It wasn’t easy for Lilianna Manahan to explain why she chose product design as an outlet for her nascent artistic talents. “I wanted to do more than just paint,” she began tentatively, searching for the right words while her hands moved restlessly, as if shaping an invisible form out of ether.
“I’ve loved making three-dimension things ever since I was a child. My parents used to buy me balsa wood dinosaur skeletons to assemble,” she explained, smiling fondly at the recollection. “I just like the idea of touching.”
Now, Manahan creates more complex assemblages than those childhood jigsaws. But the same desire for tactile experience remains a critical element in her design process, beginning with how she records her ideas. “I sketch (by hand). I could do it on a computer but it feels different,” she said, noting the ease in forming desired shapes on paper versus on screen.
Her sketchbooks also serve as tangible archives for her ever-flowing imaginings, which bubble up from a font of childhood memories, cultural explorations and her self-professed affinity for oddities. “I realize I have two different sides—a really weird side and a more subdued one,” she admitted.
As a product designer, Manahan is conscious about creating pieces with broad appeal while still maintaining her individuality as an artist. “I don’t want to go with whatever is trendy, so when I draw something (I let it all out), and then I tone it down.”
The delicate balance between self-expression and mass appeal was on display in her solo exhibit, “Funktion,” last November. On display were off-kilter ceramic vases dubbed “Spine,” whose muted colors belied their vividly literal inspiration: MRIs of Manahan’s back injury.
Other items had more endearingly benign yet no less personal origins. Brass “MerChickens” perched on wood blocks were inspired by a menagerie of antique cloisonné creatures collected by the artist’s grandmother, and fanciful, wheeled “Snoots” were life-sized, fabric-covered interpretations of her nephew’s animal crackers.
Revisiting an old idea
For Manahan, no idea or notion is ever discarded, regardless of how outrageous or unworkable it seems initially. “I’ll go back to my sketches and say, ‘OK, that didn’t work two years ago, but maybe it will, now,’” she said.
Through trial and error, she’ll revisit an old idea with a new approach. “I tried out my ‘Spine’ vases in metal first, but it wasn’t really working, so I went back to it later (with a different material).”
Invoking her love of the tactile, she acknowledged that the medium often inspires the design. “I tried working with the form first and then forcing the material on it,” she recalled. By switching it around, Manahan has found a template for creating extraordinary pieces. The “Asterix” table lamp, for instance, came from her desire to work with perforated metal, while her dynamic “Fishing” floor lamp represented the interplay of metal and stone.
According to Manahan, the pendulum-like standing fixture also incorporated dominant, secondary and passive pieces—three conceptual elements emphasized in Kenneth Cobonpue’s avant-garde design collective Hive, where she worked shortly after graduating from the University of the Philippines.
Next to her equally artistic parents, surface designer Tats Manahan and TV director Johnny Manahan, the mentorship of Hive’s renowned designers has had a profound influence on her work.
Change in mindset
Aside from learning to apply the principles of industrial design in a real world setting, Manahan acknowledged a change in her mindset during her stint in Cebu. Before joining Hive, she mounted her first solo show called “Omelette,” featuring a dozen elaborately gilded, etched and painted ostrich eggs. “With those eggs, everything was under my control. I stayed in the workshop for days,” she said.
Now, however, she is eager to continue the collaborative approach she experienced with Hive.
To create the objects for “Funktion,” she worked closely with local craftsmen and artisans to execute her vision.
On a trip to the Ilocos region to observe the indigenous textile arts, Manahan developed a deep appreciation for the mathematical precision of inabel and binakol weaving, envisioning them as part of her own designs. “The fabrics are traditionally made into blankets, but I wanted to see how they worked as upholstery,” she said.
Fascinated by the modern look produced by these centuries-old techniques, she incorporated the hand-woven textiles alongside industrial material into her geometric “Fold and Stump” stools.
How things are made
Understanding how such specialized materials are produced is yet another integral aspect of Manahan’s creative method. “I want to work to their strengths,” she said of the artisans who provide her with handcrafted components for her designs. But respecting their skills doesn’t mean she’ll hesitate to prod them. “I think to myself, ‘They’re good at carving elaborate things, but are they good at marquetry?’”
As the seamless checkerboard woodwork of her wall-mounted vanity set, “Mwah, Moi!,” showed, they met the challenge. “I wanted each square to be made of solid pieces of wood, but it would have been too difficult. I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it in veneer, but smaller.’”
“I want to challenge them,” she continued. “The Philippines has great craftsmen, but I don’t know if they push themselves enough.”
Not wishing to sound critical, she clarified, “I know they can do more with each piece and could achieve what I ask of them. So, I pick suppliers who are open to that challenge and open to improving their samples.”
An adventurous spirit, Manahan takes every opportunity to immerse herself in unique experiences to find fresh ideas, materials, and styles. “I want to try everything and see what might work well for me. I am enjoying it all,” she said.
Surfboard as inspiration
These explorations often spark inspiration in unexpected ways. While vacationing in Hawaii, Manahan learned how to make a surfboard; back at home, her new knowledge found its way into, of all things, a child’s toy.
Look closely at her whimsical “Rockingbird,” she hinted, to find a delicate piece of wood running from neck to tail, inspired by the spine of wood called a stringer that holds a surfboard together.
This young designer’s creations are more than just eye-catching colors and thought-provoking forms. “My work is like a diary,” she revealed. Personal memories inform many of her designs, but they also reveal a narrative of the process behind the object.
“I would like others to think of how the pieces fit together or move, and what we as artists did to get to that point,” she said. “These are dying crafts—handwoven textiles or shaping surfboards. You can hook up a template to a machine and cut out forms quickly, but fewer people are (making them by hand anymore).”
Manahan by no means rebuffs technology, but admits to some wariness for social networking. As a child, she was exposed to her parents’ environment as artists themselves and now sees the difference.
“For them, it was all about word of mouth, so you really had to exert yourself (to get your work out). Today, someone can take a picture and put it on Twitter,” she observed. “It’s faster now, which is good because you get feedback right away, but it’s also scary that people react faster.”
Lost in translation
Nevertheless, she herself uses Instagram and Facebook to create a virtual portfolio; and although she concedes some details may be lost in electronic translation, she appreciates the value of sharing her work in a different way.
As an up-and-coming designer, Manahan embraces both the freedoms and limitations of her chosen field. Product design allows her to merge artistry with utility and to push the boundaries of what is possible in creating beautiful, functional objects with singular materials and personal inspirations.
But occasionally, those boundaries push back, and her challenge is not to let them engulf her free-spirited approach to design. “My mindset remains with creating functional pieces, but I don’t want to lose the handmade aspect of my work,” she said. “I’ll tone it down, but not so much that I lose myself.”
Reprinted from Cocoon Magazine