Kenneth Cobonpue: 7 Tips On What It Takes To Be A Designer
“The world doesn’t need another chair.”
Ironic, coming from a world-renowned furniture designer recently named as Maison et Objet’s 2014 Designer of the Year. In a clear and confident voice, Kenneth Cobonpue explained to the audience, “Design is a tough industry. You always have to find something unique, something different, that you can offer to the world in order for you to make it.”
Clad in a white polo and pants, a pair of perforated leather shoes, and a striking turquoise blazer, Kenneth Cobonpue stood before the attendees of the CREATE-Preneurs held last July 18, 2014 at Greenbelt 1’s Visionarium and talked about his journey as a designer. He went as far back as his childhood years, recalling how his mother encouraged him to make his own toys (“I used all the scrap materials to build things that rolled, crawled, sometimes flew. I built bridges over the fish pond so I failed many times.”), and into adulthood, when he discovered that design was his true calling.
He gave us a glimpse of the thought processes behind his most famous designs, as well, flashing photos of chairs that blossomed into flowers, a bed that seemed ready to sail into vast seas, a table with edges that tapered into what appeared to be book pages, and an airy gazebo that looked like a giant birdcage.
His story and his works are undoubtedly beautiful, but what was most admirable about him was his honest and level-headed views on the global design industry, which stemmed from his earlier experiences and struggles as a Filipino designer. “The first challenge was being Filipino…the second was that no one was really expecting a Filipino brand and product, so I had to impress people with design, quality, the style” he said, referring to the stigma that third world products had in developed countries.
This never stopped him from promoting his works as Filipino-made, though. In fact, it challenged him to work even harder to achieve his goal. “I wanted to make my own things. I was thinking to myself, is it really possible for a Filipino to make anything that’s valuable in the world of design?”
All throughout his talk, Kenneth Cobonpue shared small pieces of advice for aspiring Filipino designers – and, creatives in general – who want to carve out a name for themselves.
Kenneth Cobonpue: 7 Tips On What It Takes To Be A Designer
1. Always come up with something different.
This philosophy was ingrained in Cobonpue early on and led him to experiment with different natural products, such as rattan and abaca, to create unique furniture pieces. It was this kind of thinking that enabled him to achieve success abroad.
He recalled an instance when he was invited to the Milan Fair, one of the most prestigious furniture and lifestyle fairs in the world, and was informed that his pieces would be placed on the third floor, somewhere near the bathroom. Wanting to stand out from other designers, he conceptualized a car made out of bamboo, rattan, and steel.
“The organizers said ‘If you’re bringing a car, we’ll put you up there in front of everyone.’ This was challenging, we had to do it very fast,” he explained. They only had a few months to make it but he and his team pulled it off, producing a car called the Phoenix, which made waves in the design and automobile industry. “The idea that we could hand-make something that was different…I think the idea that you could use sustainable materials – that really shook the world.”
2. Creativity takes discipline.
The Cebu-born designer believes that the creative process is one of discipline. “It’s like any sport – you need practice,” he said. Asked what his daily routine was like, he said that he spent his mornings meeting with designers to work on new concepts. Afterwards, he met with people in the other operations to check on management and finances. “But design should be at the heart of everything I do,” he said.
Paolo Konst, who works for Cobonpue as a photographer and a member of the marketing team, also shared his thoughts on the matter: “Design is doing it every day. It takes a lot of time, tiis (endurance), and hard work. But when you do it everyday, you’re bound to get better.”
3. Inspiration comes from everywhere.
The silhouette of a tree, a flower in bloom, knitted sweaters, pasta noodles, Dimsum steamers, Yoda, and even a crushed Coke can – all of these have served as inspirations for some of Cobonpue’s most beautiful designs. He said that designers should actively seek and try out new things. “It’s not sitting there, waiting for inspiration. You have to set aside time each day to work on something. And many times, you’re sitting there, you feel that I can’t create something. It’s because you haven’t really found time to do it. It’s really true: it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”
4. Design with passion.
Cobonpue could not stress this enough. “Anyone who wants a career in design should do it because they have a passion for it, not to make money,” he said. “Because It’s a very, very tough industry. It’s even tougher because you’re Filipino; you’re from an Asian country.” Despite the challenges this imposed, Cobonpue said that he had never considered branding himself otherwise. He made sure that people knew that his products were made from native products and that they were all crafted in the Philippines.
5. Find a mentor.
Having studied design abroad, in notable institutions like the Pratt Institute in New York and the Export Akademi Baden-Württember in Germany; Cobonpue knows the value of having experts who can validate and criticize your work. “You have to work with mentors, learn from good people. Design is subjective, and if it’s subjective you need someone to teach you how to see, how to understand things, how to design, how to work,” he said.
6. Design should go hand in hand with entrepreneurship.
Thinking of building a business out of your design works? According to Cobonpue, half of designing is really business. It means, first and foremost, creating a product that you believe in and that’s well-made, because “if you don’t believe in it, then it isn’t anything!” After that, it’s about building the brand or the story behind it, and re-telling it over and over again.
“A designer should really learn how to do business,” said Cobonpue, who has had his works featured in Hollywood movies like Ocean’s Thirteen and Made of Honor. He also has an impressive roster of clients, which includes A-list stars like Brad Pitt and Lucy Liu. “I’ve always been stressing that in design curriculum there should be as much emphasis on the business side of things, not just all creativity,” he said.
Musician Bob Dylan once said, “An artist must be careful to never think he has arrived somewhere, he must always be in a constant state of becoming.” Cobonpue said something similar when I caught up with him after the talk. Asked if would ever consider designing a piece of furniture and naming it after himself, he answered with a serene smile: “I don’t think I would ever name anything after myself. That would mean that my work stops there. I’m always evolving – the things I design now look very different from what they were when I first started….It’s very easy to be successful at what you do and keep on doing it because you know it sells. But I always try to be different, to be creative, to get people to always guess what’s going to come next.”
We can keep wondering what new creations Kenneth Cobonpue will bring to the table, but we can be certain of one thing: that is that he will continue to push the envelope for design in the Philippines and the world. His dream extends to others who are willing to take on the challenge of raising the bar for Philippine-made products: “We need more people who are out there to really define what Philippine design is all about. It’s my wish for more designers to add to the definition of what the world knows of Philippine design.”
The talk, entitled ‘CREATE-Preneurs: Design Thinking for Filipinos for 2020 and Beyond,’ was organized by Quriocity, an organization made up of alternative learning specialists, which is a project WorldRoom group.
Find out more about Kenneth Cobonpue on his website: www.kennethcobonpue.com