By Angela Casco
In a world full of conversation pieces, there is one piece that says “You have arrived!”—a Cobonpue masterpiece, bar none. Whether that is the classic Bloom Chair (it catches your attention and makes everything around it “blurry”), the grass-inspired Yoda Chair (sat on by world leaders during the 2015 APEC Summit in Manila), or the Star Wars-themed Imperial Tie Armchair, there is a history to trace, a heritage profile to raise, and a design master to praise.
Kenneth Cobonpue from Cebu stands as a legend in the furniture world. His works are often copied, his products illegally reproduced, and his profile envied by foreigners. Yet Cobonpue stayed true to his roots, using organic and raw materials abundantly found in the countryside, and bending, stitching, weaving, and melting them to produce furniture pieces that are “museum-quality” but functional and sturdy for day-to-day use.
Cobonpue rose to fame in the late ’90s. He started with challenges when he joined his family’s business in Cebu. He did not imitate what he was already seeing in the market back then. He made his designs very Filipino (a brave act at that time) with a global outlook—like a craftsman who was looking forward to conquer the world, yet had his roots firmly planted in his hometown. And like a Hollywood movie, he got his break when his works on the movie sets attracted the attention of actors, members of royalty, and the VVIPs. Soon, Cobonpue was all over the world, accepting one award after another, including being the first Filipino to win a Design for Asia Award in 2005 for his Lolah Collection, the first Asian Designer of the Year awardee at the inaugural edition of Maison & Objet Asia, and being dubbed the “Rattan’s First Virtuoso” by TIME Magazine back in 2007.
Despite being an award-winning and critically acclaimed designer, Cobonpue never forgot his roots—and it is now his moment to give back.
“[I am] helping design new stalls for [Cebu City street vendors] that would be sturdier, practical, efficient, and reflective of Cebu,” he tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “Ideally, the roof will resemble old native Filipino houses with a contemporary twist. It will capture the fun revelry Cebu is known for, and what tourists come here for. We want the night market in Colon Street to be merry and inviting.”
On why he accepted the project to design—free of charge and with willingness to “make himself available to be consulted” (such as his contribution to the NAIA 1 facelift)—Cobonpue’s response reads like it’s a matter-of-fact, like it’s what he always wanted to do:
“I just want to help.”
Cobonpue’s works made him a master as he has proven that Filipino creativity, ingenuity, and craftsmanship can stand high above the shoulders of the dominant furniture makers abroad. But what he is doing for the country, especially for the “small” ones, is the stuff of legends—making him, and not only his works, as conversation pieces for years to come.