As the line between interior and exterior spaces blurs, outdoor furniture is taking on a bold, stylish aesthetic, and this designer is leading the way.
Kenneth Cobonpue's transformative furniture designs
Outdoor furniture has traditionally subscribed to the "drab but durable" school of style - think hard, white plastic chairs and unyielding wooden benches. While indoor furniture designers have experimented with style, scale, form and texture, outdoor furniture manufacturers have stuck with a tried and tested palette of materials and designs that focus on withstanding the elements rather than pleasing the eye. As long as your furniture could survive wind, rain or shine - not to mention dust, insects and rot - it didn't much matter what it looked like.
But times are changing. People are putting a premium on outdoor living, and they expect their outdoor areas to look as good as their indoor ones. As people spend more time entertaining, relaxing and socialising in their gardens or on their balconies, it has become essential that those spaces look the part. Customers want a seamless transition between indoors and out, and design is instrumental in blurring those boundaries.
As a result, outdoor furniture has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Gone are the days of the stark, utilitarian table-chair-and-umbrella combo. Instead, oversized lounge chairs, sumptuous daybeds, unusually shaped sunshades and cocoon-like suspended seats have become popular.
Companies such as Spain's Kettal, France's Ego Paris and Germany's Dedon have led the way in creating a new breed of stylish, contemporary outdoor furniture. Dedon has developed its own fibre, a polyethylene-based synthetic resin that is hard-wearing, weatherproof, non-toxic and fully recyclable, but also supple enough to be woven into a number of original, innovative forms.
The Dedon founder Bobby Dekeyser recognised early on that aesthetics were just as important as durability and comfort when it came to outdoor furniture, and the realisation has led the company to team up with high-profile designers such as Philippe Starck and Jean-Marie Massaud.
Now, in many cases, outdoor furniture is every bit as aesthetically pleasing as its indoor counterparts, and this is leading many indoor furniture brands to branch out into outdoor products. Roche Bobois launched its first outdoor collection, Bel Air, in collaboration with the Belgrade-born designer Sacha Lakic, a couple of years ago. The collection includes sofa units, love seats, chairs, bridges and pedestal tables, all in woven polyethylene fabric. It is available in the company's Dubai showroom.
But nowhere is the transformation of outdoor furniture more evident than in the work of the Cebu-based designer Kenneth Cobonpue. Cobonpue launched his eponymous furniture brand six years ago and has received critical acclaim for his sensitive treatment of materials such as rattan, bamboo and abaca. Brad Pitt and Queen Rania of Jordan are both rumoured to be fans.
"My favourite materials are rattan and bamboo because they require minimal energy to process and shape," Cobonpue says. "Unlike wood, which requires machinery and tooling, natural fibres can be worked by hand. These natural fibres have a life expectancy, however, so you have to know how to treat them to make them last longer."
Cobonpue takes these materials and shapes them into highly contemporary, sculptural pieces of furniture that are as comfortable indoors as they are out. "The designs are just unique," he says. "They seem so simple but beautifully complex. I use the art of weaving as a structure, and not as a skin like many outdoor brands do. I understand my materials, and let them work for me."
Because the brand is constantly evolving, it is difficult to pinpoint one product that encapsulates its ethos, says Cobonpue, but he cites the Yoda chair as a good example. "Here you have an example of simple form and function born from the strength and character of natural materials."
The chair consists of natural or stained rattan woven around a mild steel frame. The ends of the vines come together to form the back of the seat, creating a brush-like feature that supports the body using natural material tension. The outdoor version of Yoda comes in bright red or brown, and there is an indoor version that comes in bright red, bronze, lime green or in its natural colour.
The evocative names of Cobonpue's products highlight the fact that he takes inspiration from the most varied of sources. The Manolo easy chair was inspired by a lady's sandal and combines rattan vines, a steel frame and leather strips to create a beautifully organic seating option that appears to defy the laws of gravity. Croissant is a fittingly curvaceous armchair made of abaca; Mermaid is a sculptural recliner that mimics the contours of a seafaring nymph, and Noodle consists of pieces of rattan vine haphazardly twisted to create a noodle-like effect.
In combining locally sourced, organic materials with handmade production techniques and contemporary designs, Cobonpue is giving old materials a new lease on life. He is creating solutions that look great and are sustainable, too. But for consumers, he says, sustainability is not yet top-of-mind.
"Yes, today's consumer is aware of sustainability, and he asks the right questions. But we have not reached the point where it's a major factor in their decision making, at least not in the majority of furniture transactions. It will take time. It's an easier decision when it benefits the consumers directly, like energy-saving light bulbs or fuel-efficient cars. But try to explain the mitigating impact of plastics on our environment, and why they should stay away from the material, and you never go beyond polite nods."
Outdoor furniture has evolved dramatically in recent years, from functional but uninspiring to inventive and alluring. But that evolution will only be complete once more brands follow Cobonue's sustainable example and force more consumers to rethink their buying habits.
For more information on Kenneth Cobonpue, visit www.kennethcobonpue.com. Kettal furniture is available from Obegi Home, Umm Suqeim 1, Dubai, www.obegibetterhome.com; Dedon furniture is available from Nakkash Gallery, Garhoud, Dubai, www.nakkashgallery.com; Carre d'Art in Abu Dhabi distributes Ego Paris in the UAE, www.carredartme.com