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04/01/14 Product Designer Lilianna Manahan

While pain is often a precursor to art, no one’s harnessed it as literally—or compellingly—as Lilianna Manahan. As part of her 2012 solo exhibit “Funktion,” the designer created vases resembling the fragments of a spine, inspired by the MRI of a slipped disk she suffered. Other objects hit similarly close to home. “Rockingbird,” an avian spin on a child’s rocking horse, was made for her niece and nephew while her debut collection of elaborately painted Faberge eggs came about through prodding from her mother, noted artist Tats Manahan.

“I was in third-year college and my mom said this guy, Chris Lacson, had ostrich eggs he doesn’t know what to do with. At that time, my mom was teaching me some of her techniques. So I decorated the eggs and got good feedback,’” says the U.P. Fine Arts graduate of what caught the eye of Silverlens Gallery and hatched “Omelette,” her first solo exhibit.

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Following a showing of collaborative pieces (curious light fixtures for Triboa Bay and copper furniture for Industria) at Manila FAME last month, the 28-year-old talks more about infusing the personal into products and how her father, legendary TV director Johnny Manahan, is her best critic.

You had some striking pieces at Manila FAME recently, working with Triboa Bay and Industria. Do you find much of the stuff you do these days is collaborative?

I worked with three different companies so all the wooden stuff and the lights were for Triboa Bay. All the copper stuff was done with Industria. It was part of the Red Box program, where they pair you up with manufacturers that participate in Manila FAME. It’s a four-show contract so you actually cultivate a relationship with the manufacturer. The manufacturers get fresh designs and young designers get their stuff executed properly—not like the little shops anymore sa tabi-tabi. While some designers in the program really want to design for a company, I like to meet somewhere in the middle. To have both our aesthetics in whatever I develop for them.

Having your own design house, Studio Magee, obviously helps in preserving that aesthetic. How often do you put out a collection?

I should have something every year but it’s a slow thing. I guess the more interest I get, customers and exposure, I’ll be able to churn out more collections every year. Now I’m just aiming for at least one a year.

Was there an experience that really solidified your decision to focus on product design?

I think it was when I was picking courses for college. I mean, I knew I was not a good painter, not a good artist but I knew I wanted to be in the art side. At first, I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. Like in IB, they asked top 3 professions. I said artist, plastic surgeon, chef (laughs). But then I realized that I really like drawing and making things so I’m gonna scrap out medicine. I’m not good at memorizing either. I was just really trying to buy a couple years of not working by going to med school. So there, when I was picking courses, [my sister] Juana was already in London and she was saying Central St. Martins is good. She sent me the prospectus and I looked through all the courses and product design was the one that had everything I liked in it. It had a bit of art, it had the three-dimensional aspect. I always liked to make things before. Then I looked up all the other designers in the prospectus and they had pretty cool stuff.

Any interesting first attempts at making something with your hands?

My sister’s science projects (laughs). I owe her a lot, actually, for making me do her geography homework. I liked it naman. I remember when I was a kid, I really liked making dinosaur skeleton models.

One of your pieces for “Funktion” was inspired by a slipped disk. How did you arrive at that idea?

I guess some designers are really inspired by nature, art, traveling, but for some reason, I just couldn’t connect to any of that. It wasn’t really me. So I actually looked back to my egg exhibit and I was like, okay, what did I do here that I really enjoyed? It was really expressing my different experiences that I had. I said, okay, I can do that for products too.

All the stuff in Funktion are things that I’ve gone through. So the slipped disk, I actually got from surfing. I saw my MRI and said, ‘it kind of looks cool.’ And then I also wanted to apply what I learned in Central St. Martins about ceramics.

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My family, they’re the first people I go to to ask, ‘Hey, this is okay, right?’ Juana gives the consumer’s point of view. My dad really has the foresight. My mom critiques my work but she’s very emotional about it—‘I love it!’ But my dad’s a little more black and white. He’ll say flat-out, ‘No, it’s ugly.’ I just try and see that he’s able to see which products everyone would like. I found that out through the Singapore show (interior design trade show Maison et Objet Asia, where she showed last month as one of its “Rising Asian Talents”) ‘cause he was like, ‘I think your ceramics are gonna work really well.’ ‘Really? No one likes it here.’ And then I went to Singapore, that was the item everyone went to.

Does every show you do help to narrow things down or are you still wild about exploring other styles and materials?

I think that was my Funktion exhibit. If you look at it, I had so many materials: wood, ceramics, upholstery. So now I really want to focus on two or three materials at most. There’s a lot of metal going around, and wood, so I kind of wanted to challenge myself to really find other ways of presenting wood and metal.

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And in terms of personal experiences, are there any that might figure into a future object?

Actually, I have a collection of x-rays (laughs) from injuries that I look back at every once in a while. My niece and my nephew are inspirations.

Any local designers or artists who have been influential to you?

Well I always ask advice from Kenneth [Cobonpue]. Apart from my family, I want an outside opinion. I still want someone who hasn’t known me since I was a kid to critique my work. Like all the chairs that I made in FAME, I asked Kenneth, ‘Can you sit on it.’ Those are my first chairs. I’m always hesitant to do chairs ‘cause they’re so scary. He had some comfort issues with the easy chair because kulang lang ng foam. A bit of tweaking for the aesthetics. My wooden chair was okay but a little adjustment in the back. It’s kind of sharp when you sit on it, so little things like that. He’s very straightforward about things.

I don’t know, I feel like your chairs simply work as art pieces, anyway—admired and not sat on.

But I want something that can be mass-produced but with a little more value in it.

And which items of yours do you value the most?

Probably the copper table. I was really happy with those. And maybe the chickens, ‘cause those are hard to make (laughs).