Kenneth Cobonpue: Built to Last

- Denise Roco -

MANILA, Philippines – Easy to the eye, yet eye-catching. Simple yet sophisticated. Stylish and functional. These phrases capture the brand and the man that is industrial designer Kenneth Cobonpue. His designs have been seen in the movie Ocean’s 13 and the TV show CSI. Celebrities like Lucy Liu, Robert de Niro, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, to name a few, are his clients. When it comes to furniture, the Italian race ought to be forewarned that it is now a Filipino taking over the world one home at a time.

Good design commands attention and that’s what it did to this writer when she first caught sight of the Yoda easy chair and the Bloom easy arm chair in an exhibit at the Yuchengco Museum in mid-2010. Upon finally meeting the man who made the furniture, the writer had the same reaction. Without any braggadocio, he extended his hand and introduced himself with an amiable tone and a mild-mannered voice, “Hi, I’m Kenneth Cobonpue,” he said — as if we didn’t know.

How can we not know you Mister 2004 Ten Outstanding Young Men Awardee, especially after winning the Outstanding Quality and Design Innovation Award at the 2008 DECOREX in London as well as the 2004 Perlas Award for Outstanding Cebuano given by then President Gloria Arroyo? With a sunny disposition matched with smiling eyes, Kenneth bridges the past and the stepping-stones to his success. “There was coercion for me not to take up design. My father is Chinese. Because I was the eldest son in a Chinese family, my dad wanted me to take Business (in order for me to manage the family business). So I went to UP Diliman and studied Business but decided to shift to Fine Arts to Industrial Design (which was new then). I applied (but) failed the entrance exam because I couldn’t draw. That was pretty upsetting. I thought maybe this is not for me. So I spent the rest of the semester just learning how to draw until I decided to go to New York in 1987 and study where my mom graduated.”

The choice to shift was taken with resentment by Kenneth’s father and while taking an apprenticeship in leather and wood workshop at Centro Azur, Italy and finishing his studies in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in New York, his father passed away from a stroke. Their family was unprepared. Kenneth immediately returned to Cebu to shut down the many businesses of his father (automotive, real estate, travel agency). He simply didn’t know what to do with it. Perhaps like a deus ex machina, his father’s death also breathed new life in exploring his keen industrial design abilities. Taking over his mother’s (Betty Cobonpue) furniture design and manufacturing company, Interior Crafts of the Islands, this scion went beyond creativity in rattan, which his mother is noted for. “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.”

Considered a bold move, Kenneth asserted his distinct style of fusing locally sourced organic material with innovative hand-made production techniques and voila! It was only a matter of time before the country and the world would ogle his prowess. True enough he has won 12 Mugna and four Katha Awards for design excellence at the annual Philippine International Furniture Exhibition and the Craftmanship Award in the 2001 International Contemporary Furniture Fair. This ubiquitously published, highly televised and reputable international speaker talks about his field. “Presenting design is basically a conflux of different cultures. When you’re here you have to imagine how the other half of the world lives ‘cause you’re really designing for that culture. So I think what I am now is a product of all those different places I’ve been to.” That includes Germany where he studied Furniture Marketing and Production at the Export Akademie Baden-Württemberg in Reutlingen.

When asked about his greatest achievement, this multilingual Sagittarian replies, “Getting a lot of people to pronounce my name right. In the beginning, I was thinking whether I should use my name and my partner then said, ‘I think the world will just have to learn to pronounce it. That’s the gauge of your success if they can pronounce it right.’ I think my biggest achievement is still out there waiting to happen.” Though one thing Kenneth doesn’t wait for is inspiration. “You can’t just wait for it. You have to look for it. My reference to nature is becoming stronger and stronger in my work, microscopic (details on) leaves, trees, buds. You can’t beat God when it comes to design.”

The only Filipino recipient of Asia’s highest design award, the Design for Asia Award for the Lolah Collection in 2005, Kenneth unburdens his biggest hurdle. “It’s acceptance ‘cause there’s no Asian brand (known) in furniture. In the luxury strata, it’s always Italian or Dutch. People say, ‘Oh, you’re a Filipino brand, why is it so expensive?’ There’s always that mentality. Why can’t people pay good money for work that’s equal to something that’s made in Italy? Our craftsmen are really second to none. There’s a chair I made called the Tilt (made of American walnut or mahogany individually cut and fastened with dowels). Even European woodworkers admire the chair because they know how difficult it is to make. Each piece is cut at separate angles. This used to be the kind of work they made in Italy years ago and they can’t do it anymore because they can’t afford it.”

On his latest collection, Bloom, (handmade with micro fiber stitched over a resin top with steel base in soft hues like moss green, lime green, yellow, black or muted red) Kenneth elaborates, “I create something different every time and the factory has again to gear up for it. (Factory workers have to get accustomed to the material.) We work with wood, steel, bamboo, abaca, leather, everything. So this one now is the most difficult because it’s in fabric. To find somebody to work on it well is very difficult in all of Cebu. So far we’ve found only one person who can stitch it well.”

If there’s a will, there’s a way as they say. The Bloom chair has won the Coup de Coeur Award at the 2009 Maison et Objet show in Paris. Kenneth’s success has a lot to do with his secret to happiness. “Doing what you love and getting other people to love what you’re doing. That’s what makes me happy. Seeing people use the furniture with that face, a face of amazement. It’s magic. Those are the little joys that make it all worthwhile.”

His works exceed its worth as furniture. A piece of Kenneth Cobonpue is an objet d’ art. It is a brand that will long surpass its maker. 









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