Arts & Culture

This Young Designer Does Restos, Videos, Photo Shoots And More

Mara Manalo has designed everything from a tricycle terminal café to a car ad and a sex-toy shop! Here’s how she juggles it all.

Photography: Courtesy of Studio Mara & Dairy Darilag (portrait)

Many of us think that an interior designer only chooses furniture; picks paint shades, and hangs curtains. An ID does all that for the spaces they are designing, but he or she is not limited to these skills. In fact, an interior designer can branch out to visual merchandising, props styling, set and production design, and much more.

Freelance interior designer Mara Manalo proves that you don’t have to be stuck to one design “category” or skill. In the past few years, she has worked on set design for fashion shoots in Preview and YStyle, various restaurant and store interiors, and production design for a digital ad for Mustang starring Matteo Guidicelli and Sandwich, all done in her edgy-quirky style. Read on to see her wonderful projects, and learn her multitasking secrets.

What made you pursue design?

“I’ve always thought that I’d pursue a business program coming from a family of entrepreneurs. When I failed to make the cut and was given a slot in Interior Design [at University of the Philippines-Diliman], it made me think how exciting it could be to choose a different path—the creative life.”

You wear many hats: interior designer, production designer, prop stylist—how do you juggle all three?

“Interior design projects take longer to complete so that gives me enough time to do quick production design projects simultaneously. Since they’re all similar in nature, I treat them the same and just prioritize the tasks that need to be done.” 

You’ve done production design for digital ads and shows from clients as diverse as Ford and Belo. What was the most fun you’ve had? 

“It was for a cooking show for TLC called Food Fix with Erwan Heusaff. I had to build a working kitchen inside a studio in Makati within a week. I maximized my ID background— presented 3D perspectives, hired carpenters instead of set men, and used real building materials than faux ones. The people were impressed because it looked so real, hahaha!”

Why the fondness for dark tones, moody hues, and overall dimness?

“I believe it’s just my personal style showing! I’ve always been drawn to strong and edgy than sweet and feminine [colors].”


Tell us about your design for Kapiterya in San Pedro, Laguna.

Kapiterya is located at the San Antonio Exchange (SAX) Terminal, which is a tricycle terminal in the works. My client is the Barangay Captain of San Antonio and he believes that good ambiance should be accessible to everyone, especially to the people of San Pedro. We’re currently developing more concepts in SAX! This includes a bigasan, a coffee bean shop, and a cigar bar.”

“We designed Kapiterya after the typical Filipino cafeteria, the karinderya. Besides the modernized turo-turo carts, we used various local materials to make it a place of Filipino pride—Vigan clay bricks for the accent walls, colored banig from Samar for the ceiling, and framed San Pedro festival photos as décor.”

You’ve recently designed the sex-toy shop Ilya. How did you approach the design?

Ilya has been selling products online for a year before they decided to build a physical store. My clients and I believed that their fun and playful branding sets them apart from their competitors so the design depended heavily on it. The challenge was to translate their website into the space without making it too loud and alienating.”

“Customer behavior was greatly considered. Since some people weren't comfortable with their products, we tried to make the store as customer-friendly as possible. Products were placed at a comfortable eye-level, can be reached without asking for help, arranged per category and can all be viewed in one walk-through. Ilya’s space also includes a hidden office and an ice cream stall so we needed to make sure that all needs were addressed by the layout.”

We love the quirky-Asian style of RiceTop restaurant. Please tell us about that. 

RiceTop is a very simple restaurant. They serve Asian rice bowls in two sizes: ‘regular’ for P150 and ‘starving’ for P195. I approached it like how I would design fast food places—cheap but with good taste.” 

“I’ve always wondered why fast food chains resort to printed graphics on Sintra boards. They are flat, expensive, and don’t do much for the place. Depth gives life to walls so I always use 3D objects as accessories. Since we were working on a very limited budget, I went to Korean & Japanese surplus shops and sourced out for used Asian objects.”


What’s next for Studio Mara?  

“I’ve wanted to design a space of my own—be it an office or a condo—but I’m still too practical for that so I just designed my existing room (topmost photo)! Studio Mara is still on an experimental phase. I can’t help but expand and ask for help, but it’s still as personal as it could get. I just want to keep learning and taking it all in.”

You can see Mara Manalo’s works on her website and on the Studio Mara Facebook page. Mara was one of our 25 Creatives To Watch in 2016. Check out our current 25 Creatives in the July 2017 issue of Real Living; download your digital copy of Real Living on the Real Living App. Log on to for more details.  

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