Kenneth Cobonpue: The design genius puts perspiration over inspiration

One need not be a functional art aficionado or a furniture connoisseur to have spotted and appreciated a Kenneth Cobonpue creation. You may not know it, but you have probably seen an iconic chair or two in Hollywood hits (Ocean’s Thirteen, CSI), Netflix productions (Inventing Anna, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) and K-pop album covers (Seventeen, Blackpink).

I feel very proud to see them there,” the world-renowned Filipino industrial designer and manufacturer told DAILY TRIBUNE in an interview held at his brand’s flagship store in Greenbelt Residences in Makati City. He had just unveiled the latest collection with a video presentation ending with clips showing the different platforms where his pieces have appeared so far. “I only know about it after people tell me.”

But with success comes imitation, which, they say, is the highest form of flattery. “It’s a nice way of looking at it,” he said, laughing with his eyes disappearing into slits. “But I know. It’s always like that. My hope is that it influences the new generation of designers to design something unique and different.”

Cobonpue admitted having encountered some imitation pieces, and he just takes it as something that comes with the territory. “You just keep on moving,” he pointed out, adding that he takes it as a challenge to innovate more.”

How?“You always have to think about it, explore,” he replied. “It’s a discipline. Design is a discipline, just like a sport. Like dancing, you have to keep practicing to be good at it. It’s more perspiration than inspiration. You have to force yourself. It’s hard work. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Cobonpue, who hails from Cebu City, graduated in 1991 with a degree in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in New York City, U.S.A. He then took up further studies in Italy and Germany. In 1995, he returned to the Philippines to manage the furniture company put up by his mother Betty, a pioneering designer in rattan furniture. Three years later, he established his eponymous brand that went on becoming an international success.

His “masterful way of integrating nature, traditional crafts and technology” has earned him accolades, such as Japan’s Good Design Award, the Design for Asia Award and International Contemporary Furniture Fair Craftmanship Award. He has also been named the first Asian Designer of the Year by Maison et Object, while Time Magazine dubbed him in 2006 as “Rattan’s great virtuoso.”

In 2020, Cobonpue was given the highest honors by Cultural Center of the Philippines with the Gawad sa Sining Award for his outstanding contributions to Philippine culture and design.

What’s next?

The hardworking and unassuming design genius is not one to rest on his laurels; that’s why he keeps on inventing and reinventing his brand. For starters, it launched in 2022 the Kcurated line, which features smaller furniture pieces and accessories at affordable prices.

Cobonpue explained on how the new line came about. “We always had people [telling us], ‘You know, we can’t afford your furniture, but we want something. So, yeah, let’s make small objects. We don’t know if it will work or not. Let’s see. There’s so much effort and time. The margins are really lower. It’s all handmade and only available in the Philippines.”

As for the brand’s main line of products, there will be new pieces that range from furniture to sculpture. One sculpture that Cobonpue is quite proud and excited about is the Betty line that honors his mother, who served as his first inspiration and motivation.

Of course, the blockbuster pieces — Bloom, Yoda, Chiquita, Dragnet, to name a few — will always be there. After all, Cobonpue is an aspirational brand not just because it’s been featured in many Hollywood productions and celebrity homes, but for its incomparable beauty, artistry and durability.