Kenneth Cobonpue, World-class Furniture Designer

He's picked up where his mother left off with rattan furniture. Could a bamboo car be next?
Kenneth Cobonpue, World-class Furniture Designer
Multi-awarded Filipino furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue

Several years ago, an international furniture design conference, the 2005 Gwangju Design Biennale, was held in South Korea with the aim "to overcome the Western-oriented modern design paradigm and to introduce the creative and diverse culture of Asia to the world by combining East and West."

A featured designer in that event was multi-awarded Filipino Kenneth Cobonpue.

Perhaps the best furniture designer in the Philippines and one of the best in the world, Cobonpue's award-winning designs are very Asian — all carefully crafted using natural and indigenous, locally-sourced materials from Cebu, his hometown.

"I think Cebu and the surrounding islands somehow inspires much of my designs today," Cobonpue says. "As a boy, I was always taken by the exuberant richness of nature that was around me. Years later, I realized that I can access all those memories to move my ideas forward."

Cobonpue's unique works are inspired by plants and other living things. He says that he looked at nature and analyzed what made it so beautiful.

"It's actually the interplay of branches, leaves and foliage," he said. "And when light hits the leaves, it becomes more beautiful. And I wanted to catch that in furniture design in a small way.

Kenneth Cobonpue, World-class Furniture Designer

The industrial designer has built a name for himself with his signature designs in natural fibers and materials, focusing on nature's forms using rattan, buri, bamboo, and abaca. The greatest testaments to his creativity and outstanding designs are the people who buy his furniture pieces and the places where you can see them.

Cobonpue's furniture pieces have been featured in several films abroad such as "Ocean's Thirteen" which stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon; Made of Honor which stars Patrick Dempsey; and Spread with Ashton Kutcher and Anne Heche.

His work has also been featured in the popular American television series "CSI: Miami."

Among his satisfied customers are Queen Rania of Jordan and Hollywood's most popular couple: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Pitt purchased some of Cobonpue's red Dragnet lounge chairs for their home, a Voyage bed for him and Angelina Jolie, and a crib for their first biological child, Shiloh.

Many of Coponpue's pieces can be found in luxurious hotels and restaurants in different parts of the globe such as Ritz Carlton Hotels and Residences, The Grove, Prince Mansour, Radisson Acqua Hotel, Nobu, MGM Grand Hotel, Hilton, Four Seasons Hotels, Beverly Hills Hotel, Double Tree Hotel, and countless more.

Cobonpue is largely influenced by his mother, Betty Cobonpue, who founded furniture design and manufacturing Interior Crafts of the Islands Inc. in Cebu in the early 1970s. She soon gained a reputation for her innovations in the use of rattan.

Her son left Cebu in the late 1980s to study at the Pratt Institute for Industrial Design in New York. While completing his degree, he apprenticed for a leather and wood workshop near Florence, Italy. In 1994, he studied Furniture Marketing and Production at the Export Akademie Baden-Wurttemberg in Reutlingen, Germany under a private and state scholarship program, and subsequently worked in Bielefeld and Munich.

Cobonpue returned to Cebu in 1996, to manage Interior Crafts. He experimented with different designs, using rattan as a raw material. He used the skin of the vine for binding and as a weaving material, with its core forming the wooden structure. He offered an alternative to the Western definition of modern design by creating locally-sourced organic materials with innovative handmade production techniques.

Manufacturing under his own name, Cobonpue's meticulously handcrafted, modern designs slowly gained fame beyond Cebu and replaced the 1980s-era catalogue of his mother.

The first major breakthrough was a collection called Yin and Yang — with beds and chairs made from rattan splits over a frame of steel and wicker that combined form and function using round and square shapes.

Another critically-acclaimed set was the Lolah collection, which used traditional Filipino boat-building techniques in bending rattan to showcase its flexibility and create sensuous frames.

Cobonpue's creations have earned him recognition at home and abroad.

Some awards to his credit include 12 Mugna and 4 Katha Awards for design excellence at the annual Philippine International Furniture Exhibition. The Japan Good Design Award was presented for 5 of his designs. In 2004, he won first prize at the Singapore International Design Competition for the Croissant Sofa. Kenneth also won a Golden Shell Award in 2002, a citation given by then-Philippine President Arroyo for embodying the ideals of Asian Design.

In 2003, he was chosen for his achievement in the field of Arts and Design. In 2005, he won the Design for Asia Award of Hong Kong, Asia's highest award for his Lolah Chair.

Recent works have brought more critical acclaim within the design community. Several of Cobonpue' pieces were selected for the prestigious International Design Yearbook- 2002, 2004 and 2005 editions. Phaidon's new 2007 book, "& FORK," underscores his leading position in the industry.

In 2004, Cobonpue received the TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) Award and the Perlas Award for Outstanding Cebuano. He has appeared on European television shows, including Deutsche Welle and Dutch TV, and been the subject of coverage in many international magazines such as Wallpaper, Newsweek and Time, as well as newspapers including the Washington Post and the Shanghai Daily News.

He won the top prize for a lounge chair at the Maison et Objet exhibition in France in 2009 as well as awards from the Hong Kong Design Centre and the Singapore International Furniture Design competitions.

Cobonpue says that his home will always be in Cebu which is why he had long given up his U.S. green card. He adds has that his heart is in his homeland and he has a passion to impart his art to his fellow Filipinos. Cobonpue says he believes the Philippines has the potential but that design education and industry in needed in the country. To this end, he has started planning his own design academy.

Currently, he teaches at the local university and picks promising students to work at his shop.

Still in his early 40, Cobonpue is busy with new plans to expand his business to include designing clothes and even a concept car made from bamboo as a personal project.

"The first model is very conceptual," he says. "We'll present it maybe in Milan or in Paris this year or next year, then we'll do one that really works."

Cynthia De Castro is a writer for Asian Journal.

Photos from Asian Journal.

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