Design Philippines Celebrates the Filipino Craftsman

Design Philippines Celebrates the Filipino Craftsman

The hard work of Filipino craftsmen and artisans were once again the highlight of the Design Philippines booth at the recently-concluded International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) held from May 16-19, 2015 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The Fair brings in more than 30,000 industry professionals from 24 countries to celebrate design and innovation.

To underscore design restraint and confidence, Design Philippines brought six of the most successful design-led brands and furniture design studio/manufacturers promoted by the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM): Kenneth Cobonpue, Bon-Ace Fashion Tools, Inc., Ito Kish, TADECO Home, Triboa Bay Living, and Vito Selma, and each one brought a story to tell about an inspired interpretation of innovation in Philippine craftsmanship.

The six designer-manufacturers speak of the Philippine artisanal base for contemporary design: the portrayal of local designs in global idioms that fit with the dynamic rhythms of a precisely-targeted market.

Moreover, the Philippine participation in New York continues to assert a design aesthetic that embraces, and not merely follows, trends; that engages in dialogue and elaborates on these trends from organic, home-grown perspectives.

Design Philippines has built its reputation through its presence in the world’s leading design shows such as Salone Internazionale del Mobile, MAISON&OBJET Paris, and International Contemporary Furniture Fair. It positions the Philippines as a destination for products which speak of a higher level of artisanship – a design movement that nurtures and celebrates the creativity and originality of a globally competitive and passionate community of Filipino designers and craftsmen.

And just like last year’s display, this year’s look was anchored on the work of Kenneth Cobonpue, a Cebu-based designer who has continuously pushed for Filipino craftsmanship. A child of the furniture industry, Cobonpue brought to New York a stellar collection of old and new designs.

Dubbed by Time Magazine as “Rattan’s first virtuoso”, the multi-award winning Cobonpue was recently named ‘Designer of the Year’ by Maison & Objet. Educated in New York and trained in Europe, Cobonpue’s signature aesthetic has achieved worldwide success and has amassed an impressive roster of high-profile clientele, including members of royal families, to members of Hollywood royalty like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Christopher Reiter, managing partner of Kenneth Cobonpue, told the Asian Journal  that the Cobonpue brand “is synonymous with organic modern” and that they are not afraid to do something a little less predictable, like reinvention for example.

Reiter cited the Suzy Wong collection of furniture that are now available for outdoors as well, using aluminum frames and polyethelene fibers as opposed to abaca, rattan and wood.

“The outdoors are a little less formal, more relaxed and these pieces reflect that,” he added.

Reiter also announced that a Cobonpue Flagship Store will soon formally open at the New York Design Center in Manhattan.

“We’re extremely excited. This will be the largest display of Cobonpue and Hive. This is a very important market for us and it’s looking very lovely,” Reiter said.

Vito Selma

Like Cobonpue, Vito Selma is a child of the industry. His parents established a wooden furniture business decades ago and his sister followed suit but specialized in rattan.

Selma has had sterling opportunity: designing furniture for Nelson Mandela (the parental furniture factory shipped to South Africa, among other destinations); for royalty (the family links with the Middle East run deep); and for the sundry celebrity (Cebu loves Hollywood). No one was surprised that Selma was awarded among the Philippines’ Ten Outstanding Young Men prize in 2009.

He is also a fan of multiple-configuration use embedded in design.

The end-user can keep reconfiguring the furniture shapes according to variations in space, personality and character of the home. If you want more light from the lamp, just move some pieces and the lamp’s design take another shape, another character.

“It’s like having a new lamp every day, you can configure it to reflect whatever it is you feel on that particular day,” Selma told us.

Selma’s youth emerges in this quality of inherent changeability. His is the generation that played with rearrange-able toys. His is also the generation that enjoyed modular furniture. The homes into which the Selma furniture of today is inserted, are homes where movement, transitions, and change are constant. These are therefore homes of a highly mobile demography. This is furniture for people who are neither locked into conservative tradition, nor limited in their use of the imagination.

“This is probably the best show I’ve had in three years,” Selma remarked, adding that he had more than a hundred inquiries the first day alone. “I love New York, it has been a very, very good show.”

It is through these shows that the designers also get direct feedback from the market, whether it is the interior designer or store owner or even the end user.

One of the feedbacks he has been getting has something to do with shipping costs.

“I have a lot of buyers complaining about shipping costs so for this new collection, we are bringing in items that can be shipped flat but the buyers can reconfigure into whatever shape they want,” Selma said.

Ito Kish

“My design will always be about who I am and where I come from,” says Ito Kish, the man behind the award-winning furniture he designed.

Kish’s I-am-Filipino stance comes through so unambiguously, recognition came early and consistently. He launched his furniture line to immediate accolade in the Philippines, and in Southeast Asia, in 2012. Awarded Best Product Design for Furniture at Manila FAME that year, he was immediately the NextOneNow Best Transitional Furniture Awardee of the Philippine Chamber of Furniture Industry.

The following year, the Gwangju Design Biennale 2013 exhibit his Gregoria Chair (named after his mother and made to evoke his mother’s generation) among its Icons of Asia. In the same year, he was a silver prix winner for Best Product Design for Furniture at Italy’s A’ Design Award and Competition.

The honors were accorded an individual who was not a furniture designer before his first entry into Manila FAME, the Philippines’ bi-annual international market fair. He is an autodidact, having essentially trained himself through some twenty years prior of interior fit-outs and work in visual merchandizing. A hiatus in Indonesia would expand his ideas about the homeland.

And he eschewed the quest for originality.  “I would not try to claim to be original because nothing out there is an original anymore. Everything is either an improvement of something that is existing, a combination of two concepts, or a copy.”

For example is the Basilisa collection which highlights the solihiya, an intricate weave, along with four other distinct weaves and patterns from other regions of the Philippines. The name is in honor of his maternal grandmother.

Kish also reinvents the Batibot, a classic Filipino chair. He altered the proportions and used new materials such as acrylic, chrome, copper and brass.


Bon-Ace’s proprietor, Engineer Ramir Bonghanoy understands creativity and innovation as inherent in “doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

Bonghanoy began his working life in metals and in engineering, firstly starting a machine shop in 1987 with no capital. Being able to do ordinary things extraordinarily well allowed him to gain confidence about working metal, the first material he applied himself to.

It was while engaged in this enterprise that he joined the advocacy promoting machine building in the Philippines—which included the first special steel making facility, to avoid the constant important of special steel alloy, the main ingredient in machine building.

Bon-Ace narrates the rest of the story: “After realizing that this facility will not be materialized and knowing that our country will continue to import special alloy steels from other countries to back up our machine building program and eventually lose its competitive advantage in the world market, he decided to make a radical shift from the metal working and engineering industry into a manufacturing business that will use locally available indigenous raw materials. Thus, in 1993, Bon-Ace (Bonghanoy Arts-Cum-Engineering) was born. It started with only 8 people in a rented 30sqm space, which 4 years later, transferred to their newly acquired area with bigger space. In 2003 transferred to the present location with a total of 1 hectare manufacturing facility.”

Of the studios/producers that emerge triumphant in the Philippines’ bi-annual Manila FAME, Bon-Ace stands out as a quintessential Philippine story in its outline and flesh. It is, of course, the story of a man who began in vocational school, normally a trajectory that leads away from the fashion capitals of the world. It is also the story of an engineer who was frustrated by the slowness of needed change in this field during his early professional years. It is a hardscrabble story, but one which was saved by ingenuity and sheer creative force.

“Our specialty is combining materials such as metals, shells, pearls, resin, wood, steel. That’s our strength and we produce unique pieces,” said Reimer Jen Bonghanoy, the company’s marketing manager and the son of Engr. Bonghanoy.

Bon-Ace initially produced buttons, just buttons. But these were not your ordinary buttons, they were high-end and because of quality materials and virtuoso craftsmanship, Italian fashion houses bought the products on exclusive terms.

Through the years, their products have evolved. Now, they also produce fashion accessories, necklaces, bangles, minaudieres, vases, bowls, mirrors, trays, bath accents, among others.

Through ICFF and other shows they participate in, Bon-Ace is putting Filipino artistry and creativity out there.

Tadeco Home

It has been said that the strongest fiber in the world is extracted by stripping the juicy trunk of an herbaceous plant, Musa textilis Neé.

In the Philippines, it is known as abacá, and it is the first cousin of the banana, of which, among many other varieties, are the Philippine favorities, Musa sapientum L., and Musa paradisiaca L. These are spoken of in the English speaking world as plantains, all with rhizomatic roots and medicinal properties known primarily to indigenous peoples.

Maricris Floirendo Brias, who holds an art degree from Goldsmiths of London, works amidst these textile and plantains. Her father is the proprietor of one of the biggest banana plantations in the world, the Tagum Development Corporation (TADECO) located in the general environs of Davao City, at the southernmost part of the Philippines. Brias is Creative Director of TADECO Home, whose goal is to “translate age-old traditions and ethnic crafts into design and livelihood today.”

TADECO Home has become synonymous with all-natural fibers of the abacá, which are intricately handwoven by the region’s ethnic indigenous people into rolls of fine t’nalak fabric using traditional techniques passed on from many generations. They also engage various skilled artisans working with wood, paper-making, other cloths, stoneware, rattan strips, and other fairly common materials in the Davao environs.

The range or products includes home accents and lighting pieces, framed mirrors, candle holders, throw pillows, table ware, crockery, lamps, and furniture.

“We have assisted and encouraged 600 Tboli weavers in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato to continue their craft and make available their t’nalak cloth for local and global distribution,” Juvenal Fernandez, marketing manager of Tadeco told the Asian Journal.  The company provides livelihood programs helping weavers, generating livelihood opportunities to banana workers of TADECO and their families, communities in the Panabo area as well as the squatter areas in Davao City.

Triboa Bay Living

Randy Viray describes Triboa Bay Living furniture as simple and subtle, conveying an image of warmth and coziness.

Such is the effect of the raw finishes of the mahogany, American white ash, black walnut lamps and furniture of Triboa Bay Living.  The studio and production house have maintained their design personality on these pleasant products, rather than dazzling, gleaming or screaming.

Talk about understatement.

“They don’t call for attention; they don’t have a starring role. They’re supporting pieces,” Viray added.

Their pieces bring up words like comfortable, laidback, casual, relaxed, snug, and also calm and generate feelings of ease and tranquility.

“It’s never formal, that is our approach to design. It’s easy to appreciate, you don’t have to overthink things. You will see traditional lines mixed with contemporary but not too modern,” Viray said, explaining the company’s design ethos.

“We export all over the world, our major markets are France, England and Australia and a few here in the United States so we are looking to expand the market here,” Viray told the Asian Journal. “We’ve been meeting the right people so far, small shop owners and buyers.”

(NYNJ May 22-24, 2015 LifeEASTyle Magazine pg.2)

Email Email  |  Print Print

One thought on “Design Philippines Celebrates the Filipino Craftsman

  1. The six creator makers talk about the Philippine artisanal base for contemporary plan: the depiction of neighborhood outlines in worldwide idioms of speech that fit with the dynamic rhythms of an unequivocally focused on business sector.

Leave a Reply