Kenneth Cobonpue brought the rice terraces to the APEC

Doreen G. Yu (The Philippine Star) - November 21, 2015 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The A-list crowd at last Wednesday’s Economic Leaders’ Welcome Reception was treated to a visual spectacle as they entered the cavernous Mall of Asia Arena, transformed into a haven of innovative design that echoed the Philippine countryside.

Specifically, internationally-acclaimed designer Kenneth Cobonpue, creative director of the Leaders’ Welcome Dinner, took inspiration from the Banaue Rice Terraces, a World Heritage Site, for the venue design.

“I wanted to transform the whole space into a huge outdoor garden,” he said, adding that “the coldness and immensity of the arena” – where the likes of Lady Gaga and Maroon 5 have performed – were part of the challenge.

To turn it into a space that’s “warm and cozy,” Cobonpue set up a multi-level, grassy circular stage in the middle, echoing the iconic rice terraces. The APEC leaders and their spouses surrounded this stage, over which a large white anahaw leaf-inspired canopy hung to camouflage the very high ceiling. Throughout the rest of the arena, white hangings made of non-woven fabric, reminiscent of the steep thatched roofs of Ifugao houses and which concealed lighting fixtures, dropped from the ceiling.

The leaders’ chairs were quite the star – Cobonpue’s iconic Yoda chair done in rice green, modified to have armrests as well as a swivel mechanism. “I designed this Yoda to swivel because the program was going to happen around 360 degrees,” he explained. “It was important for the leaders to be able to swivel their chair so that they could follow the program.”

The performers, including Cecile Licad, Apl.De.Ap, Arnel Pineda, Jed Madela, the MADz, El Gamma Penumbra, Reynan Dal-Anay, Charice and Jessica Sanchez, performed on stages set up at varying levels, again like the rice terraces, against the four walls of the venue, creating a theater-in-the-round.  

Some of the guests, inspecting the chairs before the leaders came in, wondered about the comfort of the chairs, made of rattan. But the chair is precisely designed to be ergonomic: as you lean back on the rattan reeds, the natural tensile strength of the rattan actually supports your back.



The chairs were such a hit, in fact, most of them were reserved before the night was over. Since the organizers only leased the chairs, these could be sold. One businessman asked if he could purchase the chair of a particular head of state; when told the price, he asked if he could just buy all the chairs!

What the 650-plus guests did not get to see were the souvenir tokens given to each leader. Also designed by Cobonpue, a sculpture entitled “Sama-Sama,” meaning together, featured Cobonpue’s signature brass people grouped around island formations representing the APEC member-economies. Made of brass and finished in yellow gold, pale silver and warm copper to symbolize different races, the figures are linked to each other as they ascend to the top – “towards the heavens,” said Cobonpue. The island formations were made of laser-cut metal sheets covered in wood veneer.

Each sculpture is enclosed in a glass case and housed in a hand-woven metal and buri carrying case with brass handles.

Cobonpue said he wanted to project the image of a global Filipino: “What I always find challenging…[is] to use natural materials and natural themes, and to make it sophisticated – to show that we are rooted in the past, but we are right in the 21st century.”

Indeed, as with the entire year-long APEC hosting, it is the global Filipino that took center stage that night. “I think it’s really important…to showcase the best of who we are and what we are – and we do that with the program, and all the little details that make up the whole welcome dinner,” Cobonpue concluded.


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