2015 saw the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation hold its annual Summit in Manila, where leaders of 21 nations met under the theme “Building Inclusive Economies, Building a Better World.” Behind the scenes, before the heads of state began to converge, designer Kenneth Cobonpue was busy as the event’s creative director. With the venue being the Mall of Asia Arena, he wanted it to project the image of the “Global Filipino” – one who is inclusive of influence, but fiercely grounded in his local identity.
He transformed the whole space into a massive outdoor garden, with a grassy circular stage set in the middle for the dinner, while colorful anahaw leaf designs dangled from the ceiling. On the other hand, world leaders including former U.S President Barack Obama sat on his famed Yoda chairs, inspired by the blades of grass that characterize the local terrain.
This masterful way of weaving nature, local craftsmanship, and innovation is Kenneth Cobonpue’s signature, having earned him numerous international awards and recognition for his creative yet organic pieces. Nicknamed “Rattan’s First Virtuoso” by Time magazine back in 2006, and given the 2016 Designer of the Year Award by Maison et Objet Asia in Singapore, Cobonpue today can boast an illustrious career – and the status of being one of the few globally prominent Filipino luxury designers.
But what is behind his career successes and his innovative signature pieces? Take a look at Kenneth Cobonpue’s interesting journey.
Originating from the island of Cebu, Cobonpue arguably has a knack for design in his genes. His mother Betty had her own business, a furniture company called Interior Crafts of the Islands. Experimental in nature, the company gained a reputation in its innovative use of the rattan, a type of climbing palm tree found in Southeast Asia.
This influenced him greatly, letting him express his creativity even in his early childhood. “As a boy, I built most of my own toys with the help of the craftsmen and artisan that surrounded me,” he reveals in a Forbes.com interview.
Despite this, he at first took a different path in education, taking up a Business course at the University of the Philippines following his father’s advice. Yet after two years, he took his failure at a financial statements exam as a sign to shift to an art program. Still, he couldn’t draw very well either, and went on to fail the initial drawing exam. However, this only encouraged him to learn further, taking a year off to learn how to draw with local artists back in his native Cebu.
With an improved artistic skillset, Cobonpue then moved to New York City to take up Industrial Design – this time, at the prestigious Pratt Institute. He went on to graduate with honors, and eventually went back to the Philippines with an arsenal of cutting-edge ideas.
RETURN AND RISE TO PROMINENCE
Cobonpue returned home to Cebu in 1996, aiming to transform the family business with his refined design knowledge, honed from a New York education, as well as apprenticeships in Italy and Germany.
Taking over Interior Crafts of the Islands, he went on to transform the craftsmanship of the rattan further, a feat his mother was known for. Moving away from furniture reproduction, he turned his attention to modern design, which he admits was a risky business choice. “Back then (in 1996) it was a gamble. It’s not like anything it is now. I was making my designs. I was struggling. People were not so accepting of modern design at that time. There was more money to be made in reproduction furniture, but modern design was nil. Of course now, there’s a boom,” he tells Philstar.com.
It was only a matter of time until the country – and the world would recognize his prowess.
Over his career, Cobonpue would come to design for an extensive roster of clientele. This would include royals such as HRH Queen Sophia of Spain, HRH Queen Rania of Jordan, and Hollywood A-Listers Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (who purchased a “Voyage Bed” for their son Maddox).
The same bed would then go on to be featured in one of Maroon 5’s music videos, coincidentally called Never Gonna Leave This Bed.
In addition, his designs would also pop up in several major films and television shows in the US, including Ocean’s Thirteen (where he designed the bar in one of its major scenes), Total Recall, CSI: Miami, Nip/Tuck, Chuck, Elementary, and Suits.
Today, the Kenneth Cobonpue brand is distributed in all six inhabited continents, spanning popular tourist destinations like Morocco and Croatia, to major design hubs like France and the United States.
Back in the Philippines, Cobonpue also boasts an expansive factory, divided into five warehouses according to expertise: from weaving, to upholstery, to metalwork, employing about 300 craftspeople to create his products.
In 2013, the Kenneth Cobonpue brand also expanded, opening its very first showroom in Manila located in the Greenbelt shopping area. Before then, prospective buyers would have to head to the Cobonpue showroom in Cebu City or to furniture stores carrying his pieces. “When I wanted to open my first showroom in the world, I was thinking of places like Miami, Barcelona, but then I decided not to. It should rightly be here in my country. Because this is where I live, where I was born, where I work, and where everything is made,” he tells Rappler.
When asked about his design process, Cobonpue describes it as experimental. He works hands-on with his team initially by creating 3D models and a dozen swatches, right before building actual models from basic pieces.
The way his furniture is designed is light and airy, in full contrast to the use of his rattan and steel materials. With chairs that blossom outward, and supple seats that look like bright petals, each piece is rich in decoration and a true showcase of the versatility of local materials.
Browse through his showroom and you’ll likely see beds and chairs that resemble the country’s colorful coral reefs, provincial constellations, Asian elephants, and even global landmarks such as Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Furthermore, there are also representations of Filipino culture, with lamps inspired by the country’s “Bayanihan” or tradition of community outreach.
Indeed, Kenneth Cobonpue may be a New York-educated designer, whose creations have been awarded, featured, and sold, all over the world. Still, he possesses a level-headed view of where he came from, promoting his works as Filipino-made – which he admits was a large struggle at first.
“The first challenge was being Filipino…the second was that no one was really expecting a Filipino brand and product, so I had to impress people with design, quality, the style,” he says to lifestyle blog When In Manila, referring to the stigma developing country products had in the West.
Yet he managed to transcend this perception, perhaps paving the way for more Filipinos to showcase their creations abroad. One would note Cobonpue’s passion in doing so, being the chairperson of the Industrial Design department of De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde, one of the country’s most renowned art and design colleges.
“I wanted to make my own things. I was thinking to myself, is it really possible for a Filipino to make anything that’s valuable in the world of design,” he asks. With his international accomplishments in full view, one can definitely agree.