If you look to Instagram for a dose of good vibes and inspiration, Kitty Bunag’s account has them in steady supply. Her feed is a good pick-me-upper—say, if you had an ugly day and need something pretty to look at. If you need ideas for fixing your own home or whatever creative project you’re working on, @kwittyb is the place to go. Which is probably why she has over 40,000 followers on the platform.
Posting beautiful images online is something that Kitty loves to do. During the first year of the pandemic, when she was mostly at home, it was on Instagram that she put her creative energy to good use. Even design insiders follow her and admire how she is able to create stunning environments and transform drab spaces into striking ones.
Among her clients are SM’s Kultura, for which she serves as visual merchandising consultant—meaning she’s responsible for the store’s exuberant, proudly Filipino vignettes. She’s given a fresh new personality to Chef JP Anglo’s Rada Street restaurant Sarsa, which now has a funky, tropical vibe. She’s also responsible for the well-received model units of Cebu’s BLOQ Residences, the playful backdrops of Michelle Lao’s Solano Lamps, and she’s the creative mind and eye behind the dreamy, moody images of WiNKS Furniture Store on Instagram.
“Everything is about experience these days,” Kitty points out. “People want to touch, see, feel, smell. And that's basically my job as a visual merchandiser, [make that happen] with the primary intent of driving sales and marketing, but also touching people's hearts.”
A place for everything
Life can be a mess at times but Kitty knows just how to put order into things in the most interesting ways. Where does she get inspiration for all her projects?
It highly depends on the environment she’s working in, she says. “If I see a wall, a color that I like around me. It could be the sunset, it could be a rock, it could be a branch,” she says. “There is inspiration everywhere. You just have to be open to it. Hindi siya nauubos.”
She’s a huge BTS fan so she gets inspiration from the Korean pop singers’ outfits, too, the colors that they wear, the set design in their music videos.
There are a lot of ideas on the internet, but as a stylist and photographer, it is one of her tasks to make sure the look of the brands she’s working with are distinct and unique from the rest. “Ayaw ng brands ng maraming kamukha. So if people tell me, ‘Your work looks straight out of Pinterest,’ I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I say ‘thank you,’ of course, pero sige na nga,” she says, laughing.
Kitty believes in the importance of having a mentor and she considers that to be her Tito Ernie. “He is the ultimate artist in the family,” she says. “If pangit, talagang sasabihin nya. And I can take it; I have to. Hindi pwedeng sumama ang loob ko. I need real people to tell me if something worked or not.”
Also in La Union, Kitty styled the 50-meter Italian restaurant La Kantina by Kermit, which is run by surfer Luke Landringan. Now one of the coolest spots in surftown, it sports textured kitkat bricks on its entire bar and wall, and a “modern Bali, modern bohemian surf vibe.”
The move to Elyu
In the early part of 2021, because of the pandemic, Kitty thought it would be a good decision to rent a place that’s close to the sea. She’s been taking care of her uncle Ernie Panis, a cancer patient. He is like a father to her and has been a major influence in her becoming an interior stylist. “[The move] was primarily for him—so he can breathe better,” says Kitty. “Meron kasing naibibigay ang dagat na hindi naibibigay ng ospital.”
The other reason for the move was one of her best friends, Seek the Uniq founder Mikka Padua, who was then also battling cancer. “Initially, gusto namin ni Mikka na magka-bed and breakfast,” Kitty recalls. But when they visited their prospective space in La Union owned by a distant relative, they thought it was “too sacred” to simply be turned into a business. “We decided na it’s not for work. That it would really just be an escape. It's a place to heal. It's a second home. So we made the move,” she says.
Together with other friends, Kitty and Mikka turned the place into Casa Nakama. “Nakama is Japanese for friends and family,” Kitty offers. But when Mikka passed away in June of 2021, the other Nakama friends decided to go back to Manila. Kitty, on the other hand, decided to stay on with family. Kitty and her husband have two daughters ages 10 and 15. Her Tito Ernie lives with them.
The bungalow type house, which is owned by the Ortegas, was built using old materials from Ilocos. “The architecture was so beautiful, hindi kailangan ng major styling. It has capiz and old wood,” Kitty tells us. It has three huge rooms and has an open layout. “It has a big front. The sun sets in front you. Nung una kong nakita ang lugar, naiyak ako sa ganda.”
It was a good decision to stay in La Union, she realized. “It’s drivable, the route is scenic. Sabi ko nga, TPLEX pa lang tanggal na stress ko e,” she says, smiling. “It's the energy I guess, when you're closer to nature. Kahit busy, kahit na working remotely, mas productive ako. When I drown out the noise, everything just falls into place. I get to put things in perspective better. I easily get things done when I’m here.”
The La Union house is a blank canvas for Kitty to work on. Since it’s kind of dark, she puts in a lot of colors and textures. “I can’t say one-time transformation siya e. I’m there weekly and kailangan may gawin akong bago,” she says. “I create as my mood changes, I suppose. The transformation is a kinetic process. It's always ongoing. It's always like a work in progress.”
It turns out Kitty has been attracting projects because of how she styled Nakama—which can be seen on her Instagram feed. “When you put yourself out there, dun nangyayari ang biggest aha moments. I think we got lucky with this house,” she says.
Twist of fate
While Kitty always knows how to create the perfect space, life for this creative hasn’t always been IG-perfect.
Kitty believes in fate, and she thinks it’s what guided her through life. She took up Interior Design at the Philippine School of Interior Design (PSID) but did not practice it right away. After graduation, she joined the corporate world and it was around this time in 2001 when her 43-year-old mother, Ruby, passed away. Distraught by the loss, she was wasn’t able to review for her board exam.
She continued to work, however, but design became her tool to cope. She styled the homes of family members and friends. She styled kiddie parties. She made jewelry. “When something bad or negative happens in my life, gusto kong ibahin ang bagay-bagay,” she says. She knew she had the power to change her environment and outlook.
When her father died in 2008 at age 49, Kitty was almost at a breaking point. And it was then she turned to photography. “It was thru the arts that I dealt with big losses,” she says.
Back in those days, creative work wasn’t exactly considered a stable job so she simply did them alongside her corporate work. But in 2011, she had a miscarriage and that made her decide to leave her job and become a full-time entrepreneur. She put up Craftsmith Living—a concept store that carries curated home accessories, furniture, and artisanal items—with her business partner, graphic designer Mia de Lara.
“Sad story aside, my parents were my biggest sources of inspiration,” says Kitty, trying to brighen up the mood. “To get past a breaking point, I found the grit and patience to pursue business and persevere,” she says. She knew passion would not be enough, and that she has to have “the openness to make mistakes and the willingness to learn along the way.” It’s been a decade since that last heartbreak but Kitty has continued to forge on, knowing all too well that when life throws her curveballs, she’d be able to handle them and maybe even transform them into something beautiful.
All photos courtesy of Kitty Bunag