MANILA, Philippines?World-renowned Filipino furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue has designed what must be the first and only bamboo and rattan car in the world, and it?s drawing considerable curiosity and rave in an exhibit in Milan, Italy.
?Phoenix??the name Cobonpue has given his automobile design?has a form made of rattan, bamboo, steel and carbon fiber. It projects this era?s thrust towards artisanship and craftsmanship, biodegradability and environment-friendliness, as opposed to assembly-line production and high technology?the contrast between man?s handiwork and machine. By coincidence, the car is unveiled at a time when the world is facing the horrors of potential nuclear calamity, the fallout from a technology reduced at the mercy of nature.
Last month Phoenix was sent off to the ?Imagination and Innovation? exhibit in Via Tortona in Milan. The exhibit has invited designers and artists from all over to display their works in a museum-like setting. Cobonpue is among them. When the organizers saw Phoenix, they decided to display it in the front section of the exhibit area on the ground floor.
Phoenix echoes, in a way, the design of Cobonpue?s ?Yoda? chair, with rattan rods in seeming random arrangement. Yet Phoenix?s form and make have gone way beyond ?Yoda? or even the ?Voyage? canopy bed that gained global buzz for Cobonpue after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought it. (Pitt has acquired other Cobonpue pieces since ?Voyage.?)
Phoenix looks like a bird posed to take flight?a sleek bird. It has a vertebrae or spine that runs to the rear where it forms into a splay of rattan bundled with LED (Light Emitting Diode) rods to emit light; that?s the tail light. The rear is also the space for the car engine.
The sides are for the glass windows.
It took months to make the design, with a design apprentice from Germany helping develop it. (Cobonpue?s interior crafts firm accepts apprentices from different countries.) It took 10 days to build the car in Cobonpue?s factory in Cebu.
The car has no engine yet?which to Cobonpue, isn?t an insurmountable task. Cobonpue has long wanted to design and build a car.
?This is to show people that our design aesthetic goes beyond furniture, that as Asian we can extend even to designing transportation,? says Cobonpue in his showroom/factory/design workshop in Cebu City.
Many aren?t aware that Cobonpue?s passion, apart from design, is cars. He collects and tinkers with vintage cars, and with a group of vintage car collectors in Cebu, drives their prized possessions all over the Visayas now and then, braving road, weather and lifestyle conditions. Big boys obsessed with their toys, in short.
Cobonpue?s favorite is a Ferrari 1974. On one visit to his house, we saw how his vintage Porsche has a special sheltered existence in his Cebu home.
So designing a car is a natural thrust for Cobonpue. But his design perspective, born out of environment consciousness, is what?s interesting.
?It?s a challenge (to design a car),? explains Cobonpue. ?When you think about it, car building has been all about high technology, robots. But maybe you don?t need all that. It can be handmade. Cars outlive their purpose. How long do you keep a car? Five years or a little more? Then it goes to the junkyard.
?It is not environment-friendly. The cost of recycling (a car) is prohibitive. So why not build from a biodegradable material, the shell you can replace??
Cobonpue explains a yet bigger picture: ?We don?t have to do assembly line. This is to pay homage to craftsmanship and to the artisan? Today?s cars are built for speed, yet in the city you can?t really go very fast.?
Indeed, how often does one need super speed in one?s daily commute? Cobonpue also believes in small, light engine.
The Phoenix has been a purely creative exercise for Cobonpue?he?s not wracking his brain over manufacturing it. He hasn?t really thought of that.
Cobonpue is a designer (a graduate of Pratt Institute of Design in New York) who lives and breathes design, whose mind wanders around in terms of form (line, shape, volume), matter (his factory is a laboratory of materials, from rattan to microfiber fabric), substance (the perspective he promotes).
He?s a designer who?as he told the University of the Philippines graduating class of Fine Arts three years ago?wasn?t accepted into the College of Fine Arts when he was in college. As their commencement speaker, he told the graduates they were lucky to be graduating from Fine Arts because he himself couldn?t make the grade.
He was then sophomore in Business Administration at UP when he decided that he wanted to shift to industrial design in the College of Fine Arts. He didn?t make the grade because he couldn?t draw well enough.
?I couldn?t draw life-size statue,? Cobonpue recalls. ?So I quit school and spent half a year just learning to draw.?
This was in Cebu where the family lived and remains based. (It might be interesting to note that Cobonpue and Monique Lhuillier, now the famous fashion designer of Hollywood celebrities in Los Angeles, shared the same painting teacher.)
The middle child and oldest son in a brood of five, Cobonpue was born to Cebuano couple John and Betty who was into a broad range of businesses, from furniture export to real estate, travel agency. Cobonpue considers his father John, an MIT graduate in the US, his mentor in business, while it was his mother who exposed him to the world of design by bringing him to exhibits and expositions abroad.
?I was 26 when my father died,? Cobonpue recalls. ?I wanted to work and live in Germany until my dad died. I had to come home and I realized that he had a lot of businesses I didn?t know about.?
Among their businesses was furniture export that Cobonpue took interest in. Accompanying his mom to many furniture shows abroad, he took note of the fact that his mother always had her own designs, meaning the furniture export was more than a business to her?manufacturing furniture was a creative venture.
He considers his mother as his early influence in design??Not to be afraid to experiment, that?s what I learned from her,? Cobonpue says.
But it was his participation in Movement 8 in the ?90s that Cobonpue considers a turning point in his evolution as designer. Movement 8?a group of furniture and home-furnishing designers organized by then Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions head Eli Pinto and led by award-winning designer Budji Layug?eventually became a global brand after their works and the Movement 8 pavilions they designed in international expositions consistently won in those annual events, from New York to Germany.
Its pioneering members such as Carlo Tanseco who didn?t stay on with the group, have moved on to their own successes, while Layug, Cobonpue, Tes Pasola, Tony Rodriguez, Milo Naval, Ann Pamintuan, Luisa Robinson have been winning fame and markets here and abroad. (Movement 8 has had additional members in recent years.)
Cobonpue?s strongest design influence has been Movement 8. ?It showed me how we could take on the world,? Cobonpue talks about how he?s seen the Filipino designer grow in global stature. ?Before, when I used to attend these exhibits with my mom, the Philippines was always relegated to the back (of exhibit area), but that has changed.?
It?s noteworthy how Cobonpue, after his success in the world market, sees his learning as a designer.
?I?ve learned to be myself,? he says. ?I?ve gone around but it still makes me nervous to speak to a group of people. What am I selling? Myself. I shouldn?t be somebody I?m not. My work speaks for itself, like peeking into my mind. How it works.
?A brand, to me, is nothing but a story I tell over and over again. And what?s the story? It?s using natural materials and Filipino craftsmanship?the Filipino being second to none in this, I believe. I?ve gone around and no one can do the quality (we do)?the intricacy of the weave, the knitting process.?
Cobonpue is one designer who explores materials and works with them first, and second, he identifies or develops the craftsmanship to exploit the materials. Only after these two stages is the form or shape of his design determined.
From furniture to car, Cobonpue, now 41 years old, is looking forward to designing public structures the people can enjoy. He believes strongly that our landscape can use public structures designed by Filipino artists. For instance, he has designed street lamps for Panglao island, for the Tourism Department under then Secretary Ace Durano, but the plan has been shelved upon the change of administrations.
Perhaps not many visitors to his showroom notice that Cobonpue?s showroom/factory?which the family has had since the start of their business?has bad feng shui, to geomancy believers, at least. It is right beside the Carretta Cemetery and across from a funeral home. That?s a no-no in feng shui, death representing negative energy.
Cobonpue?s success and highly acclaimed innovations, however, have proved feng shui believers wrong.