Stanley Ruiz: No Fear of Empty Space

Stanley Ruiz wears many different hats. He is a musician and is knowledgeable about quite a few genres, but atop of them all, he is a designer with a growing international reputation. He has developed new products for a dozen companies in Bali, the US, and the Philippines. In New York, he has worked with SOHO Studios, Real Simple, and Jonathan Adler. He has been invited to present his work and lecture in Europe, and throughout Southeast Asia. In March of 2015, he will be showing his work at the International Furniture Fair Singapore. This past year, he launched his own design studio, centering his efforts in Manila and Brooklyn while exploring regional manufacturing resources. Mr. Ruiz is also involved with cultural agencies in the Philippines, namely Hacienda, a social enterprise providing employment for sugar plantation workers and their families, and CITEM, the Center for International Trade Expositions and Mission.

You have produced work globally. How might you make local, regional, and global comparisons in design, particularly in regards to the production process? Is there an interplay between resources and styles which shape the development of various identities?

To understand the regional influences, you need to consider the availability of resources and the tradition of craftsmanship that comes along with that place. Years before Sustainable Design was a sound bite, many countries were already practicing this form of production by recycling and making use of renewable materials, and by considering a product’s life-cycle as it breaks down. The resources and materials are valuable in developing production techniques and skills.

What is a product’s lifecycle?

It is just the expected life of a product. A sustainable design would consider not only how a product is made, but how it impacts people and the environment as it degrades. Maybe there is a follow-up use or sequence of uses it can serve as a material for. On the other hand, maybe it is a good quality product that lasts for generations like late-nineteenth century furniture. In this way, quality is sustainable because it replaces the quantity of lower quality products.

Empire Lights

The majority of products, regionally, are handmade with techniques developed, mostly on the basis of resource availability. For instance, if I want a particular fabrication, material and specialty; I would look to Bali for shell mosaics, wood carving or wrought iron; I would look to Thailand for wood, ceramics, some textiles; and India for fabric and cast metal. In the Philippines, I can find weaving with natural fibers like palm, bamboo, also shells, termite-patterned wood, twigs, things woven. In the last year, I have traveled extensively visiting factories to review and evaluate: capabilities, man power, quality of output, equipment and tools, as well as, prototypes and sample products that any of these factories might be producing at the time. Also, part of the routine is to visit scrap yards, public markets, and souvenir shops, not only to get an idea of what is being produced but to glimpse at what has been produced in the recent past.

What traditional art and crafts in the Philippines are, involves mostly patterns and stories. Generally, what you see around Southeast Asia is what I call a “fear of empty space”. People fill the entire space with very colorful, ornate patterns, usually hand painted. There are a lot of bells and whistles, not necessary in terms of function, but they may have some cultural significance or perhaps it’s just for the sake of having something.

Tropical Modern has been influencing the design world for quite some time now. Mainly, it is a style which is cleaner, modern contemporary, but one that incorporates traditional Asian motifs, tropical motifs, and materials.

“Design is a concrete way of implementing change in the world…
a silent tool to manipulate the way of life for people.”


Double Happiness

One of the roles of design is to explore and discover new ways of making things, otherwise objects end up just being the same. In taking a survey of factories and materials, it is like asking yourself, “What will I cook for dinner?” You get cooking ideas by visiting the local market and seeing which ingredients are quality and fresh. So, then, this is the palette you build your design from. You can import your spice by adding flavors that have influenced you from different regions maybe even different cultures and countries.

So then, what are some measures you take towards innovation? And, how does your perspective and output play in the context of the design world at large?

[hehehe] That, is the question I ask myself. It is a constant challenge. Even the most simple of objects can present a complexity of problems. I am usually asking myself “what is a different way I can make products?” After I ask that question, I consider proportion. Proportion of a product is perhaps the most important, if not the most important consideration. Proportion makes the product.

I try to inject technology into the production technique and mix-in a more industrial design. I think about materials by studying their structural integrity. By understanding material, we are able to develop new products produced with traditional techniques. For example, when boiled to a pulp, Abaca [a type of palm] can be processed like paper. It is quite strong and can be molded into forms or hand woven. There is a whole new range of products which can be produced with this material.

Anno Domini

I don’t like to overdo it and have it look more “designee”. That is, design for sake of design. I like things to be minimal, but then it is very difficult to get away from a European sensibility. Although, design is a European invention. In the context of the design world at large, it is difficult to offer an alternative because it is so pervasive, thus people end up embracing it because there is really no alternative. Design movements have popped up but only been short-lived, like Memphis Group or Superstudio. Interestingly, one of the most influential names in industrial and product design is an Australian, Marc Newson, who recently joined Apple’s Design Team.

I think you have to ask yourself, what is your domain? In the sea of conversation, what is your dialogue? How can I then identify with an aesthetic, that is regionally distinctive without being folk art? What I get from European design process is a tool or framework for critical thinking and evaluation. As a means of offering an alternative, not a rehash.

How easy is it to have that dialogue, especially since it involves your particular cultural identity which includes living abroad for over a decade?

Labyrinth floor lamps

I don’t know if this is an official term, but I have thought of myself in terms of being a trans-cultural designer for some years already.

The communications via internet create a flux of information and influence, dramatically changing the status quo of human behavior and interaction in many cultures, including how we view the world. But, when you live in a different place you experience nuances of language and behavior first-hand, as a means of internalizing perspective. I am not just a Filipino, I have lived in America and traveled abroad in Europe and other Asian countries. Having this amalgam of experience allows me to say that the problem with design is that, what might work well in one culture might not work well for another. Design might not have a cross-cultural translation in some circumstances.

I think Kenneth Cobonpue (a designer based in Cebu) expresses the notion of trans-cultural design in his work and production techniques. So, in collaborating with him to design lighting solutions, the unspoken expectation is that outcome are products with similar combination of influences.

What do you think the role of design is ultimately about?

Stanley Ruiz in the Brooklyn Studio

Design is a concrete way of implementing change in the world. Design can be a silent tool to manipulate the way of life for people. My hope is to have an economic impact and generate incomes, not just from major cities, but by providing opportunities for rural populations. For instance, if a company employees fifty people in a local economy, an effect is that these people won’t feel compelled to uproot or displace themselves to a major city. This situation compromises their quality of life. Perhaps it is likely they end up living on the street and having to do things they don’t really want to do as a means of survival. It usually has a negative impact with outcomes of crime, pollution, ethnic tensions, and so on. So, it is not much for me to provide opportunity to fifty people, but if 20, 100, or 200 companies are doing what I am trying to do…. then it becomes substantial.

If you like Stanley’s Work, visit his site: or start following him on FaceBook or Instagram

Michael Dotolo (a.k.a. Defenestrated) is a contributing writer to LatusCreativity, a multimedia artist and educator who has lived in Europe and Asia. He currently lives in New York working technology-based art forms.
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