Interview with internationally-renowned Filipino furniture maker

Kenneth Cobonpue

August, 2021

Kenneth Cobonpue is an internationally-renowned Filipino furniture maker who showcases high-end hand-crafted furnishing made of rattan, bamboo, and abaca. A multi-awarded furniture designer and manufacturer from Cebu, Kenneth Cobonpue studied Industrial Design at Pratt Institute in New York and apprenticed in Italy and Germany. He founded KENNETHCOBONPUE, a global brand with integrated design and manufacturing based in Cebu, Philippines, with offices in New York, Porto, and Munich. Asia Designers Directory interviews Kenneth Cobonpue to learn more about his journey towards becoming an acclaimed contemporary furniture maker, labelled by TIME magazine as “rattan’s first great virtuoso.”

You are a multi-awarded furniture designer with an impressive clientele boasting the likes of Hollywood celebrities and royalties. Did you ever think that you would gain such global acclaim when you first started out?

I never thought of making a name for myself when I first started out. I enjoyed making unique designs and making people smile whenever they see my work. I used to make things as a child for my mother and my friends, and that brought me joy. Design to me is an extension of my childhood.


You graduated in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute in New York and spent your early career in Italy and Germany before returning to your family’s furniture business in the Philippines. How did these experiences shape you as a designer and continue to influence your work today?

Growing up in Asia, studying in the USA, and working in Europe gave me a very good grasp of how the rest of the world lives. I discovered how Americans hold on to tradition and how Europeans love modernism. The nuances in style and culture also differ depending on which side of the island you lived in. I loved the openness and eclecticism of New York, understood how almost every German is a minimalist at heart, and saw why the Italians have a natural flair for fashion and design, for example. Combined with my Chinese and Filipino upbringing, this wide spectrum of experiences and life learnings shaped who I am today.


When you started the brand KENNETHCOBONPUE, you wanted others to identify it as made in the Philippines. Why was this important for you?

I was tired of having my designs sold and branded under different names all over the world.  Many designers in Asia who were doing beautiful and original work were treated no different from OEM manufacturers, and never got recognition for their designs. I wanted to change all that even at the risk of losing clientele. I knew that I have a unique story to tell to the world, and no one can share that better than me. So I set up my own distribution in major markets and set up offices all over the world. Today, there are numerous Southeast Asian designers and brands like myself who sell globally under their own name, giving the long-overdue credence to this region as a design powerhouse.


Your collections are rooted in nature and tradition. Through your products, you have introduced the world to the beauty of natural materials such as rattan and traditional craft techniques. How do you think your products impact the interior design scene?

The world has finally taken cognizance of the fact that we need to care for our environment. Responsibly disposing of the things that we buy is just one of the many things that people are now doing. I believe I was making sustainable furniture even before I understood what sustainable meant. The use of natural materials is part of my brand DNA. Combining the beauty of materials grown from the earth with traditional craft and modern handmade production techniques sums up who I am. Natural objects give warmth to the many steel, concrete, and glass environments we live and work in nowadays.


Do you think good furniture design can influence the overall quality of an interior space. And if so, how?

Good furniture design draws your eye to it, and invites you to try it out. As we build more and more spaces in record time, a lot of interior spaces today end up looking the same. A unique chair or table is not only a conversation piece, but it blurs the fine line between art and utilitarianism, and gives any space its own character.  


Can you take us through your creative process when conceptualising a new collection?

I can be inspired by many things like a dress I see, a leaf pattern, a botanical object, or even ideas culled from my travels, dreams, or childhood memories. I start out with sketches and small models to understand what I want to achieve. My team and I will do dozens of sketches for even a small piece. We then experiment with materials and build sections of the actual design. Then we conduct renderings on the computer and build full-scale models using wood, cardboard, wire or rattan. Then we go back to the drawing board and refine our ideas before we build the actual model. The final model will undergo testing, and it’s natural to go through several versions and iterations before we launch even a single product. This process can take up to a year. In fact, we still refine our designs years after their release just to keep them up to date with the market.


What are you working on at the moment?

In addition to the many collections I come up with every year, I am finishing a park outside of the city where I live in. I am planning my own signature residences and resorts project, and setting up a local online shop for unique and special gift items. I also make time to mentor young designers, and support them in their business endeavors. Education is very close to my heart, and I give talks on the business and art of design to budding entrepreneurs. I also volunteer my time working with organisations who lobby for the creative industry to be given the level of priority that it deserves here in my country.


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