Design Dreams Made Reality - Kenneth Cobonpue

by Margie T Logarta

Kenneth Cobonpue, inspirational designer and successful entrepreneur

Form and function are two sides of the same coin and are inseparable. World renowned designer Kenneth Cobonpue lives out this tenet in every piece that emerges from his workshop in Cebu, a major business hub south of Metro Manila.

“Good design is a fusion of form and function,” explains the CEO of Interior Crafts of the Islands. “Design, as opposed to art, fulfills a purpose that enriches people’s lives. As focused as I am on creating something truly beautiful, for me, functionality should also be a primary goal.

“At the end of the day, I am creating a product, not purely a piece of art. So if my design is not comfortable, no matter how beautiful it is, then I think I have failed as a designer. On the other hand, if it’s functional, but not beautiful, I will have failed too.”

Cobonpue, a product of New York’s Pratt Institute (1988-1991, Bachelor of Industrial Design, Summa cum Laude), derives inspiration “from the most mundane things to the most exotic locales I’ve visited.” Travel is a must for him, and he’s usually been drawn to off-the-beaten track destinations such as Kathmandu, Peru, Havana and Morocco.

He says: “Design is a very fluid process, but my team and I usually work with materials first and create concepts around them. Because we have an entire factory to back us up, we work with prototypes early on and manipulate the model. We also do a lot of research to know what’s out there so we know what we are up against.

Babar Cabinet

“The whole process of idea to prototype takes an average of one year to complete. Then, our engineers take over to make sure the product can be manufactured well at the right quality and price. This last process takes half a year.”

Cobonpue, whose mother Betty owned and managed a furniture making firm, first gained media attention when actor Brad Pitt purchased his red “Dragnet” lounge chairs for one of his homes, followed by the “Voyage Bed” for hm and his then partner Angelina Jolie and a spin off “Le Petit Voyage” crib for their daughter Shiloh. Queens Sophia of Spain and Rania of Jordan have also joined Cobonpue’s glittering celebrity clientele list.

Bloom Easy Armchair

Cobonpue’s profile received further boost when the organizers of the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Welcome Dinner at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena commissioned him to put together the set for the occasion. He was also asked to craft souvenir tokens and special chairs for the 21 heads of state. He tweaked his original “Yoda”, with six of them auctioned off later to benefit UNICEF Philippines’ programmes for children, fetching PHP8, 810, 000 (US$172, 033).

Dragnet Lounge Chair

Cobonpue is known for incorporating in his designs products of nature such as rattan, abaca and bamboo, with polyethylene for outdoor models. “I choose materials that are available, sustainable, strong and malleable, and not harmful to the environment,” he says.

In describing the evolution of his works, he adds: “I believe that design is a living process, forever transforming in response to the changing world. Because of that, I work hard to avoid getting boxed into a personal aesthetic, because it has a tendency towards repetition. Sticking to a winning formula, while safe, can only kill creativity and innovation.

“I design instinctually, according to my taste, which evolves along with what inspires me.”

Cobonpue may have definite ideas about what pleases his sensibilities but is far from being an isolationist. Collaboration is natural to him, teaming up with talented local desgners such as Leeroy New, Stanley Ruiz, Luisa Robinson and Christy Manguerra. His overseas partnerships have included Ross Lovegrove and Federica Capitani from London, Hertel & Klarhoefer from Berlin, London-based Italian Federica Capitani, Dutchman Danny Fang from Hong Kong and most recently, Sérgio Matos from Brazil.

Is there a formula to seamlessly blending aesthetics, practicality and commercial viability?

La Luna Easy Armchair

Lasso Lounge Chair

Cobonpue admits: “To be honest, I’m still figuring it out. We spend almost our entire lives in school and in work trying to find that secret. It’s a neverending process that’s part of my journey as a designer.”

Apart from his Makati showroom, Cobonpue exhibits through distributors in China, Dubai, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and even Turkey. While the website www.kennethcobonpue. com carries the complete catalog of all of the company’s product lines, orders online are not accommodated.

Cebu City has provided Cobonpue a logical base, not only being his place of birth but because he reasons: “the natural materials I use are here, and only on this island can I find the quality of craftsmen and artisans who can transform my dreams into reality. Most of all, Cebu is home.”

His team is composed of three designers and a couple of apprentices and interns. He says: “As Creative Director, I work closely with the design team to come up with new designs and prototypes. I’m also hands-on with marketing, so I am in constant communication with the marketing team, who supports the brand by telling our story through various platforms, making sure that the world, especially our clients, hears us.

Limbo Chandelier

Russell Loveseat

In Cebu and Portugal are found factories and distribution centers, while Manila, Germany and the US boast flagship showrooms and Hong Kong, another distribution hub.

Expectedly, Cobonpue has been showered by awards, both local and international, but it is those that have been given to him for being “a Filipino” that he derives the most fulfilment. “That would be winning the first Design for Asia Award in 2005 for my country and the Designer of the Year award in the first Maison et Objet Asia in Singapore in 2014.”

Yin Yang Easy Armchair regular

“When I was hailed by TIME magazine as “rattan’s first virtuoso” in 2007, it was a huge leap, not just for me and my brand, but I believe for the Philippines and Southeast Asia as well. I think it helped open doors for my fellow Southeast Asian designers to be recognized in the global design community. More important than my achievements and awards is my being an inspiration to the generation of designers and young people who want to make a difference for their country.”

Yoda Easy Chair
Other outstanding plaudits include the Top Pick Award for Innovation by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) for the Cabaret Sofa, Architectural Digest Home Design Show New York in 2012; Prix D’Excellence Coup de Coeur for the Bloom Easy Armchair, SIDIM Montreal, 2011; and the award as one of the 10 Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines for 2004.

Authenticity remains the lynchpin of people’s tastes when choosing their furniture and accessories. Cobonpue observes: “They want pieces that have the human touch and are unique and special in a way that they are crafted individually using green materials and not machine-made. Innovative, eco-friendly designs will still be the trend as the environment is a very important consideration.”

His advice for neophytes just starting out is simple – think business. He says: “Designerentrepreneurs sometimes struggle with balancing creativity and business. Personally, if there’s one distraction I could eliminate, that would be the need to sell. But then again, this is the real world. “While creativity is the heart of our craft, the entrepreneurial aspect of it is the blood. The business side of it must be of equal importance. It supports not only our artistry, but also those people who work behind it.

“Designer-entrepreneurs should have a financial adviser or, for beginners, develop a sense of financial wisdom. It is important to understand cash flow.”

Certainly, a wise insight that’s worth heeding.