“More fun things” are what design enthusiasts can expect this year from award-winning furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue.
Those words are from Cobonpue himself, but he was not just referring to the bamboo bike he designed for Bambike awaiting production; a soon-to-open hotel in Mactan called The Reef, which he worked on with Budji Layug and Royal Pineda; a resort project in Sorsogon; and even his very own, recently opened bar-lounge, Morals & Malice, in his beloved Cebu.
Cobonpue is set toward “more artistic, more fun pieces,” he told Inquirer Lifestyle recently, following his presentation of his latest designs at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. He’s expanding his lighting and home accessories line.
“We’ve always been in furniture, so our growth area is in lighting and accessories, which we haven’t really gone into full blast,” said Cobonpue, who’s also creative director of Hive, a design collective that started 15 years ago, creating lighting and home accessories. (Hive’s pieces can be seen at Cobonpue’s showroom in Makati.)
“We’re developing a lot of them this year. We’ll be launching a lot towards the end of the year,” he added.
At the center of his showroom in Greenbelt Residences were, face to face, two units of his new cocoon-like swivel chair/personal workspace called Savant. But in front of the shop facing Arnaiz Avenue were samplings of his so-called fun pieces.
Hovering above the outdoor-theme indoor showcase were the undulating lines of the Spina hanging lamp—a series of white powder-coated metal sheets on a steel frame, inspired by the form of the vertebrae.
On a curved work desk below sits Spina’s table version, a copy of which was gifted to the emperor of Japan on a recent state visit, said its designer.
Cobonpue also has his eye on the great commercial potential of lighting and accessories, which, he said, are “less difficult” to make, smaller in scale, and don’t require as much technical skill as making furniture.
“People are more experimental with buying lighting,” he said. “It’s not as expensive so you can be as creative in your purchase. “People will think twice about spending on a chair or a piece of furniture.”
He added: “In Manila FAME, there are a lot of interesting lighting designs, but very, very few really interesting furniture designs. In fact, Budji and I have been discussing, is there a really good young furniture designer out there? We can’t put a finger on one yet. But there are a lot of good lighting designers. It’s simpler to make a light. If I take a cardboard box, punch a hole on it and put a bulb, that’s a light. You can’t do that with a chair.”
The Cebuano designer has also updated the color palettes for some of his popular designs, like the Chiquita stool, which now comes in pastel colors. The Yin & Yang sofa, the first design in his collection, is now available in cerulean blue.
“We’re now in the pastel mode. Those were the colors of the furniture in Milan,” he said, adding, with mirth, “we show these things, but people will still buy the most boring ones, anywhere in the world. You show the orange and the red, and they’ll buy the gray or the beige one. It’s safe.”
The local market has been good to Cobonpue’s brand, though he continues to court the global markets, appearing in three back-to-back shows in the United States in May alone. He is also set to show his lighting and accessories in Paris in September.
“Of course, we’re affected by the downturn, even the luxury brands are,” he noted. “It’s not good now, especially as the price of oil has gone down, and there are no Arab buyers. But we’re still growing abroad, we haven’t slowed down.”
The core values of the Cobonpue brand—evidently the key to his enduring success—are constant reinvention, coming up with something new and fresh each season.
“The world doesn’t need another chair,” he pointed out. “Always search for a look that’s different, otherwise you can’t make your mark in the world… no one cares about you. Everything has been done. That’s why what we do is to keep reinventing what Filipino design is about, to make sure that there’s nothing like it in the world, and that it can only be produced in the Philippines—at a certain cost, of course.”
It’s easy to see how Cobonpue could be any aspiring Filipino furniture designer’s benchmark, with an impressive list of both commercial and private clientele, from hotels to restaurants and private homes around the world, as well as Hollywood movie sets and now, even popular Korean dramas.
Asked if he sees the next Kenneth Cobonpue in a new breed of furniture designers, he said: “In furniture, there are a few who create hits, but there’s no one that’s consistent. There’s no one that comes out with something nice season after season, year after year.”
Skill, talent, exposure, “a lot of things” could be lacking, he added. “It’s difficult, even for me… You need to mentor with somebody good—Budji was my mentor—because design isn’t a science. It’s very subjective so you need a good eye, you need a good mentor to lead you in the right direction.”