Kenneth Cobonpue has a list of A-list clients that love his fun and unique furniture designs. From Queen Rania of Jordan to Brad Pitt, those who appreciate the young furniture maker’s work all have one thing in common… an appreciation for the whimsical. His work has also been featured on many television program sets among which are CSI Miami, Elementary, and Nip/Tuck.
In the past, the Filipino furniture maker said that his dream client was Indiana Jones. Cobonpue told Forbes (courtesy of an article by Kristin Tablang), “He was an explorer and thrill-seeking pioneer who merged indoor and outdoor living, as my designs encourage people to do. For him I would design pieces inspired by the natural world, in a twisted and fun way.”
Cobonpue himself was not surprised that he veered into furniture making; his mother was herself a furniture maker and always his biggest cheerleader and mentor. He says that he always wanted to create, “As a boy, I built most of my own toys with the help of the craftsmen and artisans that surrounded me. Never content playing with generic, store-bought products, he made things that crawled, rolled, and flew – from scratch. “It was an incredibly happy time, and I wanted the expression of creativity from my childhood to last forever, so I decided to make it my life’s work.”
Interestingly, the designer’s professional design arsenal did not include drawing, a skill obviously necessary for what he wanted to do. Thus, Cobonpue took a year off after high school in order to learn how to draw under the tutelage of individual artists. After accomplishing what he meant to learn, the artist was accepted to New York’s Pratt Institute. He proceeded to graduate with an honors degree in Industrial Design. Following gradation, Cobonpue moved back to the Philippines to take over his family business and infuse his innovate ideas into the company. Rapidly, Cobonpue’s brand became one of the most important luxury furniture companies in Asia due to their offerings of high-end, hand-crafted home furnishings.
Cobonpue says that he is most inspired by travel; as such, he makes sure to travel abroad at least twice a year. He says that another inspiration for him are the people who surround him. The craftsmen he works with are proud of their artistry, and he carries that feeling into his designs. He remarks, “There is nothing that a pair of skilled hands can’t create with. The inspiration I find in the strength of the human spirit is one commonality that will never change.”
The designer is careful not to get “boxed into” one particular design aesthetic. Cobonpue’s early pieces were made with natural fibers; but his designs shifted naturally to include other mediums. Some chairs are made from fishermen’s nets with fabric that is twisted and wrapped around a steel frame while some lights use the Japanese art of origami to create hand-folded paper frames.
Part of the reason Cobonpue’s designs are so unique is because he never draws lines; rather “he follows nature’s contours.” The designer is able to do this because he is adept at mixing nature, revolutionary technologies, and the traditional artistry of South Asia. The furniture maker also understands that what people want is a hybrid of indoor-outdoor furnishings. For Cobonpue, this is not unusual as he grew up in a tropical location and has been surrounded by natural elements. However now more than ever, people are blurring the lines between the “in” and the “out.”
Slowly however, Cobonpue realized that he needed to replace natural fibers with recyclable polyethylene in order to allow the furniture to withstand the outdoor elements. Consequently, he worked hard to ensure that the same aesthetics were maintained. His factory is located in five old warehouses that are partitioned according to expertise; this ranges from metalworking to weaving to upholstering. He has over 300 craftspeople under his umbrella.
Cobonpue and his design team typically start with a three-dimensional model in addition to a dozen swatches prior to building the actual model from rudimentary materials. In advance of building even one piece, a lot of experimentation and exploration of materials is necessary. He says (courtesy of an article for Nuvo Magazine by Shonquis Moreno), “But because the process is very three-dimensional, my designs have a sculptural and spatial feel. I think they would turn out very differently if I only worked on a computer or on paper.”
Cobonpue stays true to the lessons his mother taught him… that “originality, superb craftsmanship, and following his heart” is worth everything.