Recently, I went window shopping with a friend in D.C.’s U Street Corridor. In one store, while staring at what appeared to be a bucket of large wooden sticks, I heard a woman say, “take a seat.”
Take a seat? Perhaps she meant, take a stick. Because although it was unclear to me what this object was, I had no inclination to sit on it.
“Go ahead, you have to try it.”
I sat on it. And to my surprise, what could easily be mistaken as a container of oversized pencils, felt comfortable, even therapeutic.
So began my introduction to the mesmerizing work of Kenneth Cobonpue, an internationally renowned industrial designer whose creations are initially as puzzling as they are esthetically pleasing.
The store featuring Cobonpue’s work is called Muleh. It’s the only place in this area that you can buy Cobonpue pieces. You can find Cobonpue’s work in restaurants such as Tapaq, where he created exotic rattan seating. Some of his larger scale projects can be seen in restaurants and hotels from D.C. to Dubai.
A native of the Philippines, Cobonpue studied industrial design at Pratt Institute in New York. But his biggest influence was his mother, who in 1972 founded Interior Crafts, a Philippines furniture store. There, she developed new ways to work with rattan. Cobonpue kicked it up a notch, inventing new ways to merge the use of natural fibers with modern design.
What’s most remarkable about Cobonpue’s work is how he projects a sense of movement in stationary objects; like with his wave tables. He attaches walnut or mahogany wood pieces in a wave pattern to create a base for a glass tabletop. The wood appears to ripple beneath the glass.
His Bloom chair is what lured me into Muleh. Handmade of microfiber stitched over a resin top with a steel base, the upholstery on this chair seems to blossom from the base. Stunning in its elegance, the Bloom chair evokes imagery of the iconic scene when Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blows over the subway grate.
Then, there is that container of sticks; or what Cobonpue calls the Chiquita. The Chiquita consists of 350 pieces of rattan poles atop a polyurethane cushion inside a molded steel base. As your bottom rests on the poles they slowly sink in, contouring your body - similar to a memory foam mattress.
When I sat on it, I was so surprised that I motioned to my friend to take a seat. “You’ve gotta sit on this it.”