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How Cebu became centre for world-beating design

When Filipino designer Kenneth Cobonpue presented his first collection in Europe in 1999, his peers were nonplussed. “People were saying, ‘Who is this guy? He’s from where?’ He was like an alien,” recalls Frederic Bougeard, the commercial and development director for Maison Objet, an interior design fair with shows in Paris.

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It didn’t take long for them to come around to Cobonpue’s work, and these days the 48-year-old Cebu native is the Philippines’ best-known furniture designer, renowned for the way he weaves contemporary form with traditional craft techniques and natural fibres. He isn’t alone. A small but dynamic group of designers and manufacturers in Cebu is tapping into the island province’s heritage of weaving, woodworking and inlaying to create unique furniture and home accessories.

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Cobonpue studied design in New York in the late 1980s before moving to Europe for apprenticeships and further studies. But it wasn’t until he moved back to Cebu in 1996 to take over his family’s furniture factory that he found his true calling. “I wanted to show people that the Philippines can offer something new to design,” he says.

In 1999 Cobonpue founded Movement 8 with several other designers who wanted to underline how contemporary design could use materials such as palm, abaca and rattan, which are widely available in the Philippines. What made the movement possible was the way craft and design intersects in the Philippines.

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In Cebu, many designers run their own factories and workshops, taking advantage of local craftsmanship that has been passed down through the generations.

“People here are more artistic, more open-minded [than workers elsewhere in the world],” says Cobonpue. His workers design and build their own chairs, a practice that isn’t unique to his factory. “They love to do something new. Here, craftsmen always try to put their own touch on what they make.”

Another veteran of Movement 8 is Italian-born Carlo Cordaro, who arrived in Cebu in the early 1990s to rescue a failing veneering factory. He ended up winning a lucrative contract to do finishing work on furniture for a hotel in Verona, Italy, which led to him becoming a designer himself.

His brand, Atelier A, makes pieces based around materials including coconut palm, which has a texture that resembles the lines of an etching.

The craftsmanship is just as remarkable as the materials. Cordaro recalls meeting one of his clients, Francois Roche of Roche Bobois, who, upon examining one of his products, said, “Are you sure you are doing this in the Philippines?” Cordaro replied: “I can do this only in the Philippines.”

His words are echoed by the French-Filipino siblings behind La Galuche, a stingray shagreen specialist just down the road from Cordaro’s factory in the town of Mactan.

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In 1982 their father arrived from France and realised there could be overseas demand for the local skills in shagreen. “Our dad was a gemologist and he came to Cebu for coral, and from jewellery he moved into jewellery boxes,” says Laelany Pasquet, who has run the company with her brother, Dean, since 2009. The company’s name is a play on the French word for shagreen, galuchat.

La Galuche now makes shagreen, goatskin parchment and seashell furniture for clients including Dutch design firm Cravt Original.

“We do it here because there are three generations who have been doing the same production,” says Pasquet. “There are a few [other] countries doing shagreen, but they don’t have the technique or the skills.”

Down a series of rutted roads on the outskirts of Cebu City, a worker sorts through a sack of seashells. Another nearby polishes the shells while others cut and glue them onto wood furniture, creating inlay patterns that, from a distance, could be mistaken for particularly exuberant varieties of marble.

Other shells find their way onto lamps, chandeliers and mirrors.

“We try to be unique because if it’s the shells you see in the street markets, it can be quite kitschy,” says Joan Wang, a third-generation Cebuano and the founder of Catalina, which specialises in products made with shell. The shells are collected by recyclers after they are discarded by the seafood industry. People in Cebu have been using them for years to make products.

“When I was in grade school in the ’60s, our Belgian nuns were making shell jewellery and bracelets [to fund] livelihood projects,” says Wang.

Back at Cobonpue’s workshop in the heart of Cebu City, workers are twisting stalks of abaca – a kind of hemp native to the Philippines – into bulbous armchairs. Cobonpue’s designs are known for having quirky, organic forms that draw attention to their intricate woven structures.

They can be surprising, too, like the Chiquita stool, whose seat consists of vertical, uncomfortable-looking rattan poles. These poles sink down into a bed of foam, however, when used as a seat. The Yoda chair looks unfinished, with a seat back of apparently unwoven stalks of rattan that look like they would collapse under weight, but which actually form a sort of cocoon around your back.

That sense of being embraced is key to Cobonpue’s work.

“In today’s world, so many things are bombarding us; it’s nice to shut everything out, even for an instant, and all the chairs do that,” he says.

It’s something that wouldn’t be possible without the natural fibres and weaving techniques that Cobonpue uses in his work. And it’s an ethos he hopes to pass on to other Filipino manufacturers and designers. Cobonpue teaches design workshops in Cebu secondary schools and he often collaborates with designers such as Luisa Robinson, whose durian-inspired lamps he produces at his factory.

“He really helps out young designers,” says Bougeard. “He does it for economic reasons, because to be bigger is stronger, and nobody wants to be the only designer. But I think he also has a mission. From the very beginning he didn’t want to copy – it was always his own designs using Cebu techniques. He’s the one who let the international design audience know that the Philippines was an option.”

The question now is whether it can be more than just an option, but a preference.