Would you buy the Obama chair? Trudeau or Nieto’s?

CRAZY QUILT - Tanya T. Lara (The Philippine Star) - December 11, 2015 - 9:00am

Hours before 32 world leaders and their spouses sat down for the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting welcome reception at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City three weeks ago, Cebuano furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue called up UNICEF  Philippines Ambassador Daphne Oseña Paez and asked her, “Do you want the Obama chair for charity?”

Even before the event ended, even as Kenneth was still setting up the venue that was themed around the Banaue Rice Terraces, people were already asking to buy “the Obama chair.” Kenneth didn’t want to sell it to a single person because there were so many who wanted to have it, “from government officials to corporate titans” looking to furnish their houses or conference rooms.

So he decided to donate it to charity. Not just that chair, but five others.

On Wednesday night, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) opened the online minimum bidding at the retail price of P75,000 each for the six chairs that were used during the historic dinner by Philippine President Noynoy Aquino, US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The APEC chair will no longer be produced, making it all the more desirable. Kenneth started the redesign and production last year based on his 2007 Yoda chair, named after the Jedi master in Star Wars for its form.  For AEC, he made it wider, added armrests, seat cushion and swivel function, and trimmed the reeds that made up the backrest so the view during the dinner performances would be unimpeded.

When Obama first saw the chair made of rattan reeds, nylon and steel, he remarked, “Is this some kind of a massage chair?”

Kenneth made 60 APEC Yoda chairs, which Malacañang asked him to do last year (“they started with 30 but then they wanted more because they did not know how many were coming”). Kenneth thought, what was he going to do with the chairs? “Malacanang was only going to borrow the chairs, so I would be left with the burden of selling them afterwards. In the beginning, I thought, who’s going to buy these chairs if they’ve already been used? I asked Malacañang, can you just pay for them even for a small amount? But Malacañang can’t. This was a year ago, I didn’t think there would be so much hype over APEC or that there would even be ‘APEC hotties.’”



After APEC, Kenneth sold the 54 other chairs for the retail price of P75,000 each. Two chairs that were snapped up right away were those used by  Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (imagine if it was Putin himself who came here), and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s chair, which is said to have been bought as a gift for one of the country’s biggest taipans.

He reserved the six most sought-after chairs for charity. Kenneth is confident Obama’s chair will fetch the highest bid; UNICEF’s Daphne Paez, by virtue of her Canadian citizenship, says it’s going to be Trudeau’s. Auction for Action was started by Daphne and UNICEF Philippines in 2011 to raise money for UNICEF projects and has since raised P8.1 million.

Kenneth relates that three days before the APEC dinner, President Aquino went to the venue — which Kenneth shrouded in black. And President Aquino “was so shocked and he said, ‘This looks like a funeral.’ The Philippines should be represented in bright colors.”

Kenneth told the Social Appointments Secretary Susan Reyes, “Just trust me, my job is on the line.”

Well, they did trust him but did sneak in a few ideas of their own. Without his knowledge and hours before the dinner, an abundance of flowers were put on the circular table for the world leaders. It was Kenneth’s time to be shocked. What happened to his classy and simple setup?

“I just said, take these out, and they did.”

The designer was first commissioned to design the official gift from Malacañang Palace and then appointed creative director with no staff of his own during the planning of APEC last year.

 “First, Susan Reyes asked me to design the gift, the ‘Sama-Sama,’ and then she asked me to help out in the setting and to be creative director because there was a program, but it didn’t have a setting yet. It was going to be held at MOA Arena and I thought, how do we make a stadium look nice when we had a very small budget?”

So small was the budget that you can count with one hand the one-person creative teams that were in charge of the venue: Kenneth was creative director and in charge of the setting; Louie Ocampo for the music; Paolo Valenciano for direction; Gina Tabuena Godinez for production; and Gaita Fores for food.

They did pull it off.  Kenneth didn’t fail the President — or the country. The setting for the dinner was praised for its elegance and simplicity, and for its representation of the Philippines in a visually wonderful if unexpected way. 

The UNICEF auction of the six APEC chairs ends on Dec. 16 and all the proceeds will benefit UNICEF’s program the First 1,000 Days, a global initiative by UNICEF to provide babies the nutritional, health and mental support they need to develop in their first 1,000 days starting from conception.

Daphne explains, “Studies have shown that if you do not give the child all the nutritional and health and mental support they need to develop, they can actually have irreversible damage in their adult life. Meaning the kind of nutrition you get in the first 1,000 days will determine the kind of adult you will be — will you stay longer in school, will you be able to concentrate more, will you pursue college, will you be a manager or a manual laborer?”

A mother of three girls and married to broadcast journalist Patrick Paez, Daphne first got involved with UNICEF in 2010 when the organization approached her to be their special advocate for children, focusing on maternal health and nutrition of infants.

Though she was busy raising her family and had her own lifestyle-home show on TV then, Daphne agreed. “I have always wanted to make sense of my move to the Philippines. I didn’t come here to be in broadcasting — that was a pleasant accident that led to meeting my future husband.”

Her background is not TV but international development, urban planning and art history. “After graduating from the University of Toronto, I got a dream job in the international programs office of an urban planning think tank based in Toronto. I was managing programs in the Baltic states, Cuba and Mexico. My first overseas assignment was the Philippines. But broadcasting happened and I fell in love with the medium. But I really missed doing significant work that makes a difference in people’s lives. So my roots in international development felt underutilized. Until that fateful day that UNICEF’s communications chief approached me. I accepted without any hesitation because I knew that UNICEF is the single most influential global organization that can make an impact in the lives of children. It can influence global policies to protect children.”

So a year later, in 2011, Daphne thought of a way to raise money for UNICEF. Why not hold an auction and all proceeds can go to help fund their projects in the Philippines.  

“I was just very makapal,” she says.  “Kenneth was the first person I asked to donate something for the first auction in 2011 and he said yes without even batting an eyelash.”

Other artists that have donated works include Vito Selma, Ramon Orlina, Daniel dela Cruz, Seb Chua, Dominic Rubio, Sanso, Michael Cacnio and Elmer Borlongan. “Those were all completely donated by the artists and all the proceeds went to UNICEF,” says Daphne.

Kenneth again donated pieces in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, there was no auction but a commemoration of typhoon Haiyan with Daphne and UNICEF going to Tacloban.

And this year, there was supposed to be no auction either. “I was supposed to just rest and not do much, until the day Kenneth was setting up for the APEC dinner. He said, ‘Daphne, do you want the Obama chair?’ I said, what do you mean?”

Daphne and I joke that Kenneth’s kindness and charitable spirit must be the reasons for his youthful looks. “And zero body fat,” Daphne adds.  

He looks today as he looked back when he was with the original Movement 8 team in the ‘90s, when CITEM was creating Philippine-branded furniture and encouraging furniture makers to move away from merely supplying stores abroad to making their own brands.

Last April, at Milan’s Salone del Mobile, Kenneth, who had his own stand apart from CITEM’s group show, and I were talking about those years from when he and Budji Layug were just starting to make their names known in the international stage.

For Kenneth, the past 20 years seem so fast — all the awards and seeing his own furniture in Hollywood stars’ homes and the best hotels and resorts around the globe — and what he likes about his success now is mentoring the next generation of designers. Young and brilliant designer Vito Selma, who was also showing his products in Milan, was one of them.

Kenneth could have very well auctioned the chairs for himself — after all, Daphne didn’t call him up to ask for a piece to auction and there was supposed to be no auction this year — but he didn’t.

He wanted to give the chairs that all the rich people in the Philippines wanted. For charity.

Even after APEC, Kenneth Cobonpue still represents the best of the Philippines to the rest of the world. 

* * *

Follow the author on Instagram and Twitter @iamtanyalara. Visit her travel blog on www.findingmyway.net.



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