Kenneth Cobonpue: Conquering the world of furniture

By Caroline J. Howard, ANC

Posted at Jan 12 2011 10:44 AM | Updated as of Jan 13 2011 01:01 AM

MANILA, Philippines - All-original, modern and awe-inspiring yet functional pieces, carefully crafted using local, natural and indigenous materials.

These are the trademarks of furniture virtuoso Kenneth Cobonpue, the man behind a brand known not only here in the Philippines, but also in several parts of the globe.

For one, his creations have been featured in several American films and shows, and can also be seen in the home of Hollywood's most popular couple -- Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

"I never thought a furniture designer (like myself) would become famous," said the Cebu-based designer on ANC's Headstart.

Inspired by nature

Cobonpue's furniture, all inspired by plants and other living things, serve as his attempt to put the natural environment "indoors."

"In the beginning, I was looking at nature and I was trying to analyze what makes nature so beautiful. It's actually the interplay of branches, leaves and foliage. And when light hits the leaves, it becomes more beautiful. And I wanted to catch that in furniture design in a small way," he explained.

The Bloom chair, made from microfiber, is one of Cobonpue's latest designs. Taking the shape of a flower, it won the Coup de Coeur award at Maison et the Objet in Paris, besting thousands of entries.

Just a few weeks ago, Queen Rania of Jordan bought this award-winning chair.

"Design is a great metaphor for life being simple, devoid of decoration. Everything around it should support it. Nothing superfluous, that's what I try to do with my designs," Cobonpue said.

It was his mother who encouraged him to stick to creating unique pieces from natural materials. After studying industrial design at the Pratt Institute in New York, Cobonpue decided to give a modern twist to his furniture.

"My mom invented the technique working with rattan and she has an invention patent for that. So when I got back, I created pieces using that technique, but I realized it wasn't me. So I decided to experiment with other natural materials to create a very modern look," he shared.

A magnet for imitation

Aside from appearances in film and television, Cobonpue's creations deck the interiors of some of the world's most plush and modern hotels and resorts in Greece, Spain, Mexico, Dubai and Maldives.

The popularity of these same pieces, however, has also made the brand a magnet for imitation. Cobonpue admitted that going to court to defend his original idea currently takes much of his time.

"I go to court twice a month now. The industry is having a difficult time because of the rise of China. We're still trying to find our own identity. And Filipinos, when we rip off our own designs, it's like cannibalism. There's so much design waiting to be discovered that there's no reason why you should copy. And they're even bad copies," the furniture designer lamented.

Beyond furniture

Despite being a household name, there's still no stopping Cobonpue.

After his self-titled brand and Hype (a lighting and accessories line), he now has Level K, which offers more affordable furniture for smaller spaces.

On top of these, Cobonpue has taken up a new project -- a car made of bamboo and carbon fiber.

"The first model is very conceptual. We'll present it maybe in Milan or in Paris this year or next year, then we'll do one that really works," he said.

With all that he has achieved and will achieve in the future, the 42-year-old maintains that he will always go home to Cebu, the country's furniture capital.

"I'm based in Cebu and will never leave Cebu," he stressed.

He may have reached international fame by conquering the world of furniture, but Cobonpue is still a Filipino at heart.