Kenneth Cobonpue on making world-class, playful designs

Kenneth Cobonpue. Handout photo.

MANILA—American actor Brad Pitt and TV personality Kylie Jenner have both bought some pieces of Kenneth Cobonpue’s furniture.

The designer from Cebu City was a creative director for the APEC Economic Leaders’ welcome dinner back in 2015, when he transformed the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena into a garden-themed event’s venue. World leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the Yoda chairs that he also designed.

Where does he get inspiration for his designs? What were the challenges that he had to face before he became a world-class industrial designer?

In an interview with the Philippine News Agency (PNA), Cobonpue shared that he wants to be a child forever, and this desire for playfulness makes his creations distinct.

“There’s a unique look in my designs. I took up Design because I wanted to be a child. I think my designs bring out the child in other people because they smile when they see these. It’s like the child in me talking to the child in other people,” he explained.

He had always wanted to become a designer, as his creativity was nourished ever since he was a child. According to him, his mom who was also a furniture designer made furniture pieces at the back of their house.

Thus, the young Cobonpue got inspired. “The people who were making furniture (for my mom) taught me how to make things. All the materials were there, so I just got them and built my own things,” he said.

Cobonpue said he enjoyed building this when he was a child, and he wanted to keep making things. That was why he took up Design when it was time for him to pick a college course.

He had been known to create pieces using rattan, bamboo, abaca, and other natural materials. His creations were inspired by Filipino culture, our nature, his travels, dreams, and childhood.

The use of natural materials like rattan, however, was not a conscious effort to promote the Philippines, since other countries like Indonesia use these, too. Cobonpue noted that his creations are more about the design and inspiration, and most importantly, the craftsmanship.

“(My inspiration comes from) a variety of things. There’s no formula for inspiration. It just comes. It’s an emotion, a feeling,” he told PNA.

Before reaching his status and getting several international recognition, Cobonpue admitted he also had to deal with challenges.

“First is the prejudice. People thought that because I am a Filipino and I came from a poor country, a Third World country, then my items should be sold cheap,” he lamented.

The other major challenge was not having a tradition. He explained, “In the Philippines, we don’t have a tradition, unlike in Italy where there is a long tradition of furniture making. They even have about 100 years of tradition in terms of fashion.”

He said, “It was very hard to market a premium brand, because there was no premium brand in the Philippines, whether in fashion, food, in any field,” adding there was no Filipino luxury brand.

“So when people think of the Philippines, they don’t think of luxury. That was the hardest part,” he remarked.

Cobonpue was determined to prove them wrong, and worked twice harder than his European competitors. “I had to prove them wrong and show them that we Filipinos are world-class, that we are equal to them,” he emphasized.

Does one need to be rich in order to enroll in a Design school? Cobonpue said no, but noted that it would help because design is exposure. According to him, one can be a good designer here, but for the person to become global, he or she has to know what’s out there.

“You have to know how people live. Of course, it would help if you travel, for you to see what’s out there,” he said.

“Sir, how to be you po?” the designer was asked by a young writer. Cobonpue laughed and responded humbly.

Kenneth Cobonpue. Handout photo courtesy of the designer.

He said there are so many designs out there, and the only way for you to make something very unique is to make something that people would remember you by.

“When I have a brand, I have a story. Your story must be different, must be unique. That’s the only way that the world would listen to you,” Cobonpue said.

He doesn’t have dream clients, saying that famous people buying his furniture pieces is nice to hear, but actually doesn’t matter to him. “To me, anybody who loves it and who saves a lot of money to buy one makes me happier,” he added.

Kenneth Cobonpue may be famous, but he wants to be remembered for paving the way for a generation of Filipino designers to conquer the world.

“I want to inspire our generation of Filipino designers, not only in furniture design but also in other fields,” he enthused.

Cobonpue noted that Filipino singers can sing well. The Filipino food tastes good, but Filipino cuisine is not known. “So I want to show people that it can be done. You can build a Filipino brand and go out there.”

Meanwhile, Cobonpue shared that currently, his company is making small accessories, which people can buy and bring to their homes. He explained that it was because, for so many years, he has been making furniture pieces that are big and expensive. People can now expect small things from Kenneth Cobonpue, he said.