Kenneth Cobonpue – It’s More Fun in the Philippines!

 

 

Surrounded from earliest childhood by his mother's outstanding design, Kenneth Cobonpue knew as a boy already what he wanted to do later: create beautiful and useful items. However, unlike his mother, he wanted to make a name for himself. Today even Queen Sophia of Spain is his fan, as well as Queen Rania of Jordan - or Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

7000 islands, water, sun, bright colors, and palm trees: That, in a nutshell, is the Philippines. “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” the country’s catchy advertising slogan is also an apt description of designer Kenneth Cobonpue’s creations. His showroom is a riot of color, light, motion, and airiness, and is filled with a diverse selection of objects – such as sofas made from a coarse mesh that look as if they were loosely knitted and chairs that resemble over-dimensional, brightly colored blossoms and are fittingly called Bloom. Yet the name above the plain red iron gates at the street simply reads Interior Crafts, after the company Interior Crafts of the Island, Inc. that his mother founded. In the 1970s, Betty Cobonpue started producing furniture made from finest rattan for the US market. Initially done from Betty’s home, production was soon relocated to the site behind the red iron gates, where the company’s five production sites are still located. Machines are surprisingly absent; aside from actually cutting the wood, almost everything else is done manually by the 200 workers dressed in green T-shirts. Filipinos are incredibly inventive, Cobonpue explains.

He fondly remembers his mother’s idyllic studio in the family home’s garden. There, production took place amidst ponds and flowers he tells us, reminiscing about how he loved spending the afternoons where his mother worked and where he soon began to make his own toys. His creative mother served both as role model and mentor in the process. But his father, a traditional Chinese businessman, had other plans and wanted him to study business administration. Initially, Cobonpue fell in with his father’s wishes, but after only two years knew for certain that his real vocation was in design. He applied to the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Fine Arts, which rejected his application because of his poor drawing skills. Subsequently, Cobonpue took a year off to immerse himself in drawing. “Today, the UP invites me to hold lectures,” he tells us with amusement. Instead of going to the Filipino college of fine arts, however, he ended up following in his mother’s footsteps, studying at the Pratt Institute in New York where he graduated summa cum laude. From there, he went on to become the best-known designer of the Philippines.

Many of my designs are drawn by a resort feeling - no wonder that we make the most sales in warm countries.

With a sheer endless list of awards as Designer of the Year and numerous fans, among them Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Cobonpue’s dreams have been realized. The best overview of his work can be found on his Instagram account. In addition to a lamp designed as a hospitality gift for the Emperor of Japan and the Yoda chairs that seated President Obama and his fellow politicians at the APEC summit in November 2015, several sweeping installations created for Nobu restaurants are featured. The examples demonstrate how versatile and sought-after the designer is – globally and, of course, in the Philippines. Over the next two years, Cobonpue will be busy giving Cebu International airport an overall decorative makeover. The aim is for pleasure seekers to feel an instant holiday vibe upon landing, the maestro explains – almost as if they had checked into a terrific resort. Creating sunny, vibrant locations is one of the designer’s core competences and almost 70 percent of his corporate turnover stems from the sales of outdoor furniture. Possibly, the objects’ whimsical elaborateness – which makes them look as though they were more suited to interior use – drives their overwhelming success. Out of consideration for the environment, the furniture is now produced from artificial rattan or polyethylene.

It was very important for me to make my name well known in the US and in Europe.

Despite his spectacular success, Kenneth Cobonpue finds time to greet us with charming courtesy. Speaking in a soft voice, he’s very persuasive and entertaining, almost like a talk show host – for example, when he tells us about his internship year in Florence, where he met his wife. Susanne hails from Kempen, Germany and is now in charge of the operative business. “I do everything Kenneth doesn’t have time for,” the trained teacher with silver blond hair tells us smilingly as she looks in briefly. He had to be a very strong persuader, he recalls, because “it wasn’t easy!” even though he was able to arrange for a two-year grant to study in Germany immediately after completing his studies in New York. The young couple married there before going to the Philippines, where Cobonpue’s father lay on his deathbed. The aspiring designer wanted to offer support to his mother, also in her business ventures, but his modern designs made no great impression on her regular clients. Furthermore, while Betty Cobonpue had always worked for other labels, Kenneth wanted to establish his own brand. Many complications ensued and, two years after he had joined the company, they still didn’t have one noteworthy order in the books. Buyers simply couldn’t imagine that a third-world country could produce attractive luxury goods.

This changed radically when the Filipino government started financing Cobonpue and seven other aspiring designers’ first exhibitions at international furniture trade fairs. Cobonpue’s moment had finally arrived, and he made the most of it by ensuring he featured an eye-catcher for the media to report about. To this day, he still prepares a special gimmick for each trade fair. His most remarkable object to date is the Phoenix, a full scale, eco-friendly automobile built from bamboo, rattan, steel, and carbon fiber for the Milan exhibition in 2011. Cobonpue has always been a car fanatic and delights in charging his Jaguar E-Type across the island on weekends. On our tour of the company, he shows us a fully equipped car repair shop where he can tinker at his prized vehicles whenever he needs a break from designing.

Along with the success, came the desire to return part of it to his country

Despite working with an excellent team, 80 percent of the designs still originate from Cobonpue’s hand, mainly because “the more I think about design, the more ideas I have.” These ideas are mainly inspired by travel and nature. Then, based on his concepts, the team creates prototypes that are discussed at length. One single veto is enough for them to start over again – the nifty bamboo bicycle leaning against the bookshelf in Cobonpue’s office is a case in point. Although it is already the third model, the team has decided to build another one. “In Europe, my concepts would be simulated on a computer, but here we prefer to make our dummies from real wire and paper,” is how Cobonpue explains his team’s approach to design. It can take up to a year for a new model to actually go into production. The meticulous procedure ensures that each and every one of the elaborate pieces of furniture is extremely comfortable – though they may not always appear to be so.

His brand has expanded so quickly that Cobonpue feels he would like to give something back – for example, by lecturing at the university. Or with his second label called Hive, a design collective in which like-minded creators get the opportunity to make designs for him. Both as a practicing Catholic and as the father of two teenage boys, he feels a deep sense of responsibility – a commitment that extends toward young Filipino designers whom he wants to inspire to follow their own star. “If I had to, I would do everything over again. Exactly the same.”

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