered on that front.

And when it came to the interior design — which is what we hired her team for to begin with, haha! — working with Studio Mara was a dream. She and her team were constantly looking for options for everything. They would send us decks for lighting, decks for readily available furniture, decks for custom furniture, decks for finishes. They also made sure to provide us options at various price points, and it was always so easy for us to let them know if we felt something was too expensive, or if we wanted to scrimp on something in particular so that we could splurge on something else.

We also did a few days of us just going window-shopping together, which turned out to be essential because that’s when we found the sofa (from Pottery Barn — let me tell you, I sat in every single sofa that even remotely looked like it would work, because I needed to find the softest, squishiest one), all of our dining room seating, the balcony lounge bed, some of the decorative lighting features, and both the chandeliers.

Instagram also proved useful — Mara purchased our green marble coffee table from Maison Cura, I purchased the reproduction orange slice chair from another seller, and almost all of our decorative mirrors were from IG shops, too.

We had a WhatsApp group going where we were all constantly just keeping each other posted with things we’d found, and updates on renovation progress. I’m sure Mara and Paul are glad I don’t message them as often anymore, haha, but it was so great to be able to communicate in real time. It was essential, especially when time was key for locking in a furniture item (like our canopy bed from Crate & Barrel — last unit in the warehouse when we spotted it online), or cross-referencing various suppliers for the best deal (like with the pendant lights in the dining room; three shops had it but one of the shops was willing to ask the manufacturer to customise a shorter unit for us), or getting Mara’s approval for things that we were purchasing (like when Josh and I were buying throw pillows).

I can’t imagine working with anyone else on such a personal project, and I’m so grateful that Mara said yes, and that she and her team smashed it so hard out of the park.

Anyway, I’m sure if you’ve made it this far, you just want to see the photos. So here they are, photographed by the wonderful Erika Yamaguchi.

The Living Room

A mix of off-the-floor and custom furniture, it’s almost surreal just how much like the render the living room looks. Josh chose the throw pillows — his only design contribution, haha. This shelf houses two thirds of my collection; the rest have remained on the shelves in my family home. The disco ball was a birthday gift in 2020 from my friends Emel and Ash. Framed and hung next to the bookshelf is the setlist I managed to get from the stage at a Robyn concert in London.

The typewriter on the shelf has moved with me to every home. It was the last typewriter my late grandmother, Betty Go-Belmonte, used before she passed away in 1994. The wooden ‘R’ is from the Today x Future sign that used to be on the bar’s facade in Cubao.

  • Sofa, throw pillows, and side table: Pottery Barn
  • Accent chair: Raro Manila
  • Coffee table: Maison Cura
  • Mirror: Estetico by Mademoiselle, custom
  • General lighting and LEDs: Adaptive Luxsource
  • Track light: Lights At Play
  • Chandelier: Pietro Collection
  • Carpet: Decoliving
  • Ottoman: halohalo
  • Desk, console, and media cabinet: More Than A Chair, custom
  • Desk chair: Crate & Barrel
  • Balcony lounge bed: A.Garcia Crafts
  • Balcony table: IKEA
  • Wall finish: The Fourth Dimension
  • Plants: Agrikultura Farm and Shopleaf

The Dining Room

My parents’ favourite room in the condo, haha! I wanted a black dining room from the start, and it turned out so gorgeous. The mismatched chairs and the bench were the easiest bits to find, but it proved to be a challenge to put together, mostly because finding a dining table was so difficult. It needed to be oval-shaped, and the size had to be so specific because it’s not a very big room. In the end, we had it made custom.

We also struggled a bit to find a decorative lighting fixture. I was the one who spotted this one online; I loved that it was elegant but organic. The console table, also custom, is one of my favourite pieces of furniture in the house. The painting — an Ang Kiukok Crucifixion — is a gift from my Grandpa that I think he probably regrets giving to me, but in truth, it looks much better in this space than it did in the dark corner of his house where it used to live. Now it has the place of pride that it deserves.

  • Dining table: Montini, custom
  • Black dining chair and velvet dining chair: Triboa Bay
  • Wooden dining chair: &Tradition, from DesignStory
  • Leather dining chair: Stellar Works, from DesignStory
  • Dining bench: Komodo
  • Console table: Southsea Veneer, custom
  • Mirror: Moda Mirror
  • Decorative lighting: Nominal Living

The Kitchen

Arguably my favourite room in the condo; the kitchen is always a crucial space when you and your partner like to cook, which we both do. Mara took the built-in cabinets out and gave me gorgeous open shelving instead, which I took as my cue to put everything in uniform jars (which unfortunately you don’t see in these photos — they’re all labelled in black DYMO). I’m also going to be forever thrilled that I got my dream SMEG fridge! Josh gifted me with some of the other SMEG small appliances for Christmas and my birthday; he really knows the way to my heart.

The kitchen is the space I personally shopped most meticulously for. I read tons of reviews and purchased all my tools and cookware and things online, then had them shipped here. I regret nothing.

The black frame on the wall by the door is a tribute to my friend Bree Jonson, who you might have read about here. Bree and I used to talk all the time about kitchen appliances. We were both nerds about that kind of stuff, and I always just assumed she would be here when my unit was finally finished, hanging out in my home, eating my food, being wonderful. Bree was about to start working on a painting of my rabbit, Pony, as a housewarming gift. I don’t know if she ever began the work, but she will never get to finish it. I still wanted to have a space on the wall to honour her always.

  • Fixtures: Homestore
  • Decorative lighting: Lucendi
  • Shelf LED strip lighting: Adaptive Luxsource

The Hallway and Guest Bathroom

The chandelier in the hallway is the living room chandelier’s smaller cousin. This wall was always going to be a gallery wall. There’s tons of room to add to the collection when I eventually start buying more pieces, but for now, the black and white wall is comprised of friends’ artwork, plus a Joy Division poster. The mixed media Joya is a housewarming gift from my dad that I also think he regrets giving to me, haha! But it’s so perfect in this spot and it really is such a stunning work of art.

The guest bathroom is so cute, I feel like I should shower in it more often. Mara replaced all the bathroom fixtures with matte black ones, and placed this shower fixture higher because I have very tall friends, some of whom have already showered in it. (Mara, it’s tall enough! Yay!)

The mirrored cabinets are our shoe cabinet and our vacuum/dry cleaning supplies cabinet. (The wet cleaning supplies are in the utility bathroom with the washer/dryer.) We ate into the spare bedroom to build these cabinets, plus the linen cabinet in the master bedroom, and it was such a good decision.

The spare bedroom that we didn’t know what to do with has become Josh’s home office. No photos of it yet because we still haven’t found a sofa bed for it, and it currently houses the last of my un-unpacked boxes with the barware and glassware that will move into our custom bar cabinet when it arrives.

  • Chandelier: Pietro Collection
  • Fixtures: Homestore
  • Decorative light: Lucendi

The Master Bedroom and Bathroom

My mom was so iffy about the concept of a dark bedroom until she actually saw it in person and fell in love with it. It turned out exactly like I wanted: super cosy. We oversleep a lot these days.

  • Bed: Crate & Barrel
  • Mattress: Uratex
  • Bedding: Doyle & Furnham
  • Carpet: IKEA
  • Vanity table: Phil-Mar Trading, custom
  • Vanity stool: More Than A Chair, custom
  • Bedside table: Vitra Eames Walnut Stool from CWC Interiors
  • Bedside lamp: Homequarters
  • CurtainsL: Divino’s Upholstery Services
  • Fixtures: Homestore
  • Decorative lighting: HomeCartel
  • Wall finish: The Fourth Dimension

The Design Team

  • Studio Mara: Mara Manalo, Paul Mundia, Van Damme Longino, Collein Gonzales, Coreen Nobleza, Patricia Calderon + Arch. Adrianne Maglaqui
  • Contractor: Brand Project Builders


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