THIS artist may be a wood sculptor, but his art does not grow on trees.

Building a large, three-story house entirely of wood without cutting down a single tree has never been a problem for Benji Reyes, an internationally-acclaimed furniture designer and sculptor. Using recycled wood as material for his exquisitely made furniture and even for his own house, this Thomasian displays not only a passion for woodcrafting, but also a love for nature.

Since he started sculpting 25 years ago, Reyes has been using recycled wood. He has made it a point never to use new, freshly-sawn wood.

“As a resource for fuel, tools and building materials, wood has helped shape our society and economy. It is ironic that we value its use but pay little attention to its source,” said Reyes in a lecture, titled “Stories about Preserving our Cultural Heritage: Furniture and Architecture Using Recycled Wood,” at the Tambunting-Villonco Hall of the Museum of the Filipino People in Manila last May 27.

According to Reyes, old wood is more durable than new wood since it is denser and tight-grained, thus enduring the elements better.

Reyes has an extensive knowledge of the types and properties of wood, as he has worked for over two decades with the material. Yet he would be the last person to admit he’s an expert.

“I’ve learned a lot, but it would take me two lifetimes to learn everything about wood,” he said.

Roots of greatness

Born to a family of artists, Reyes was destined to become a designer and sculptor. His great grandfather was Severino Reyes, author of the famous Lola Basyang stories.

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But living up to the family’s expectations did not come easy for Reyes. His father had wanted him to be an architect, and Reyes found it hard to come to his own.

“My father was a frustrated architect, so he wanted me to study architecture,” Reyes said. Reyes enrolled in the then UST College of Architecture and Fine Arts, but his own passion and gift prevailed. Three years into the program, he dropped the course and transferred to the University of the Philippines where he studied fine arts for two years, despite his father’s disapproval.

“It was really hard,” Reyes said. “But the experience has taught me a lot.”

With an impressive career in woodcrafting, and his unique recycled wood sculptures, Reyes has developed his own principles in designing his pieces. By using his knowledge both of architecture and fine arts, he works on designs that are not only beautiful, but practical as well. His recipe: structural stability, aesthetics and functionality, with the last, according to Reyes, being the most difficult to achieve.

“A successful design should solve problems and make life easier,” Reyes explained. “I try to avoid making ‘accent chairs’—the chair you put by the wall and look at, but never sit on because it’s so uncomfortable.”

For his works, Reyes uses observation as part of his design routine. By watching people—how they sit and position themselves on chairs, for instance—he gets ideas on what features to incorporate into his designs. Sometimes, custom-made pieces emerge from his observations.

The aptly-named, large-bottomed chair “Salumpuwit,” the rocking chair “Silya ni Lola Basyang,” and the recliner “Silya ni Juan Tamad,” which Reyes describes as his answer to the American “Lazy Boy,” are examples of Reyes’ custom-made products.

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“The product should guarantee a lifetime,” Reyes said. In so doing, less wood is wasted, and the more the environment is conserved.

For the last 15 years, Reyes has conducted lectures on recycling wood for sculpture, telling fellow sculptors to “build their obras once and to build them right.” In Reyes’ case, he makes it sure that when he builds a house, he leaves a habitat.

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