By May S. Ruiz
Owning a house and making it a home is something most of us aspire to. We take great pains to make our abode a place where we can live comfortably and take pride in; where we can hold get-togethers or dinners with colleagues; where our children can invite their friends for playdates and sleepovers.
Jake Galang has made it her mission to help homeowners achieve that goal. The principal for her eponymous company, Ilustracion by Jake, she designs living spaces that are as efficient as they are magnificent. A transplant from the Philippines, she established her firm in 2006 after working in Singapore and afterwards for interior designers in Pasadena. She has since built an excellent reputation among developers in the San Gabriel Valley, with whom she collaborates on projects from the ground up. You probably have driven around town and seen several of the houses she has worked on.
Catching up with Galang on a recent morning, I inquire how she got her name (Jake!), how she got into the business, and what her favorite projects are.
“My birth name is actually Catherine,” Galang discloses. “At first I thought my Dad nicknamed me, but I later found out it was all my Mom’s doing. She was a big fan of John Wayne, who was in a movie called ‘Big Jake.’ The name stuck with her and it was what she decided to call me.”
When I protest that the moniker conjures an image of a robust man while she is a soft-spoken, petite woman, Galang replies gleefully, “But that’s the best part of it – it’s very deceiving! Contractors remember me because it’s an easy name, there are only four letters.”
Asked what steered her towards this career, Galang responds, “Architecture and interior design are in my genes. My grandfather was one of the pioneering architects in Manila and he did his drawings on linen. He passed away when I was very young, but I distinctly remember unrolling one of his illustrations which featured capiz (the outer shell of the marine mollusk found in the shallow coastal waters of the Philippines) windows and Spanish balustrades.
“However, my mother was my biggest artistic influence. She was very creative and was an interior designer back in Manila. I grew up seeing her work on projects and, once in a while, I would assist her on installations. Additionally, she fabricated the drapery – designing and sewing – she used on her jobs. At that time, window treatments were traditional period drapery, like the swags that are used in the White House, and I would help her hem.”
Galang continues, “I also found product branding and lay-out designing quite fascinating, so when I attended College of the Holy Spirit, I took Advertising as my major. My mother thought there wasn’t much financial stability in that field, though, and convinced me to pursue interior design instead. So I switched majors and consequently earned a BFA in Interior Design.
“After graduation, I worked for an office systems company in Manila which provided furniture for multinationals like Chase Manhattan, Bank of America, Del Monte, etc. I was lucky enough to be sent to Hong Kong and Singapore for seminars. That was when I started traveling. I did some work for Steelcase and Knoll in Hong Kong; after that I went to Brunei to set up a Scandinavian furniture showroom.
“Several friends, who were then employed in Singapore, told me that Singapore was booming and designers were in demand. I thought that would be a good career opportunity and was blessed to be petitioned by an interior design company. I moved to Singapore and worked for Bosgroup International from 1993 to 1998. I designed furniture for Omnia, the supplier for the famous Raffles Hotel; created high-end residential interior design under I&T Interiors; and worked with designer CKT Thomas on public spaces, including Tan Tock Seng Hospital and numerous children’s libraries. Singapore is a multi-cultural, fast-paced country and I learned a lot there. That experience prepared me for what was to come.
“My work took me to the United States where I saw the business was also flourishing, so I decided to stay. I worked as a draftsman at JF Interiors in Pasadena and our projects were mostly renovation and design of old homes in San Marino. We were involved with the Pasadena Showcase House of Design. I remained for ten years and the owner and principal designer of the firm, Janie Fain, became my mentor.”
In 2006, Galang bravely took the leap to establish her own design firm and has kept busy with projects, 90% of which are residential and 10% are commercial. Besides her work being featured in Luxe magazine, Galang doesn’t do any marketing. Clients hear about her by word of mouth and they go on her website.
Adds Galang, “I work closely with Mur-Sol Construction, one of the premier residential builders in Arcadia – designing cabinetry and lighting, and picking plumbing fixtures, stone, and tile for their various developments. I love to work on the interior structure of the house as well. I sketch or draw in CAD, give it to the builder, and inspect if the finished work is done correctly based on my specs.”
Galang isn’t inclined towards any particular style or period. “I get the inspiration for the interior from the architecture of the house,” she says. “I also talk with the homeowners to find out how they live, what they gravitate to, what they need, and what’s important to them. There will always be clients who buy a contemporary style house then want to have a French look inside. The biggest challenge for an interior designer is when homeowners want to combine two aesthetics that aren’t compatible. In that case, I would persuade them to consider a more streamlined look instead of French moldings and panels in the living room, or fish-shaped faucets in the bathrooms. I think that’s the most difficult part of this job – trying to steer clients from making choices that don’t make design sense and still make them happy.
“One of the things I learned in this business is compromise. You realize that just because you think you have this great creative idea, everybody will agree with your vision. There’s a Confucian saying, ‘How will you learn when your cup is so full,’ there’s no room so it will overflow. When I was younger I thought I knew everything, especially when designing interiors, because I was educated for it. But now that I’m older, I realize that there’s still much out there I don’t know. I’ve learned to be more receptive to other people’s opinions and perspectives.”
Two recent projects Galang completed were commercial jobs in Hong Kong. She explains, “They asked me to design the flagship office for their skin care company in Hong Kong. We used local workers there, but I drew everything here and specified the look for the place. Another one is a creative building. It is a very modern sleek structure so I designed something that looks industrial. For its main lobby, I found a mural made by an artist from Vancouver which I thought would look great in it. I asked her permission to use it and commissioned her, then I printed it on chains from Spain which I found during one of my travels with my family sourcing for materials for my projects. I also integrated my personality into it. Nowadays, with the Internet, everyone’s on their computer and people use Kindle when they want to read. But I still read books, so I put them in as part of the design to evoke knowledge. In fact, the mural itself suggests creativity. If you look closely at head of the person in the mural, you’ll see there are ideas coming out of her head.
“This is my favorite of all the projects I’ve done in my career, thus far. It was such a fun assignment for us! We’ve been doing the same traditional design over and over, so this one was a deviation. Hopefully, we’ll get more commercial work when people see it on my website.”
Depending on the scale of the project, each one takes anywhere from three to four years to complete. Galang describes, “We just finished a residence at Bradbury which took three years. It has a game room made for entertainment – there’s a two-lane bowling alley and a golf simulator. Farther down, there’s a pool table and a wet bar, and then a wine cellar. The daughter has a playhouse within her bedroom and the son has custom bunk beds because he likes having sleepovers. That was actually a fun residential job, it had all the bells and whistles, and one could be really creative.”
Galang has a streamlined operation, “We’re a small outfit; besides me, I have three full-time assistants who are all architects – Desiree Panopio, Jila Mendoza, Aireen Dizon, and a part-time employee Jophi Elorta. They all love to travel and explore, like me. We sometimes are working on 15 projects in one year but, on average, we have ten to 12 residential jobs that overlap and range in size from 6,000 to 16,000 square feet.
“We, interior designers, are surrounded by so many grand things because of the clients we work with. I personally have a very casual and simple lifestyle. But I share that same way of life with some of my colleagues in the business. We get to design for the super-rich but, at the end of the day, we go back to our humble homes. And, as I’m sure many of us in this career do, I keep redecorating my house. I just couldn’t help it.”
Galang is an unassuming and tiny woman who creates mostly imposing living spaces. But at the heart of her design philosophy is the ultimate goal – to make the people who live in them feel they’re cocooned in a cozy and familiar place.