It was not the childhood dream of Cobonpue to become a furniture designer. “I wanted to do something creative. I really didn’t think about furniture. When I was just starting out, I just wanted to be a designer. Nothing in particular,” he shared.
Born and based in Cebu, he said his family used to have a furniture factory at the back of their house. As a child, he would always go there, pick up pieces of wood and start building small structures. “I worked with my hands,” he added.
Cobonpue’s mother, Betty, was also a furniture designer, whom he considers his first inspiration. She was famous for creating new techniques in working with rattan. She experimented with different materials, such as rattan, metal, terra cotta, brass and copper. Despite all the local recognitions his mother received, she was never recognized for her designs abroad. It pains him as a son.
A familiar scenario in Chinese families, Cobonpue was “encouraged” to study business. He went to University of the Philippines Diliman and tried to do just that. After two years, he realized that it just wasn’t for him. He then applied in the Fine Arts program, which at that time offered Industrial Design. He failed the entrance exam. “I couldn’t draw well enough,” he said.
Better opportunities came his way when he flew to New York and studied Industrial Design. He went on for further studies on furniture production in Italy and Germany. Upon returning to his homeland, his mastery in technical design was challenged by the abundance of the country’s raw natural materials and its skilled craftsmen.
“I had to marry what I’ve learned to what we have. It was very difficult,” admitted Cobonpue. His early attempts at furniture design drew from his mother’s, but the results left him disheartened.
Nature’s beauty then played a big role in the maturing of his craft, the realization that all of the world’s greatest monuments were built by hands leaving a deep impact. He skillfully captured the essence of nature in his first chair, 1998’s Yin & Yang. Looking at his first “offspring” in the world of furniture design, he said to himself: “I’ve found it.”
According to Cobonpue, he was able to fuse a form typically associated with Western design, like that of Le Corbusier and Hoffman, with something that was decidedly Asian. Later on, he began to experiment with different materials like rattan. “I always believe that it’s only in working with your hands that you begin to understand and discover things.”
Cobonpue owns up to a perfectionist streak, but he has learned “to let some of that go,” learning that in the end “you have to give up something.” Purpose in a design is what Cobonpue always bears in his mind. “There’s nothing there that should be decorative. Everything is about the structure,” he added.
Describing the current situation of the Philippine furniture industry, he said the industry is going through tough times and urged designers to be more creative. “Almost everyone is doing the same thing. We’re running out of materials in the country. I think we have to go against that,” he said.
Moreover, he foresees fewer designers staying in the business. “The ones that will remain are the stronger ones, the good ones. Ten years ago, there were just too many companies going into the furniture industry that we came to a point where everyone was trying to kill the other.”
He remains optimistic, however, and is convinced that the furniture industry remains most promising. “It’s not only important that you have good products; you also have to know how to market them. There are a lot of good products done by local craftsmen but they are just not marketed well. It’s not enough that you design well; you have to know how to sell your work.”
Cobonpue considers the furniture industry as “one of the remaining few that can propel the Philippines onto the global stage,” he explained.
The artist takes pride in saying that the country’s furniture designers are better than their counterparts in Asia because we have an understanding of natural materials. He recognizes the craftsmen’s skills as they laboriously work with their hands. He also sees the need for further training of local designers, the push for their continuing education and exposure.
For a perfect respite, Cobonpue enjoys driving his vintage cars. He admits that he is an avid collector and has four thus far. One of his current projects, by the way, involves building a car out of bamboo and carbon fiber.
If he were not a designer, he shares, his career will still have something to do with the creative. He also has a passion for writing, although he wishes that he can write about things beyond his philosophy as a designer. When we asked him to cite one piece from his designs that has a soft spot in his heart, he offered the Dragnet chair. “It was a departure of me from the works that I’ve been known for,” he said.
As for our favorite Cobonpue, the Yoda, he said: “We took so many months just to figure out how many stalks to use and to find the right angle to which the metal should stop to be sure that somebody who is 300 pounds or 50 pounds can sit and lean back. Everything in the design of our chairs is calculated.” That alone separates his works from the counterfeits. “People who don’t understand can’t do!”
A single collection would often take a year, at best, to finish—from conceptualization, production and distribution. His list of A-list celebrity clientele continues to expand, and now includes Lucy Liu and a lot of music artists in the US. An update to Brad Pitt’s purchases: Cobonpue said the actor bought five other pieces over a period of three to four years.
To an established designer like Cobonpue, a good designer is one who understands the market. “It’s a tough profession. You have to sell yourself. You have to understand what you do,” he said. It’s the uniqueness of product, the degree of craftsmanship and the compelling design that make his works stand out.
A lot of his inspiration springs from the people he meets during talks and exhibits, especially fellow Filipinos who would come up to him and say, “You give pride to our country.” His talk at the Ayala Museum, which we were lucky to attend, proved how highly regarded he is by Filipinos.
“We only expected 200 people to come but more than 500 people turned up. Nobody expected it because we thought only design aficionados would come, or students who were required to attend. Of course, it’s summer and school is out, so there was no requirement. That makes me proud.”
Cobonpue is more than proud of his country, which is why he has decided to stay. “I’ve gone to China and Malaysia to see if I could produce my things there. But it’s only here where my ideas can turn out the way I really want them to, and that is largely because of the skills of our people,” he said.
“When it comes to skills, we’re second to none in Asia. We make beautiful things that we can truly call our own. That is what I want to accomplish with my pieces. I always carry that Filipino spirit and have it resonate through my work.”