Creativity comes in many different forms

Prior to joining Furniture/Today in 1977 I worked at an advertising agency in Knoxville, Tennessee that specialized in home furnishings. My first year on the job, as a fledgling account executive, I burst in to the office of the creative director with the exciting news that I had a new client who needed a brochure “yesterday”.

The client stipulated that it had to be both highly creative and inexpensive. He looked at me with the disdain only a creative director can give a salesman and replied, “I don’t have great, creative ideas arranged on shelves in my office marked ‘expensive’, ‘medium priced’ or ‘inexpensive’. When I come to work each day I do my best to come up with great creative ideas for every project I am given. If there is a budget I will adhere to it. Creativity does not have to be expensive”.

That was a lesson I never forgot. Several decades later I was conducting a seminar at the furniture show in Cebu where I was asked the question, “How will we compete with China?” My first reaction was “build bigger, state-of-the-art factories. Invest in new machinery. You certainly cannot compete on cost alone as Filipino labor costs are already much higher than China’s”.

Later that day I met with one of the island’s leading manufacturers. I asked him why the Filipinos did not try to compete with China. Was it lack of capital? He replied that there are plenty of people in Cebu who have the money to build factories. However, they choose not to because the Filipino does not believe in putting all his eggs in one basket.

For example, he or she may own a bank, a restaurant and some real estate in addition to his furniture factory. This provides entrepreneurs a greater sense of security. The second reason is that “the bigger you become the bigger target you are for government officials who will then start asking for bribes and kickbacks.”

The average Filipino prefers to run a small business and likes the creativity of creating furniture with “mixed media” . As a former ad man I thought he was talking about radio, television, the Internet, newspaper and outdoor advertising. No, “mixed media” refers to the use of natural materials such as stone, glass, coconuts, seaweed, eggshells and dozens of other materials Mother Nature provides for free.

How about making furniture and accessories out of old, discarded cow bones? One company I visited searches dumpsters, cajoles butchers and anyone else they can find, to give them old cow bones. The bones are then cut, sliced razor thin, shaped and inlaid
in the furniture. Then they are sanded and polished, which brings out the natural beauty of the bone. They make chests, picture frames, small tables and many other beautiful objects.

I also came across some interesting vases and urns. When I asked what they were made of the owner explained that they were created “by accident”. He ran a fossil stone business. At the end of each day a worker would sweep the fossil stone dust out the door. One day it occurred to the owner to gather up the dust and mix it with resin which then could be shaped into vases and urns. Various colored resins allowed him to achieve many different hues and looks.

Another exhibitor I met at the show had glued dried sea urchins together to produce a table lamp that won a design award. Gluing sea urchins in the shape of a spherical lamp takes far more skill than inlaying stone or shell chips. Like putting together a puzzle,
each sea urchin must fit perfectly and symmetrically. The shells are diaphanous; so the lamp gives off a beautiful, translucent glow.

When coconut shells are crushed they create a great finish, which I saw in a coco-accent table, made of wood and wrought iron. It also had a new “coco crackle” finish that was truly a visual feast.

The Filipinos joke among themselves that “if you can’t eat it, you make furniture out of it.” They are incredibly ingenious, artistic and innovative. They are making money while making good use of natural materials that many would simply discard. They appear to have no desire to become a world power in furniture like China. However, with their naturally artistic and creative talents I believe they will lead happy, productive lives, and we will all be the beneficiaries.

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