Thursday, October 13, 2011

Conquering the World, One Design at a Time

Originally published in Pinoycentric on April 16, 2007

Kenneth Cobonpue needs no introduction to people who know furniture and design. The Cebu-born furniture designer went to Pratt Institute in New York and apprenticed in Florence, Italy, and Munich, Germany, for woodworking, upholstery, and cabinet making. Aside from winning the 2005 Design for Asia Award for his Lolah collection, Kenneth's craftsmanship has been acknowledged in the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, the Singapore International Furniture Design Competition, IIDA/Hospitality Design Product Competition, and the High Point Show. He is also a member of Movement 8, a select group of Filipino designers.

Kenneth is also known for his A-list clientele, including Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, who bought one of his Voyage beds, and Warner Brothers, which commissioned him to furnish a casino set for the movie Ocean's Thirteen.

In this Innerview, Kenneth talks about the design process, growing up with a mother who is also a furniture designer, and his aversion to feng shu.

Pinoycentric: You once said, in an interview with Generation Rice, that you grew up with the smell of lacquer, wood, and varnish, so we can probably say you were “destined" to be a furniture designer because your mother was also into furniture design. But had you had not chosen this path, what would you be doing now? Was there a conscious effort to pursue other inclinations?
 Kenneth Cobonpue: I think every kid harbors a secret desire to blaze a trail completely different from his parents and still make them proud in the end. As a teenager, I was very fascinated with plays and musicals. It’s amazing how you can transport people in a couple of hours to another world under stage lights. I found out that the world of design is like that no matter what field you are. With my furniture, I see people react and connect to them in ways I never imagined possible. And that’s what makes my work worthwhile.

How does the design process go for you? Do you have "a-ha!" moments that you can share with us? How long does it take to come up with a design (from design to prototype)?

The design process can take a month to a year to come into fruition. And even then, it never stops. I still find myself tweaking my original designs 10 years down the line. We usually start with the material and play with it like children. We approach everything three-dimensionally and we build models from the early stages of the design process. That’s why my designs have a very sculptural feel about them. My team and I go through “a-ha” moments, only to be doused with water along the way when we start thinking about cost, manufacturability, and stability. But we always pull through in the end.

A furniture consultant once said that a furniture designer can never get too attached to his designs. Do you agree with this?

On the contrary, every design of mine is like a special child that enters into the world complete with its share of birth pains. After I baptize them with names, I never agree to have them renamed or redesigned by other people. I tell people who want to change my designs to go and make babies on their own.

Do you have one particular design that you loathe selling? Can you tell us the story behind it?
I have these chairs that look like your generic Ikea design wrapped in leather. They sell so well, but I don’t want to even have anything to do with it.

With Brad Pitt's having bought one of your designs, the entire Philippines suddenly took notice of you. How did you feel about this?
Brad Pitt has five of my designs in his collection, which he bought over three years. The press caught on to it only last year. It’s kind of ironic that you need a celebrity to validate your work in most parts of the world. But that’s just the way it is.

How has your increasingly popularity and the fact that you're from Cebu City helped the local furniture industry to establish a global niche?
With increasing competition from China and our other Asian neighbors, I like to think that I showed fellow Filipinos an alternative way to win in the global market by not thinking about quantity but quality. Design is the last competitive advantage that the Philippines has when it comes to manufacturing objects.

Most of your designs can be afforded by only the rich, which may have some people thinking of you as too elitist. Is there a conscious effort to break away from this mold? Are you coming up with less-expensive and affordable designs too? Do you also envision every Filipino family having a Cobonpue design at home?
Every designer dreams of creating something that everyone can afford, including me. It’s just not possible right now because my factory cannot produce goods of superior quality in high volumes. Designing things for every Filipino home is high up on my list of things to do before I expire.

Do you also also take feng shui into account when you're designing? Do you apply it in your home? How do you balance design theory and feng shui?
I think feng shui as we know it today should be a natural and subconscious extension of one’s way of life. Either you live your life in a peaceful and contented way or you don’t. No amount of furniture switching and mirrors can change your life. I loathe at the thought of hiring a feng shui expert to re-arrange your life according to invisible forces in the universe that you know nothing of.

Can you give us three "fast tips" on designing a home? What should one remember when arranging furniture? What colors should one stay away from? What colors should one gravitate toward?
Design is a lot like life. You have to get your values and priorities in place. When designing a home, you need to know what the dominant or focal point of the whole scheme is. It’s the plot in a story, the refrain in a song, the long neck of a giraffe. Every other element in the home should visually support that dominant piece. That’s why museums are painted in appropriate colors to highlight the pieces on display, places of worship are quiet so you can listen to your Creator speak, and drum rolls precede smashing cymbals.

You have made the world take notice of the Filipino designer with your creations. What do you think aspiring designers should do to achieve world-class standards like you have?
In order to be noticed by the world, you have to offer something unique. The world has enough of everything. You can start by taking inspiration from others or by even borrowing. But you have to look inside you and transform it into something personal and unique until you can call it your own. In my case, it was the combination of natural materials, organic modern design, and innovative craftsmanship.

The PinoyCentric tagline goes: "All things brown and beautiful," pertaining, of course, to the Pinoy and the Philippines. What makes Kenneth Cobonpue distinctly "brown" (not literally, of course) and "beautiful"?
My designs are usually brown because of the materials I use. (Laughter) Seriously, everything about me is Filipino from the materials I use, the craftsmen who make them, and the inspirations my designs come from. I think the most beautiful thing about my adventure is that Filipino design culture has finally become global.

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