In my former life, I used to write for a magazine. One time, I had the opportunity to interview world-renowned furniture maker, Kenneth Cobonpue but the article didn’t see the light of day. That was in 2007.
Thought it would be nice to reminisce and post that article here. All photos were taken by my photographer-friend, Ging Lorenzo.
Who would have thought that at the heart of Cebu City’s busiest districts, Kenneth Cobonpue’s genius is showcased in a non-descript location? His masterpieces, carefully housed in Interior Crafts of the Islands showroom, can elegantly bring character and life to homes, hotels, bars and gardens anywhere in the world.
What is notable of his pieces is that they are not just some eye candy. Yes, they can be lovely to look at but all are wonderfully crafted for comfort and style. You can just have his work in a room and nothing else, and still make a statement.
Preparing the Blueprint for His Future
Like any good first son, Kenneth prepared to eventually handle the furniture and design manufacturing business of his mother, Betty Cobonpue, Interior Crafts of the Islands, founded in 1972. His mother is famous for her modern and nouveau techniques working with rattan. From 1987 to 1995, Kenneth devoted his time to learn about the rudiments of the business. He finished his degree in Industrial Design at Pratt Institute in New York and apprenticed for a leather and wood workshop near Florence, Italy. He also received a private and state scholarship allowing him to enter in the Furniture Marketing and Production program at the Export Akademie Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany. Further reinforcing his mastery on the field he loved, he worked in Bielefeld and Munich.
Veering from the Traditional
In 1996, he returned home to Cebu to manage Interior Crafts of the Islands some 300 workers and continue the work his mother paved for him. The export business was steady but the sales were not exceptional. His restless spirit moved him to experiment on new ways on the treatment of raw materials to produce unique products. And so in 1998, the Kenneth Cobonpue brand was born, anchored in the success of Kenneth’s Yin & Yang easy arm chair made from dyed rattan splits wrapped over bent steel. Almost on its 10th year, the Yin & Yang continues to be one of his bestsellers. Although some of their original clients found the pieces too forward, opting for traditional designs, this did not stop Kenneth from pushing for his style. He eventually attracted a totally different market and in a few years, his name caught on.
Kenneth applies the conceptual approach in the creation of his designs. He is not afraid to experiment with different materials such as buri, rattan, nylon, plastic, bamboo, fabrics, steel and sea grass. His indoor products have outdoor equivalents made from water-resistant and resilient materials.
Market Positioning and Targeting
Kenneth admits that his market was not something he targeted in the beginning. His products somehow dictated and attracted the high-end market with the distinctive quality and innovative treatment of materials of his products. In order to ensure his place in the industry though, he found partners in the US and Europe and joined trade shows here in the country and abroad. He is also part of Movement 8, a design alliance founded by the renowned Budji Layug and government trade official Eli Ointo-Mansor in 1999, which aims to bring together the country’s prestigious designers and promote the use of indigenous materials. Movement 8 does exhibitions yearly showcasing the Filipino ingenuity and craftsmanship.
In going global, his conduct of business to all his market is the same. However, in order to maintain his preferred clientele, he had to say no to others. Big department stores have shown interest in his products but he had to turn them down. He explains, “We’re selling a brand. We have a story to tell which is a lifestyle. Everything goes around it. We come up with a catalogue. Everything we do should be an extension of that lifestyle.” Sometimes, “they’re just not the right person(s) to carry the brand and it is okay to say no. They will understand.”
He does not let the market dictate the outcome of his products. He has great faith in the Filipino talent saying, “In the Philippines, design is the last competitive advantage. Design is the only place we can still compete.” When asked on how he comes up with his creations, he confidently says, “This is my design. If I like it, then someone in the world must also like it.”
Earning a Place in the World
And the world did and does agree with Kenneth’s taste. His masterpieces earned him 12 Mugna and 4 Katha Awards for design excellence at the annual Philippine International Furniture Exhibition, a seven-time winner of Japan Good design Award, Design for Asia Award in Hongkong (2005), Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines in the field of Arts and Design (2003), and the Golden Shell Award for embodying the ideals of Asian design (2002) awarded by the President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He is also among the featured designers for the International Design Yearbook 2002, 2004 and 2005 and numerous publications locally and abroad.
His creations have successfully permeated the Asian, American and European arena and grace the homes of celebrities, restaurants, hotels and even the recent movie, Ocean’s 13. The casino set in Ocean’s 13 included Kenneth’s Lulu Club Chair and Kawayan Bar Stool. Brad Pitt also owns a Croissant Sofa, Voyage Bed and Dragnet Lounge Chairs. His originals are included in Budji Living showroom in Bel-Air II Makati and various showrooms worldwide.
Crafting the Future
Much still lies ahead for Kenneth. As the Creative Director and CEO of the Kenneth Cobonpue brand, he would like to continue crafting and inventing the application of the same techniques and materials to other trades, such as architecture and transportation (cars and bicycles). Eventually he also plans to establish his own showrooms locally and globally and to firmly make Kenneth Cobonpue stand for the style which depicts as a fusion of craft, natural materials, and technology and truly handmade.