“Life was really very creative before COVID-19,” commented Cebu-based multi-awarded furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue as he delivered his presentation on how he and his team remained creative and productive during the onslaught of the pandemic at the Business Resilience in the Time of COVID-19 webinar. The global health crisis forced every scale of businesses to quickly close their offices and resume work remotely. Cobonpue added, “Creativity isn’t easy when you’re working from home.”

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BluPrint Design Kenneth Cobonpue
Kenneth Cobonpue with ‘Little People’ screen on the background

The designer admitted that besides keeping the business running, the challenge is really about staying creative and resilient. Cobonpue shared that his team’s productivity declined during the first months of working remotely, but eventually picked up as they focused on reinventing themselves and working on strengthening the brand’s online presence and designing smaller projects. 

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“There should be a good balance of maintaining creativity and running a business. We had to reinvent ourselves and maintain discipline while we’re working from home. At the height of the lockdowns, we decided to boost our online presence and render our designs digitally because we couldn’t go to our showrooms. I also kept the communication with my people going through our daily check-ins,” said Cobonpue. 

BluPrint spoke with Kenneth Cobonpue after the webinar.

Running the business

The designer saw the pandemic as a chance for his brand to reorganize, to rethink how his team delivers its brand story and message, to look at what they have been doing, and, taking that into consideration, decide what to do moving forward.

Although the business had to scale back to a skeletal workforce when the pandemic struck the country, Kenneth Cobonpue shared that they have increased the workforce gradually from 30% to 70%, and now they are back to the full workforce, although they still work from home. He said that business was able to continue somehow since a lot of the employees started sleeping in their offices to finish their work as they still had a lot of orders, made before the pandemic started, that needed to be fulfilled. 

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Cobonpue revealed that orders have gone down during the first months of lockdown, but they are now starting to pick up. “Actually, the whole market has been strong. For example, the United States and here, it’s been good. But overall, of course, in other countries, it’s been rough because a lot of projects have been stopped. There’s one project that was supposed to be started but was put on hold,” he said. A lot of projects have been delayed and some are put on hold indefinitely, but Cobonpue assured that they have never stopped production since Day 1 of lockdown.

In terms of client relations, Kenneth Cobonpue shared, “We have our newsletters to keep them informed about what we’re doing, about the new things, and ensure that we are safe and strong. Actually, it’s not very much different from what it was like before the pandemic.”

Using technology in design and production

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BluPrint Design Kenneth Cobonpue
Sage sofa

Besides communicating with his employees, Cobonpue acknowledged the impact of virtual solutions on creativity and teamwork. “I think that’s great, especially the VR technology,” he replied when asked about how his team takes advantage of the technological tools available to use in their design process. “But, we still have to try that out, actually, where we can all see the same thing. I think that’s a technology that is still not perfected, but I think it will help.”

In terms of production, the designer said that it will still be handmade, although the sample-making process will still be tech-driven, with his team using 3D models and VR technology. “Production, I think, will still be the same. I don’t think we can get more tech-driven than we are doing now,” he said. And though the current global health crisis has encouraged a consciousness about easy to maintain and sanitize surfaces, Kenneth Cobonpue believes that artificial and medical-grade surfaces will not be part of the new normal in design. “Honestly, to be COVID-proof, you have to use more synthetic materials, which is terrible, I think. I don’t want to call for using more artificial and medical-grade surfaces. I don’t think that’s going to be part of the new normal,” the designer said.

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Staying creative in isolation

Before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cobonpue shared that they were “just creating designs one after the other.” He added, “It’s always between exhibitions, and just not knowing if the world really needed it. It’s a pressure for design companies to keep on coming up with designs. I think this is a much-needed break for everybody to just pause, stop, and ask yourself whether you really need it and what you’re really doing for mankind, for everybody.”

During his talk, Kenneth Cobonpue shared that nature and other forms of art have been his inspirations in designing his products. So, during the pandemic, he started painting and learning new things, and even redoing his home office. He rediscovered his other passions, made new designs, improved his brand’s online presence, and reconnected with family—and these are what kept his creativity flowing. “I think this pandemic has made us see that more than material goods, relationships are important, and we should never take those for granted in the search for the new. We were just being under a lot of pressure to keep on coming up with new things instead of just being happy with the old ones. I think that’s what the whole pandemic has taught us: to be happy with what we already have.”

The Business Resilience in the Time of COVID-19 webinar was organized by Manulife China Bank Life Assurance Corporation last 1 October 2020. Actor and entrepreneur Richard Yap joined Cobonpue as a speaker.

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