Kenneth Cobonpue brought Filipino furniture design to the world stage. Now the revered designer has plans to grow his signature style into new realms.
“Design can change the lives of many people – not only in this part of the world, but also outside,” says Cebu-based industrial designer Kenneth Cobonpue. His future-forward design integrates modern aesthetics with locally sourced organic fibres, and builds on skillfully honed hand-made production techniques.
“My first designs were personal experiments of form,” says the nature-inspired designer. Views of forests and foliage, and layers of branches and leaves allowed Cobonpue to work with the idea of interlocking twigs and leaves – exposing structure and capturing space in a volume. As part of Movement 8, a collective of product designers interested in pushing the boundaries of contemporary Filipino design, Cobonpue toured the world at the turn of the millennium, helping spread the word on Southeast Asian design throughout the globe. His use of light skeletal frames began the transparent woven look that has become his signature – something that set him apart from the rest of the world.
“People didn’t expect our unique aesthetic – combining modern design with natural materials all made by hand,” he says. “Modern design from China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea is not very different from European design because of similar economies and industries. Southeast Asia, on the other hand, with its reliance on natural materials and labour-intensive production methods, will always be different.” The organic materials, fibres, and handmade quality sets this part of Asia apart from the rest, he adds.
Since Movement 8, Cobonpue’s furniture has garnered international acclaim, wining citations from the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, and the rest of the world. With the travel and resort industry as the biggest boosters of Asian design, Zen-inspired spas and spaces have proliferated across the continent. “The natural lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with handcrafted furniture and accessories,” he explains. “When people take vacations in Bali or Phuket, they want to take back home a part of the Southeast Asian culture – and that means Asian furniture.”
“It’s a constant search for the next new structure, material or idea,” he says. “My team and I spend months experimenting with weaves, surfaces, and models to come up with a design that takes more than a year to finish.” To date, Cobonpue finds his Yoda chair to be most representative of his style, while his Dragnet chair offers a point of departure from his early designs.
2011 has Cobonpue experimenting once again, broadening his range with new materials and concepts. “I am turning to a material we all know – fabric,” he says. “The furniture world has not really gone beyond wrapping cloth over forms or structures. I want to design furniture using fabrics that look animated.” Banking on the skill and diligence of Filipino craftsmen, Cobonpue merges this new concept with his iconic Bloom chair.
Branching out of furniture is an unspoken certainty for the designer. “Transportation and architecture fascinate me,” he says. “I have a prototype of a streetlamp fashioned out of bamboo, standing on our factory grounds. I am also working on a vehicle made out of carbon fibre and bamboo; plus a few interior architecture projects underway.”
Design for the rest of Southeast Asia is another concern for the designer, who believes that China will play a big role in determining the region’s future. “Right now, its market is leaning towards Western brands,” he says. “Asian design needs to find its own identity. We are losing the battle for heart and mind right in our own continent. “
On a more personal level, Cobonpue says that the challenge in product design lies in having people share your vision. A successful design allows people to share in one’s philosophy and process of creation. “Product design is a process of creation. It’s taking a figment of your imagination and making it tangible.” kennethcobonpue.com