Isa and Ken Mishuku buys, restores sells midcentury modern furniture through their passion project Midcentury Manila.
Culture Art

This couple restores and sells midcentury furniture—and has a fantastic home to show for it

Ken and Isa Mishuku started out in their passion project by being duped into buying an “authentic” Eames Lounge Chair. More than a decade later, with sold-out furniture shows and a thriving business, they got the last laugh.
Gelo Dionora | Feb 20 2020

Gentle, golden sunlight filters through the Mishuku residence as I chat with Ken and Isa Mishuku, the couple behind Midcentury Manila, in their quaint haven in Laguna. A product of two distinct aesthetic sensibilities, their home is decorated with visually appealing furnishings they have collected over the years, from period pieces from the 60s to postmodern works of art. The high ceiling and tall glass panels provide more openness and light, breathing more life into the interiors.

“More than a decade ago, we had opposing ideas on the interiors of our new home,” Ken admits. He points to a wooden guitar on display in the living room and a shelf chock-full of books on guitars. “I loved collecting vintage guitars, so I thought of designing a home inspired by them—brick walls, leather couches, and the works.”

“Guests would often remark how weird yet pleasing our interiors looked like. They would describe our home as a breath of fresh air,” Ken says.

Isa wasn’t fond of the thought. “I didn’t want to live in a mancave, you know! I told him that I wanted something more modern,” she chimes in. Ken dismissed her idea, initially thinking that “modern” meant odd, plastic furnishings from the 2000s. Adamant about his vision, Ken continued researching for leather pieces online. He came across a guy who was selling an Eames Lounge Chair for only PHP 40,000. “The guy told me that he had an original 60s piece. I researched further and found out that Kim Atienza had the same chair, which he bought for almost half a million. I thought, I was going to get this for PHP 40,000? Naka-chamba ako! We had to get this!” Ken recalls.

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The young couple sealed the deal and drove from Alabang to San Juan at 8PM to pick up the chair, which was in a dilapidated state. Ken wasted no time studying online to restore the piece to its former glory. “I bought parts from the United States, and we even hired specialized craftsmen to handle the wood and leather parts. We must have spent around more than PHP 60,000 to refurbish the piece,” he recalls.

As they were working on the Eames Lounge Chair, they found that some of the parts they ordered weren’t fitting properly. “We had to drill new holes if we wanted to install the pieces together,” Isa says. “We did further research and found out that the chair we bought for a bargain was fake. We couldn’t even use it now.” (Ken and Isa eventually bought an original Eames Lounge Chair, which they placed in their living room. They stashed the fake in their warehouse.)

High ceiling and tall glass panels open up their home, showcasing the 60s furniture and postmodern art they have inside.

The ordeal hurt Ken and his wallet, but it sparked an obsession for determining the authenticity of vintage furnishings. While he was studying furniture similar to the lounge chair, Isa saw some pieces that she liked. “There was a 60s plastic chair that I showed her while I was doing my research. I told her, ‘luma na ‘to, 60s ‘to, pero eto pala yung gusto mong ‘modern?’ and she agreed. Since my leather Eames chair was also within the same category, I continued looking for similar pieces that fit both our interests. I went to thrift shops, people’s homes, and other reseller websites,” Ken says. “I couldn’t believe that people were selling midcentury modern pieces for low prices—they didn’t know the value of their wares, so I scored good deals. This time around, I knew how to determine their authenticity. I got to collect a substantial number of pieces and furnish the house.”

 

A midcentury modern education

“Charles and Ray Eames once said that they make the best for the most for the least—meaning, using the best materials for the greatest amount of people for the least amount of money. This mindset was one of the defining philosophies behind midcentury modern design,” Isa says. “Artists, architects, and engineers competed against each other to design functional yet aesthetically pleasing pieces.”

Ken's love for vintage guitars inspired some of the corners of their Laguna home.

In the United States, the couple shares, the midcentury modern movement took center stage from the 40s up until the 70s, taking cues from the Bauhaus school of the early 20th century. After World War II, the rising number of suburban developments increased the demand for more furnishings. At the time, homeowners wanted to incorporate space-age motifs, bright colors, and unconventional forms in their furniture. “That’s why there are many midcentury pieces that look like they came from the Jetsons,” Ken quips, pointing at a 60s pink Knoll Tulip stool in their kitchen.

“There’s also a Danish modern style, which focuses more on organic materials, sleek pieces, and fine woodwork, just like this dining table in front of you,” Ken adds. “Scandinavian designers were underscoring the importance of simplicity, functionality, and minimalism. For example, Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, utilized steam to bend plywood into dynamic shapes and curves, which was revolutionary at that time. It got people thinking, ‘how were they able to bend wood without breaking it?’ The designs were aesthetically pleasing, too, so the demand for these chairs got higher.”

The couple regularly posts their restoration efforts, showcasing the painstaking work that goes into each piece.

“Midcentury modern furniture is playful,” Isa emphasizes. “We’d like to call it functional art. It’s out there in terms of form, design, and color, but it’s also comfortable and easy to use. We think that the people behind the movement were just obsessed with great design. And since they were future-forward in their design aesthetic, many of the pieces they made still fit into today’s homes. Just take that Eames chair you’re sitting on as an example—it’s a simple vintage design made from fiberglass and steel, but it accommodates the natural curvature of your back well. It was outlandish in terms of design back then, but it was ergonomic at its core.”

 

Show and tell

“Guests would often remark how weird yet pleasing our interiors looked like. They would describe our home as a breath of fresh air,” Ken notes. “Around six years ago, when I stopped collecting to focus on our other business, a friend of mine who loved our pieces introduced me to this Facebook Group dedicated to buying and selling furniture. When I checked it out, no one was selling midcentury modern items. All they sold were the usual antique woodworks and home appliances, so I thought that I should give it a shot.”

The midcentury modern movement spans the 1940s until the 1970s, and takes cues from the Bauhaus school.

Ken’s first post on the Facebook group sold immediately, much to his surprise. “I put up another piece for sale, and a buyer reserved it moments after. Before I knew it, I exhausted my whole collection, and people were asking for more. That’s when we started buying a lot of midcentury pieces, both to furnish our home with pieces we liked and sell those that we thought would catch a buyer’s eye,” he recalls.

As Ken’s posts grew more popular in the group, one of their loyal customers (now turned good friend and collaborator), Monique Teodoro, opened up the idea of staging a furniture show. “She liked my taste, so she offered funding for me to display my pieces. I told her, ‘Okay, Isa and I will go to the United States to look for new acquisitions,’ but in reality, I had no idea what I was going to do. Regardless, we pushed through with the trip, filled up two containers’ worth of midcentury modern furniture, and brought them back to the Philippines.”

Some of accents and elements within their home reflect the couple’s taste for post-modern art.

Ken’s first exhibition was a 60-piece show staged in Shangri-La at the Fort in 2018. “Monique was a great help, from acquiring the location to selling the pieces. Even before we set up the show, we already had buyers for all the items,” Ken recalls. Months after, they would collaborate again for a 200-piece show in Rockwell, featuring more upscale furniture. “It was heartwarming and motivating to see the demand and fascination of buyers, design students, and the general public as we staged our shows. Even professors from the Philippine School of Interior Design instructed their students to look at my collections for their studies.”

 

Nurturing the collector’s passion

Ken eventually migrated from posting on and managing his own Facebook group to their current Instagram page, @midcenturymanila, to gain full control over his passion project-turned-business and share his collections to a broader audience. “The handle gives us ownership of the midcentury modern market, in a sense. Usually, resellers who attach their place of residence to “midcentury modern,” such as Midcentury Sacramento or Midcentury Tokyo, are the first to introduce these pieces to their community. That’s why we insisted on the handle ‘Midcentury Manila,’” Ken says.

“Instagram also has a completely different market, and the visual platform helps us document and share the acquisitions we’ve bought and sold since day one,” he adds. “It’s important for me to showcase what midcentury modern furniture is. That’s why I didn’t open up a warehouse where I could sell my wares, or directly ship my pieces to buyers in private. If one person buys all my furniture, that’s good business for me, but it doesn’t run in line with my advocacy of educating more people about these pieces. After all, Midcentury Manila isn’t a profit machine—it’s a passion project that I want to share to as many people as possible.”

Isa says that they enjoy building a community of discerning collectors and helping families introduce something different in their homes.

“I think Ken’s direction with Midcentury Manila is a pure and personable one. That’s why many buyers stick with his Instagram page,” Isa surmises. Currently, their page has an 8,000-strong following of buyers and furniture enthusiasts. The couple actively posts their acquisitions and restoration efforts, showcasing the painstaking work required to refurbish vintage pieces back to their former glory. “Ken talks about the pieces online with a lot of enthusiasm, as if he’s speaking to a close friend. People resonate with his passion and get invested in the pieces. It’s a great feeling to have, building a community of discerning collectors who are interested in the same things, and helping families who want to introduce something different in their homes.”

“He just has a soft spot for saving vintage furniture,” Isa laughs. “Nothing satisfies Ken more than seeing an old chair or sofa finding a new home after we tidy it up for further use. The fact that the pieces we buy and restore stood decades’ worth of wear and tear underscores their quality and the craftsmanship that went into the pieces. In a way, we’re paying respect to the designer who poured in much time and effort to create functional and beautiful furniture.”

 

For more on Midcentury Manila, visit their Instagram page.

Photographs by Chris Clemente