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Kenneth Cobonpue: The Best of Many Worlds

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“I took up design because I wanted to make the world smile. I wanted to make everyone happy,” Kenneth Cobonpue, the Philippines’ most famous and sought after industrial designer confessed. It’s a simple reason that gave birth to designs that defy simple descriptions. So it’s not surprising that Cobonpue too moves effortlessly past simplistic categorizations and rests easily among seemingly conflicting definitions of what he does and who he is.

Made in the Philippines

As a child of a traditional Chinese businessman and a successful furniture designer in Cebu, it’s not surprising that Cobonpue’s sensibilities are a combination of creativity and pragmatism. On one hand, he learned the importance of trusting his instincts and the innate business sense of the Chinese from his father, and on the other, his mother encouraged him to follow his heart and to nurture the desire in him to create beautiful things. 

Perhaps this is why Cobonpue’s furniture designs are provocative, like works of art that are made to be admired from a certain distance. But he would be the first one to invite you to use them, to come and sit or lie down on them. And it’s always a pleasant surprise to find that they are amazingly comfortable, and designed to be “sellable.” Industrial design, after all, according to Cobonpue, is a combination of both the arts and the commercial worlds.

Cobonpue acknowledges that this back and forth between the heart and mind is one of the advantages of growing up in a traditional Chinese home because he got to grow up learning from both his father and mother. This upbringing has become a part of him and everything that he has done and continues to do. 

The first design that signaled Cobonpue’s trajectory into the world of furniture design was the Yin and Yang. “This was my first breakthrough design. It was a very simple cubic structure that was open and transparent,” he said. He made this as part of a group of Filipino designers called Movement Eight, founded to establish the Philippines as an active participant in the world’s high-end consumer market. They participated at the Feria Internacional del Mueble in Valencia, Spain in 1999. Cobonpue’s Yin and Yang was a hit, and the rest was history.

“I think that we Chinoys are a mix of different cultures,” Cobonpue mused. “All the more in my family because I grew up in a Chinese Family, and then I went to study in America and, eventually, Europe. I think I got to know the whole world now, and every design of mine has a world outlook — although rooted in tradition in the hand craftsmanship that I use comes from the Philippines.” 

Cobonpue had to come back home to Cebu when his father passed away and took over his businesses. And though the transition wasn’t easy, “I think in hindsight, if I stayed in Europe or the United States, I wouldn’t be able to create this brand,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to find myself if I didn’t go back to where I came from.”

The Modern Chinoy

For Cobonpue, his roots are important in his craft and his worldview. Being Chinoy for him goes beyond being an identity, it is a wellspring of inspiration and something to own and be proud of. 

“A modern Chinoy to me, it’s a combination of mind and heart. He is a person who has a very who is rooted in his tradition in history, who understands it and yet is very global in his outlook,” he said. 

As world-renowned as he is, Cobonpue encountered many challenges in his journey as an artist and an entrepreneur. “There’s just a belief that a Western brand is superior to an Asian one,” he shared ruefully. There’s a lot of prejudice in the design industry and a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment, especially in Europe and in America. “And this is one of the pitfalls of being Chinoy. The fact that I look Chinese reinforces that prejudice and I always have to go against that. On top of that, there’s also a prejudice against things that are Filipino. It’s very hard to expect anything luxury coming out of the Philippines. And this is something I’m always up against — something that I’m trying to fight every day,” he confessed. “It’s not a fight only for myself but for the entire country.”

For the younger modern Chinoys, Cobonpue shares three things that they need to succeed in this world:

First, it’s hard work. “Nothing can be achieved without hard work. Being Chinoy, that’s just drilled right into you.” 

The second is passion. “I believe everything you do should be inflamed with a passion and that you should enjoy what you’re doing.” 

The third is determination. “You will fail many times. It’s important to rise up again and to continue on the path you’re headed for.”

Being Chinoy means having an inherent mix of creative and almost liberal, almost western culture from living in the Philippines with another culture that embraces the ethics of Confucian ideals, of hard work, determination, and respect for elders. 

“And I think this combination is great,” Cobonpue concluded. “It allows you to become a global person anywhere you go. It allows you to to understand the world in a way that perhaps no other person can. You have to use these resources in order to try to make something unique, something different out of yourself.”

Catch the episode on Kenneth Cobonpue this Sunday on CNN Philippines at 8pm. 1CH1NOY: Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart is only on CNN Philippines via Free TV Channel 9, Sky Cable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10. It will also simultaneously air on CNN Philippines’ webpage www.cnnphilippines.com. Find out more on Chinoy TV’s official website: www.chinoy.tv

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