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Celebrating Lilianna Manahan

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published May 08, 2024 5:00 am

With the head of a chicken and the fish scales of a mermaid, the Merchicken was a curious creature that fascinated us and many of the guests at “Funktion,” Lilianna Manahan’s first exhibit as a designer in 2012, held at AC+632. Despite its diminutive size compared to the other objects and furniture on show, it managed to dominate the conversation and has had a devoted following through the years.

It celebrates its 12th birthday with a new skin in porcelain, lovingly hand-painted by Lilianna, who is giving her beloved creation its own solo show, a first for the artist whose past exhibits have concentrated on her paintings, drawings and sculptures on paper, as well as jewelry pieces and home accessories. 

Lilianna Manahan painting gold on porcelain

Not that her proclaimed mascot has ever been neglected. Since she was a child, Lilianna would always be captivated by fantastical figures in cloisonné mounted on the walls of their home. Inherited from her grandmother, the style icon Elvira Manahan, the pieces were a springboard for her own imaginings of hybrid creatures, which she drew in a sketchbook. She was discovered early on at age 12 when her mother, the surface designer Tats Rejante Manahan, who was exhibiting furniture, asked her to paint ostrich eggs, which turned out to be such a big hit that it led to her first exhibit of a collection, “Omelette,” that was done in tandem with the venerable Gilda Cordero Fernando at Silverlens Galleries.

The 12th-year anniversary Merchickens in porcelain with 18k gold accents

“Gilda was so amused at the prospect of exhibiting with a kid,” Tats recalls.

After taking art foundation studies at Central Saint Martins in London and graduating cum laude at UP with a degree in Fine Arts, major in Industrial Design, she apprenticed with Kenneth Cobonpue in Cebu and did workshops in Europe with renowned designers like Fabio Novembre to hone her design skills and open her own atelier, Studio Magee, which debuted its creations at Funktion, where Merchicken was born.

After 12 years since its conceptualization, the Merchicken has taken a new form in porcelain, handmade by talented craftsmen in the Philippines.

“It almost came as instinct to make my first piece a decorative one,” Lilianna shares. “I grew up around decorative pieces, I love toys, humor and craft. So, this piece for me holds everything that I enjoy seeing and doing.”

A Blue & White Merchicken in porcelain

Done in brass with a wooden base, the creature was a leading character in the world that Lilianna conjured: “Merchickens are the Guardians and Generals of the flock, with large chests that enable them to store air so they can take long, recreational, deep-sea dives. While hunting in flocks, they are able to use their chests to buffet their prey up against each other until they get dizzy.”

A Pink Merchicken on blue clouds

Her design output would draw acclaim, landing her as one of six Rising Asia Talents at the first Maison & Objet Asia show in 2014 and being chosen to exhibit at the 2015 Paris Design Week show, “A Design Experience,” at the prestigious Galerie Joseph in the Marais. We witnessed the opening of this exhibit, where Lilianna made us proud for being the only Filipino represented side by side with celebrated international artists and designers. The Trojan Merchicken made its debut here, trading its former wooden base with a brass cage where soldiers were hidden.

Trojan Merchickens in brass

“They are keepers of the sentinels, modern day trebuchets and a source for the first line of offense during war.” The inspiration was Lilianna’s father, the TV director Johnny Manahan, who would read the Iliad to her and her sister during bedtime.

The Merchicken would be revisited through the years, having versions in fully cast brass and resin with brass parts. She has drawn it in pencil and gouache and has cast it in silver for jewelry and art objects, following her journey as a designer, which includes working with Filipino craftsmen with whom collaborations have resulted in two-way challenges that have pushed design and artisanship forward. The more she thought of its different iterations, the more it turned into her vessel of memories and imagination.

Merchicken hand-painted by Lilianna Manahan

For this 12th-anniversary exhibit, she chose porcelain, which has been very much part of our history, having a “Porcelain Age” (1,000-1521) through trade with Chinese merchants, as evidenced by porcelain shards excavated in the islands. Pre-colonial Filipinos viewed porcelain in magical terms, giving them names, burying them with ceremony, and passing them down through generations.

In Palawan, they believed they were created from shooting stars, tapped on them to summon deities and blew on them for vibrating prophecies.

Mint Merchicken on pink clouds

Lilianna also chose the material because “there’s so much that can be done, whether in colors, glaze, finishes and form.” Some are made of colored porcelain, which is different from a glaze because the color is in the clay. She also used some 18k gold for accents and found a lot of ways to showcase the material, including the quality of its whiteness and delicate nature, pushing it but keeping its integrity in all parts of the process.

In its porcelain incarnation, the Merchicken has also grown from 2 to 2.5 times bigger than the original. It’s ready to join the “big boys” at Secret Fresh Gallery, one of the first galleries to showcase art toys. Lilianna thought that “it would be great to show pieces that held the principles of art toys but in porcelain, a material that is usually used for fine art objects (art toys are usually in resin or vinyl).”

These “toys” are no doubt for connoisseurs who appreciate objects “that invoke humor, imagination and wonder, as well as remind people that there are always small bits of goodness to be found even in the worst times,” says Lilianna, who is just happy with the thought that her baby, at 12, can still manage to make people smile. “It was interesting to see that they had similar responses to mine as a child when I would look at my grandma’s collection of objects. A couple even named theirs Sir Henry Lancelot!” The designer couldn’t be any happier for her knighted birthday boy.


“Happy Birthday Merchicken” runs from May 5 to 17, 2024 at Secret Fresh Gallery, RONAC Art Center, Ortigas Avenue, San Juan.