Cover JJ Acuña and Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine in front of a wooden installation by Triboa Bay Living in their Manila family home

The interior designer and creative director and his sister Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine are using their newly built family home in the Philippine capital to honour their roots, and as a force for good. Additional reporting by Stephanie Zubiri

“This house is about honouring where we come from, honouring Filipino culture, and honouring our natural surroundings,” says Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine.

The Boston-based lawyer and Harvard University Governing Board overseer worked closely with her brother, the Hong Kong-based interior designer and creative director James “JJ” Acuña, who is founder of JJ Acuña Bespoke Studio, on designing their newly completed family home in Manila. The house is also the headquarters for Sunshine Care Foundation, a non-profit organisation established by Acuña-Sunshine in 2015 working to support those with X-linked dystonia parkinsonism (XDP), a rare genetic movement disorder. Every known sufferer is of Filipino descent, and the Acuñas have a brother who is diagnosed with it. The home is a gathering place for the family, whose members are based around the world.

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The old family home had been partially burnt down due to an electrical fault, and the Acuñas took this as an opportunity to take it down and build a new home from scratch—a process that was ten years in the making. Measuring over 9,000 sq ft, the two-storey, six-bedroom, nine-bathroom house is a modern take on a bahay na bato, or “stone house” in Tagalog. Emerging in the Philippines during its colonisation by the Spanish between the 16th and 19th centuries, a bahay na bato has influences from the Italian architectural concept of piano nobile, or “noble floor”, which refers to the grand upper level of a home above the hustle and bustle of what takes place on street level. It is akin to how traditional Cantonese shophouses functioned, adds Acuña.

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Here, the ground level is clad with Indian slate while the upstairs features Bali stone, creating a stunning layering effect. It is a contemporary representation of what was typically seen in historic bahay na bato, says the designer.

The concept of building a strong foundation—a cornerstone of the bahay na bato—is of particular significance to the family. “Foundation is grounding,” says Acuña-Sunshine. “There are different kinds of grounding: one is in the physical grounding in yourself—spiritual and mental grounding; and then there is the grounding of your home. It’s hard to do good work in the world when you don’t have a home base. You want to feel like you have a place from which to operate.”

It’s hard to do good work in the world when you don’t have a home base
Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine

Featuring a semi-open plan design, the ground level is created with “constant movement” in mind. “I love the fact that the ground floor [in this house] is much more public, and the upper floor is where the family lives,” says Acuña.

The house is in an L-shape, which allows every room to open up to the view of the pool and surrounding garden. An imposing, double-height ceiling of nine metres comes into sight in the foyer by the entry. Here, the delicate paper lattice on an installation by the artist Wataru Sakuma gently shimmers when it catches the rays.

Sunshine was something the Acuñas wanted to capture in this part of the home; it is also the name of the foundation, signifying hope. “When the sun comes up, you’re hopeful—it’s a new day. And when it’s shining, that’s even better,” says Acuña-Sunshine. “It just so happens to be my name, too.”

Behind it is the living room, which is anchored by a bespoke piece by the British hand-painted wallpaper company De Gournay. It features a modified version of an illustration originally created by the Filipino designer Jonathan Matti. The original drawing depicted a plantation home and villagers, and the Acuñas worked with De Gournay to transform the illustration: it now shows a bahay na bato and urban dwellers. The Acuñas also asked De Gournay to infuse warm yellow, blue and red tones into the piece—colours both of the Philippine flag and of many of the furnishings, which are all sourced from Filipino brands. Stairs by the dining area lead up to a light-filled space. The grass-covered roof above the living room functions as a garden and play area for the children in the family.

As well as the bedrooms, the second floor houses an entertainment room, a library, and a wellness space dedicated to fitness and meditation. “What we loved about the piano nobile idea is that it is unpretentious,” Acuña adds. “You can come in and feel like you can see the whole home.”

We want to focus on the energy and the purpose of the house—to bring communities together
JJ Acuña

The house is created to look and feel timeless—something that speaks to the Acuñas’ belief of always being present. “The timbers and the stones we used will be as current ten or 20 years from now as they felt when I was designing the home,” says Acuña. “We want to focus on the energy and the purpose of the house—to bring communities together and reconnect ourselves with the people who want to help [with the efforts of the Sunshine Care Foundation].” When this happens, the house “kind of disappears”, he adds. “It becomes more about the moments we have.”

“The fact that we have decided to have a place here in the Philippines is saying: we’re here to stay,” says Acuña-Sunshine. “And [the home] is a reflection of our work in the world.”

  • PhotographyScott A. Woodward
  • StylingStephanie Zubiri
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