Entering the Holistic Coalition of the Willing (HoliCOW) gallery-store in Crossroads, Cebu City is like walking into a Cebuano furniture museum. Its high ceilings, ambient lighting, and background music are all curated to bring attention to the high quality furniture pieces and accessories on display.
Though the pieces look like they belong in international furniture showrooms, everything for sale is handmade by Filipinos, for Filipinos. Such is the storytelling power of Kae Batiquin, HoliCOW’s communications officer.
A storyteller is born
One could say Kae was born into the Cebuano furniture business. As a child, she would spend summers working at Design Ventures Cebu, Inc., her Aunt Debbie and Uncle Gus Palao’s furniture company.
“I’d sit outside with the painters, watch them do their thing, and they’d teach me how to do it.” Several summers later, she started to get paid for every piece she worked on.
“I realize I was doing maybe one-tenth of the process back then. But as a kid, it was a thing to focus all my energy on. It was that kind of gratification that stuck with me, the gratification of doing something I could learn from and somebody else could be happy about. That’s the root of passion, for me.”
Coming from a family of furniture makers and lawyers, Kae took up creative writing and literature in college. Both were pre-law courses she could take while also indulging in her love for reading.
The discipline and passion she felt as a child resurfaced during college, so she returned home to do marketing for Design Ventures instead of pursuing a law degree after graduation.
A paradigm shift
The written and visual storytelling prowess of Kae’s marketing campaigns won Design Ventures the Mugna Award for Best Promotional Materials four years in a row. The award category was cancelled during its fifth year, as it seemed no one could match what she was doing.
“I wanted to tell a story with furniture that wasn’t done before. It was usually just sell, sell, sell,” Kae says. “The concept of telling a story through items and visuals wasn’t strong back then, without social media to expedite the process. It was really a massive effort.”
Meanwhile, HoliCOW’s story began in 2011, when five furniture companies discussed how to best recover from the export slump plaguing the Cebu furniture industry. “We realized we had to focus on our primary strength, which was design. Cebu is so small compared to the rest of the world, yet we made a name for ourselves in furniture design using natural materials,” Kae shares.
In 2015, they opened HoliCOW, a gallery-store where visitors could admire and buy high quality Cebuano furniture.
“There is a tradition among furniture exporters, to save the best for the outside. But how can we acquire strong domestic support if the local market doesn’t have access to our furniture in the first place?” Kae says. “It enforces the feeling of how poor we are. Poor quality items are left for us, while the best are given to others. We wanted to reverse this perspective.”
Designing with and for communities
HoliCOW sets itself apart from regular furniture stores through their commitment to sustainability, trace-ability, and community. They believe Cebuano furniture making should be sustainable, and that other people should sustain it in a positive way. One way they do this is through cross-industry collaborations with government and non-government organizations.
“When the Department of Trade and Industry, for example, says this town or community is ready for a design intervention..when they already have basic accounting and inventory skills, and know how to deal with their raw materials…that’s where we come in and start developing furniture pieces and accessories with them,” Kae explains.
HoliCOW develops products in tangent with the lifestyles of the communities they work with. For instance, they have a weaving community where women bring home prototypes and raw materials, so they can weave products during their free time. They then bring the finished products back to the studio for quality checking.
“Although we now debut [Cebuano] furniture in the local market, we still export and hold them in export standard,. Product corrections, product shelving, and new product development are all part and parcel of the hard work we do,” Kae shares.
Furniture, Big and Small
Since opening, HoliCOW has been continuously adjusting to the domestic market. Cebuano furniture makers traditionally made furniture for huge spaces like hotels and villas, as the export market demanded. Now, they make pieces that are more functional and can fit in small spaces.
“That’s what we communicate to our designers: let us look at this in terms of something small and conversational—that packs a punch,” Kae says. “After all, my condo will be exactly the same as my neighbor’s condo before I create that space and make it mine.”
Today, the HoliCOW gallery-store features folding tables one can set aside, ottomans that double as storage, nesting tables one can push in, cheese trays one can hang on the wall, among dozens of other of small, functional pieces for urban living in the Philippines.
When asked what furniture she finds essential when decorating a new condominium, Kae shares:
“For a small space, definitely a good sofa or armchair. When you get up in the morning, you sit on your chair with a cup of coffee and think about your day. Then, you have a side table, where you can put a reading lamp or maybe some books. Ambient lighting also helps set the mood of your place. If you’re in a bad mood, it’s nice to turn everything off except some choice warm white lights, while lounging in your armchair with music playing and warm drink in hand.”