Serious Spotlight: Mara Manalo on Designing Spaces

by Ella Rivera

There are many daunting firsts, but transforming an empty space into something that looks good and functions well might be up there with the tough ones. Interior and Production Designer Mara Manalo of Studio Mara knows this too well. With a degree in Interior Design, more than 9 years of experience, and an arsenal of notable projects with clients like Globe, Jollibee, Bibingkinitan, Blake’s Wings and Steaks, she believes that good design is more than just what meets the eye and that it has to be accessible to all.


We talk with Mara Manalo about what’s it like to design your first space, the detailed process that goes into it, and lessons she’s learned along the way.

What was your first impactful memory of design in relation to the work that you do now?

My first project was a 50-sqm cafe in Antipolo. I was very idealistic and I really wanted it to be different. Interior design wasn’t as bold and graphic back then so I tried to mix and use materials differently—black and white chevron tile flooring, black paint and bricks for walls, concrete countertops, and “art” installations to finish it off!


Not all of it was executed as designed but I was really happy with how it turned out. I was lucky to have the guidance of my clients who were also architects and contractors. They fully trusted me and supported my ideas no matter how odd it was at that time like suspending dried branches from the ceiling or having painted wood logs—which I painted myself, haha!—as decor.

Monte Cafe. Photo from

What was your process like when you first started, and how does it compare to your current approach with projects and clients?

The process is pretty much the same, but I now do it with a team I can exchange ideas with and a bigger bank of knowledge that makes it easier and equally frustrating at the same time.


Every project starts with a thorough brief about the space—the current condition of the space, the requirements of the concept we have to build, the budget, timeline, and etc. From the brief, we design the floor plan and furniture layout based on the function of the space.


As we learn more about materials and construction through our projects, the more we know what we can do and cannot do with the design of every project. What materials would work given the conditions of the space, how much we can construct given the timeline, what is practical given the budget—these are questions I didn’t answer way back.

What was the first project that you fell in love with? How did it come about? Do you find that a particular set of ingredients or factors guarantee a satisfying project experience?

I love all my projects—even the hard ones, haha! I feel like every project is a first since they are all so different from each other. I’d say that my best projects were the ones where my clients trusted me the most. A lot of things can go wrong with a project during construction, but it becomes way easier and fun when a client completely trusts me.

How have you seen branding concerning space design evolve throughout the years?

Yes! When I started practicing interior design, design wasn’t given as much importance by the general public than it is now. I believe that Instagram and the evolution of technology contributed a lot to it. Clients started to ask for “Instagram-able” spaces and I believe that the importance of branding heightened with that. The need for beautiful spaces evolved into the need for a different brand experience—and this does not only involve interiors but all the other elements in a concept.

What’s a “first” that you’d like to see the Philippines adopt or have in terms of design elements or practices?

Simple lang, more value for our work and empowered interior designers!

Bibingkinitan branding by Serious Studio. Space design by Mara Manalo.

Is there an important lesson that you wish you knew when you first started designing spaces?

Observation is key. We can only design as much as we know so we need to consistently observe and learn about our different environments. It’s important to absorb as much knowledge as we can.

Any advice for people looking into designing their first space?

Know your space well and think of what it could be in detail!

See more of Mara’s work at

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