Penman No. 181: A Designer on an Island

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Penman for Monday, January 4, 2016

 

 

ONE OF the side benefits of our recent visit to Bohol was an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend and professional colleague, the prizewinning book designer Felix Mago Miguel, who has chosen to live and work in Bohol for the past ten years with his wife Amel and their five children.

Beng and I had known Felix for a long time, since she saw and bought some of his paintings and gifted the then-newlyweds with her own painting and some plates by the potter Lanelle Abueva-Fernando. (“The plates are all gone now, because we used them and would break one every year,” said Amel apologetically, “but the painting’s still there!”) Felix and I had worked together, as writer and designer, on some coffee table book projects, notably those on Philippine-American relations, the Mt. Apo geothermal project, and the Government Service Insurance System. After my early collaborations with the late, lamented Nik Ricio, it was a relief and a pleasure to find the young and talented Felix, who has rightfully taken over Nik’s mantle as one of the country’s most sought-after book designers.

We invited the couple over to lunch at our hotel and we had a nice long chat about life, work, and what it’s like to keep on top of your profession from an island far from the country’s business and cultural center.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been all that difficult,” said the former Manileño. “In fact, I didn’t tell my clients for a whole year that I was working from Bohol because they might worry about my accessibility and meeting deadlines and so on. But with the help of the Internet and by scheduling my trips to Manila, I’ve been able to cope with the demands of the job. I use WeTransfer and Google Drive to move large files online, on my SmartBro account.”

Amelia Zubiri was born in Bohol, but also grew up and went to school in Manila, where she and Felix met in UP Diliman, where Felix was a Fine Arts major, graduating in 1992. They decided to move to Bohol to get away from Manila’s toxic atmosphere and to raise their children, now aged 16 to 7, in a healthier and more relaxed environment; all the children—the twins Ulan Kalipay and Ulap Namnama, Angin Kalinaw, Araw Naasi, and Langit Biyaya (the only one born on the island)—have been home-schooled. Deeply spiritual, the Miguels have learned to repose their trust in Providence, and their faith has been well placed.

When a huge earthquake devastated Bohol on October 15, 2013—just two weeks before supertyphoon Yolanda ravaged the Visayas—the Miguels and their one-storey home emerged shaken but unscathed, and they shared their good fortune by helping out with relief efforts. “The earthquake was a life-changer for many Boholanos,” Amel reflected. “It encouraged many Boholanos who had left for jobs overseas to come home and spend more time with their families. Seeing the new houses they had painstakingly built crushed in seconds seemed to remind them that nothing was more important than time together.”

Most of these OFWs work as seafarers, an occupation historically favored by Visayans. “It’s not uncommon for a Boholano family to have one or two seamen working on ocean-going vessels,” said Amel. “You can tell the houses that they build with their remittances by little design elements like anchors and portholes,” added Felix, smiling.

Felix Mago Miguel’s own journey to the crest of the book design business is a story of good breaks, sheer talent, and perseverance. Now 44, he started out in 1996 by designing Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s landmark translations of the Noli and Fili for Bookmark. “I’d done book covers before, but this was the first time that the publisher, Lori Tan, let me do everything from cover to cover,” said Felix. Later that same year, another book project, Water in the Ring of Fire: Folktales from the Asia-Pacific, edited by Carla M. Pacis, won for Felix his first design award from the National Book Awards. Since then, he has designed over a hundred books, some of them winning him recognition from the National Book Awards and the Gintong Aklat competition.

It isn’t the awards, however, that drives him to excel in his craft, but the satisfaction that he gets out of seeing a happy client. The project that has given him the most pleasure has been XYZ: The Creativity of Jaime Zobel, which drew on Zobel’s three decades of work in photography and art. “Don Jaime was so ecstatic about the book that he told me he needed to take a Valium to calm down,” recalled Felix. It’s that kind of reception that drives Felix to spend long nights staring at a computer screen, poring over one image after another.

The most technically challenging was Cuaresma, put together by Cora Alvina and edited by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Fernando Zialcita, and winner of the National Book Award in 2000. “This was before digital photography, and I had to work with a huge box of color slides,” said Felix. But then again, “The technical aspects of book design are often easier to deal with than some people behind the books,” Felix confessed.

Like me, he’s had his share of good book projects that, for some reason or another, went nowhere. He did get paid for work done, as I was, but it’s such a waste of labor and good material when a project that seemed so promising never sees the light of day, because someone in the production process fails to deliver, or because the clients themselves lose interest or change their minds. Thankfully for Felix and me—as I wrote in this column a few weeks ago—coffee table books remain in high demand, and I expect to be working with him again on one or two forthcoming projects soon. One current project he’s excited about is a book on native Philippine trees that he’s doing for the Lopezes.

While he’s based in Tagbilaran, Felix flies out to Manila to personally check on his projects in the press. This used to be done abroad for high-quality printing jobs, but local printers have expanded and improved significantly enough to take on the challenge. “Our best local printers like House Printers can now compete head to head with their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore,” Felix said. (House Printers produced one of my most recent books, the biography of former Sen. Ed Angara.)

He misses painting, and spoke wistfully about the last big painting he did, a mural for the Church of Gesu on the Ateneo campus in Quezon City. But the children, the Miguels said, seem to be taking intuitively to art; Felix and Amel have monitored their time online to make sure that they can attend to more active and creative pursuits, and it may not be long before this couple’s decision to forsake Manila for a southern island bears fruit beyond more beautiful books.

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