By DOM GALEON
Cecilia Comia does not consider herself an entrepreneur. More than anything, she is a young designer. A graduate of Industrial Design from De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, her training has been in developing objects that combine both form and function.
But among all the things that one can design, her mind has become fixated with an object she describes as the most functional of all—a chair.
“I don’t really know when I started being fascinated with a chair,” she explains. “But it has always been in my mind.”
In coming up with a design, Cecilia subscribes to a basic principle, one that clearly shows her Industrial Design background. “The form follows the function,” she says. “And with a chair, the function is pretty clear. It is around an object’s use that I design its form.”
After college, Cecilia immersed herself in the world of design by first working for the Exhibition Design Division of the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM). There, she got to work behind the scenes at FAME, which is CITEM’s most iconic event. It was also there that she met Filipino designer Kenneth Cobonpue, one of her idols.
After her stint at CITEM, she moved to Dubai to be part of the design and sales team of ikonhouse LLC. While abroad, Cecilia became more exposed to the expansive world of design, working with famous Danish design brands and meeting some of the industry’s icons. She says that her biggest influence comes from Charles and Bernice “Ray” Eames, the famous American industrial designers.
With a chair, the function is pretty clear. It is around an object’s use that I design its form.
Moving back to the Philippines, Cecilia was encouraged to join the first-ever Startupper of the Year by Total. “Prior to joining the competition, I didn’t really have a background in starting a business,” she admits. Nevertheless, she tried her hand at it by revisiting a design she initially developed years earlier. And, you guessed it, it was a chair. “I first made the sketch for this chair when I was still a student,” Cecilia says. “I saw the need to come up with better chairs for schools, particularly for public schools. The chairs there have been the same wood or metal design that has been around since even the time of our grandparents. Some schools already use plastic monoblock chairs but even those aren’t good enough.”
She points out to how public schools have more than just one purpose in the Philippines. These also serve as evacuation centers in cases of calamities and as polling precincts during elections. During these situations, many chairs in a school end up being misused and abused. This became the inspiration to develop Shift, the name she gave for the chair she designed.
Shift is a modular school chair made from lightweight and durable recycled plastic. Because it is modular, it transforms into several forms, apart from its original single-seat-with-desk look. Shift can turn into a bench or into a makeshift bed that can be used during calamities. Each chair also comes with a compartment inserted under the seat. These can be removed to serve as stools or, when put together, can become a stack of pigeon holes.
“These small compartments can also serve as dividers that can give families in an evacuation center a bit more space for privacy, as well as provide them with an area to place their belongings,” Cecilia explains—small wonder that, despite competing against other more experienced startuppers, she won the Top Female Entrepreneur award. Shift is a design that is forward-thinking and it addresses a very specific (and urgent!) need.
For Cecilia, it was quite timely for Total to have this Top Female Entrepreneur distinction. This year was the first time this award was included in the Startupper of the Year, which was first held in 2015. She was also fortunate to have met the other Top Female Entrepreneurs from the other countries where Total’s startup competition is present.
“Yes, I think the industrial design industry is still dominated by men,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean that women designers feel out-of-place. Not at all. More and more women designers are stepping up their game. The industry itself doesn’t really favor men over women. The same challenges are experienced by both. Women can also use the same tools that are available to men. There’s no distinction, really.”
Cecilia hopes that Shift, which she now runs together with a partner based in Bataan, will be picked up by investors or by government agencies to be used in schools. But not just in schools. Because of its modular nature, the Shift can be used in many other places.
As for the future of industrial designers in the Philippines, Cecilia is enthusiastic. “I think the local design industry is on the rise,” she says. “My dream is to be part of this growth, of this renaissance in Philippine industrial design. I don’t really have to have my own brand to do this. No. It’s not about that. I am happy to simply be part of this, to do my part in this.”