The evolution of Filipino craft and design shifts and moves forward. We recreate, rediscover, reimagine new methodologies and technologies as we take root in the traditional and celebrate a new generation of creative mind.
Kenneth Cobonpue’s airy workshop in Cebu is humming with activity. Metal is being cast, wood is being worked, both tried-and-proven fabrics along with pilot ones are being weaved and upholstered, and product prototypes are being perfected. It feels like a wonderland: part foundry, part wood shop, part experimental textile mill, and most crucially, a place where theory is turned into praxis, sometimes years after being imagined. For those so inclined to appreciate these exhaustive stages of design, the Candy Man energy inside is palpable, as in who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, and cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two?
“That’s Virgilio, a sample maker,” Cobonpue says, “and that’s Christian Jay, his son, a composite maker. Over there is Matt, a CAD engineer. His dad was our woodworking supervisor.” Other multi-generational teams in his employ are cited, but the most globally recognized Filipino designer is in a pensive mood.
“I really can’t envision living anywhere else than Cebu,” he admits. “Only on this island can I find the quality of craftsmen and artisans who can transform my dreams into reality. The problem with Philippine design is not the lack of designers but the dearth of craftsmen to execute designs.” The average age of the artisan in this country is maybe 50 or 60 years old, he says. But, like the children of farmers who decide to seek a different life, many don’t want to work with their hands anymore.
There are now plenty of design schools in the Philippines, but not enough vocational ones, Cobonpue points out. “TESDA tries, but it’s not enough. Unlike, say, Paris, there aren’t enough trade schools here where you can learn a craft. The government in Switzerland, for example, heavily subsidizes watchmaking to keep the industry alive,” he explains.
He should know: Kenneth, whose early educational and apprenticeship tours had taken him to Munich, Florence, and New York returned to found the Industrial Design Program at the University of the Philippines-Cebu and chair the Department of Industrial Design School of Design and Arts, De La Salle College of Saint Benilde. He has mentored several of his best students.
“My mentees really immersed themselves in our factory, learning every nuance. These skills, which we are losing, are what these designers are saving,” he says. Of course, Cobonpue also introduced them to industry shakers, widening their networks and jumpstarting their careers.
Says Mirei Monticelli: “Through his guidance, I learned to take risks, experiment freely, and think outside the box, just as a child would when discovering something new. His mentorship went beyond technical skills.”
“He taught me to learn how to build with my own hands. And to take criticism well and sometimes kill your darlings if you want to elevate taste,” adds Mona Alcudia. Chini Lichangco shares that under Kenneth, she “learned to think beyond conventional boundaries and embrace unconventional ideas. To tell a captivating story.” Lil Manahan says that she always considers her time in Cebu to be part of her foundation building in design: “Even the unseen underside of a product should be beautiful, he would say,” she says. “This taught me the mentality of excellence.”
Cobonpue also hopes that this next generation of designers pass on this tradition of mentorship. As contributing editor of this month’s design section, he momentarily sets aside his musings about the future and celebrates the state-of-the-nation design here and now. His carefully curated list of distinguished Filipino designers is cause for much optimism—they are that exceptional and dynamos in their own right.
Insightfully, but with a wink, Kenneth Cobonpue says: “The Philippines is the only country in Asia that was colonized by both the U.S. and Spain. You could light-heartedly say that our history is 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. This blend of three different cultures in one place is remarkably unique, and one of the reasons that I think we have an acute understanding of what are crucial design elements across continents.”
PATRICK CABRAL, Paper Artist
As an 11-year-old in Camarines Sur, Cabral discovered the precise fluidity of calligraphy, discerning cultural symbolism in visual expressions at a young age. From these disciplined brushstrokes ensued a multimedia career that perhaps culminated with being tasked to create a centerpiece for the Philippine Pavilion at the Dubai World Expo 2020, his reinterpretation of the balangay, the fabled hardwood watercraft so emblematic of the millennia-long maritime heritage of the Philippines.
“My passion for calligraphy expanded and morphed over time,” he says. “It guided me through the realms of graphic design, web and app development, animation, and 3D modeling.”
While best known for his incomprehensibly intricate paper art, Cabral is an explorer at heart; each artistic expedition comes with the requisite new intellectual pursuit. “During my exploration of the Python programming language,” he says by way of example, “I was introduced to the concept of parallelized operations, a strategy that enables swift transformations of large-scale, complex data by defining the role of a single entity within the broader collective.
“The work I engage in is an intricate dance between artistic expression and puzzle-solving.”
WATARU SAKUMA, Paper Artist
During his time in art school, the now 44-year-old Philippine-based Japanese designer would roam the streets of New York, collect scraps of carton, and transform them into paper ochawan rice bowls colored with Kikkoman soy sauce. The foraging led to a lifelong fascination with paper and, eventually, to joining Masa Ecological Development Co. (MASAECO), where he now sits as chair and creative director. MASAECO is a Cavite-based company that specializes in wallpaper and accessories made from the fibrous parts of agricultural wastes carton scraps, and old newspaper—the dénouement of Sakuma’s early days of cardboard upcycling.
The “Not What It Seems to Be” collection perhaps best echoes his design ethos. “At first glance,” says Sakuma, “the massive and masculine objects appear to be made of heavy rusted black iron, but upon closer inspection, they reveal themselves as lightweight recycled carton that double as instrumental maracas filled with natural seeds.”
While pleased that the emergence of various digital and AI technologies has democratized design, Sakura does have reservations: “These may distance us from the tangible aspects of design, such as physically interacting with materials, and learning from artisans and craftsmen.”
INA GASTON, Weaving Artist
Born and raised in Cebu, where she finished a degree in Architecture, Gaston made a mild pivot—she relocated to a sugarcane plantation in Manapla, Negros Occidental, blending her design skills with everyday farm life. Oh, and basketry, where she was awarded at ASEAN Selections 2017, SACICT Thailand. Other awards, now for lighting, soon followed.
“When I started to design for Hacienda Crafts, natural materials were perceived as cheap, considered trash like fire wood. My design intention was to bring attention and elevate the value of the natural material, the craft, and the work of the artisans.”
The work she is proudest of? That would be the Obi Squash Pendant Lamp. “When I designed this, I used buri midribs, a flexible and durable material traditionally used in furniture production. I was able to manipulate the material to move gracefully, woven using fishnet-weaving stitches by the artisans here at Hacienda Crafts.”
Gaston continues to work alongside artisan communities to bridge gaps and tell stories, helping farmers and their families build better lives.
ANNA ORLINA, Glass Artist
The cold method of glass sculpting is tedious, requiring physical strength and years of painstaking practice—no furnaces, no glassblowing; more grinding, cutting, polishing. Difficult to perfect, Orlina, 31, imbibed its principles and latest techniques from institutions across three continents. Also, from a certain iconic glass sculptor… her father, Ramon.
“Being exposed to glass art since I was very young, I was always very used to my father’s style of coldworking glass. He typically uses green glass, since it is the most common color for manufactured glass.”
At the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, she viewed the work of David Huchthausen. Mesmerized, she took the final plunge into the medium where sand and soda and limestone combine to produce translucence and transcendence.
“I am very optimistic about the future of Filipino design,” she says. “I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon because more and more people, especially the younger generations, are beginning to appreciate art and design more. I think the accessibility and speed of information with technology nowadays help promote and spread awareness that pique many people’s interests.”
JOSEPH JIAO, Metal Artist
Jiao, second-generation scion of the family business founded in 1994, knowingly recognizes the roots of Kalikasan Crafts. Founded by his mother, Celia Gamboa-Jiao, it initially produced holiday ornamentals for the export market. Even back then, metal wire and fabric were their main materials.
In 2006, Celia focused on exploring the malleability of metal wires and developed a welding technique to create strong wire-mesh patterns, a watershed moment for the company.
Says Joseph: “As we further refined our process in handling metal wire, we were able to adapt it to serve out export-focused direction.”
Metal wire, he says, is relatively easy to manipulate but exceedingly difficult to master. Although multiple prototypes can be explored, it takes years of development before reaching an acceptable final product.
“We highlight our local heritage of weaving through our products, but we adapt this process to our material. In effect, the traditional Filipino weaving process is innovated to be applied to a different form of material and design. Hence, this allows us to be reminded of our culture, and be able to modernize the overall look and feel of weaving.”
Filipino design, he says, is influenced by different cultures. “Design develops as our taste, understanding, and culture develop. This understanding allows the idea of design to constantly transform and be ever-changing. Right now, as we enter this post-pandemic world, our perspective on design has shifted towards the influence of both the digital age and the call-back to nature.”
JUDE TIOTUICO, Metal Artist
“One of the most important moments for me that I remember in my designing years was when I first discovered possibilities and new forms I could create with metal. It was during a time I wanted to experiment more with different processes. I was so fascinated with the fact that metal could be formed organically in the right direction through design that challenges the common notion that metal is stiff and cold.”
After more than 20 years of collaborating with local and international designers, Tiotuico, 55, certainly understood metal design. After all, he had taken the Industria Edition brand to international markets in hallowed trade fairs such as Maison de Object, Paris, and the Salone del Mobile, Milan.
“If I were to choose among my works that characterizes my design ethos, it would be the Loopy Chair. The form was inspired by the joints and branches of a tree. The lines undulated, and the woven leather acted as a hammock-like material that follows the contour of an individual when he or she sat on it.”
JON & TESSY PETTYJOHN, Ceramic Artists
The Pettyjohns hold a near-mythic influence over the Philippine contemporary ceramic art sphere. Says Okinawa-born Jon, 72, about his epiphany: “When I was twenty-two, I walked into the clay studio at the Escuela Massana in Barcelona. It hit me like a lightning bolt. I wanted to do that, whatever it takes.”
Tessy, 74, is a Fine Arts graduate of U.P. Diliman. “I took some pottery classes at The New School, New York, before returning to Manila where I met Jon. We were married shortly after, and we’ve been working as a husband-and-wife team for almost fifty years now.”
Although they sometimes exhibit together, they mostly work separately to retain their individual identities. Jon’s work tends to be driven by an exploration of pottery as a tradition—what can be done with a potter’s wheel and a kiln, conceptually and technically? In recent times, Tessy has investigated how clay can mimic, say, botanical forms. “Jon and I were snorkelling many years ago in Palawan, and it hit me that those forms and colors on the seafloor could be an endless source of ideas.”
What they do share is a zeal for tutelage. Hundreds of students, in several schools and countless workshops, have benefited from their instruction. “From the handful of potters in the late 1970s,” says Jon, “we are now seeing a second and even a third generation of clay artists emerging. Many of those who were once our students are now teachers themselves. From a design standpoint, I think we are finally beginning to see an answer to the question: what does a contemporary Filipino ceramic artwork or pot look like?”
FRANCIS DRAVIGNY, Textile Artist
Are there more intrepid adventurers than the French? Dravigny, 68, is best known for scouting the material assets of abaca, Musa textilis, a species of banana native to the Philippines.
“Everything starts when I travel alone around the Philippines, especially within the local markets. There, I find handicrafts also made out of buntal, raffia, pandan, and many others. My obsession is to transform all those raw materials into a yarn to be woven.”
The weaving process may initially begin as a basic technique to blend materials, he says, but it can also quickly escalate into more sophisticated systems to feed the high-end international interiors-fabric market. “When I sell one meter of Filipino fabric, I start with selling just fifty percent of the fabric. The other fifty percent is about Pinoy storytelling!” He summarizes his animating principle in five words: from the tribe to modernity.
“My personal nature is to always be optimistic! I believe in the new generation of Filipino designers. Filipinos have their own identity and diversity in terms of creativity—many islands, languages, tribes, and influences. I believe Filipino design will reach many niche markets.”
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