Out of Print

Place of Birth

by Marla Darwin
Photos couresty of Happy Garaje.
The founders of Happy Garaje talk about Cebuano design, how their studio was affected by the pandemic, and creating where you live.

Happy Garaje founders and Cebuano designers Mark Deutsch and Johanna Velasco-Deutsch have an element of kismet in their story. Johanna, called Jo, grew up on the same street her whole life. Mark spent some of his childhood on parallel street without ever knowing her.

Together they would put up the design studio Happy Garaje in the same neighborhood, right beside Jo’s old home. The studio is a 2-storey house, where Mark, Jo, and their young daughter live on the second floor.

When I messaged Mark on Facebook to get a sense of their space, he replied with a doodle of a map. Two arrows on the map feature prominently, one pointing “20 minutes to the sea” and the other indicating “20 minutes to the mountains.” Whether you believe in kismet, chi, or good vibes, they all seem to refer to the allure of this neighborhood.

Not only is the studio in close proximity to nature, it’s also a stone’s throw away from the city proper. Cebu City has Happy Garaje’s imprint on it, with the official Cebu City map designed by the pair. Iconic Cebuano restaurants like Abaca Baking Company and Red Lizard were breathed into life with their forest creatures and Mexican bandits.

Talk of setting is important because Happy Garaje is also one. Friends I have spoken to who have been to their studio are generous with their words about their experiences. Manila-based designer and toy maker Ralph Guibani said it felt like “a meeting of the Cebu Avengers” when he described seeing his favorite local creatives come in and out of the space.

Cebuano artist and design educator Hannah Martinez Florendo once brought her class of children to Happy Garaje and remarked that nobody wanted to leave.

“I think people go over just to absorb all that creative energy. And it’s not limited to art either. Musicians, chefs, athletes... if you’re doing something meaningful and interesting you will at some point in your life end up in the studio,” she says.

Which is why, when I found myself in an online group chat with other small design studio heads at the start of the pandemic, I was not surprised to find Mark in there, cracking jokes about his disheveled hair during our first Zoom call. He’s in his element being in the community. We knew Happy Garaje as one of the more established studios in the group, and we benefited from listening to Mark’s insights on the state of the industry. Happy Garaje’s ability to seamlessly move from one medium to another is the sort of skill that can navigate crises and change:

“One thing that we have always thought about is being boxed in by titles and it seems like it is the norm to be called an illustrator, or a type designer and such. While these definitely help in getting work and being associated with a specific skill when someone wants to hire you for a job, we also learned that one doesn’t always have to be defined strictly by these titles. Illustrations, photographs, typefaces, these are things that we make but they can change over time or in different circumstances. To be able to adapt is a good thing. We realized this even more as projects during the pandemic were cancelled and we saw a lot of creatives adapt and thrive. The ability to see things that are worth making, to have your own ideas, or a particular sense of humor—these things are precious and can never be taken away from you.”

But as any artist will tell you, surviving isn’t enough. It’s a challenge to tap into your creative reserves if you don’t have a source for joy, love, and all the other things that allow for you to dream. In Happy Garaje’s case, their knack for holding space for people is a crucial part of who they are. In a year that has put gatherings on pause, I check in with Mark and Jo to retrace the steps of their journey and their reasons to be happy.

Mark and Johanna of Happy Garaje

Out of Print: Where did you grow up? How did your upbringing shape how you view art, design, and your creative practice?
Mark Deutsch: My mom was an interior designer by training but she was mostly a painter and a toymaker. I grew up moving around a lot because my father had worked his way up from a bellhop to an opening general manager for a hotel group, and this meant he would always have a new assignment every couple of years. I think what I learned early on, even though I didn’t really understand the concept at that time, was that you have to find ways to communicate appropriately to different kinds of people: different words, different types of games, different histories. Also of note is the fact that for two years in my life when I was about 7 or 8, my parents decided to rent out a house in Cebu, in the street across Johanna’s childhood home, the same street where the studio is right now.

Johanna Velasco-Deutsch: I grew up in Cebu City surrounded by my huge family. I have over 70 first-degree cousins on both sides (laughs). Our house was always full. There were always people dropping by and hanging out—relatives, neighbors, friends. I think that’s one of the reasons why people fascinate me and are always part of my art.

I also grew up in a house filled with books. My dad was a voracious reader and one of my favorite memories of childhood was going to bookshops with him and looking for our book treasures. The stories I read as a child had a big impact on me growing up. I was always drawing and writing stories because I was inspired by these books. My mom and dad encouraged my creative pursuits and signed me up for all sorts of art and music classes, which I loved.

How did you two meet? Did you work somewhere else before Happy Garaje?
Mark: Fresh out of college, my first job was with the non-profit organization Ramon Aboitiz Foundation (RAFI). My time at RAFI had a big impact on the way that I approach work, and I enjoyed my time there very much. I had the chance to do field work and be in communities in Cebu doing a variety of tasks, from setting up computer labs in schools, to writing to designing and just being immersed and seeing how much disparity there is in the way that we live in Cebu. We still work with the foundation from time to time. I learned how to make materials for grassroots communities and remake them to fit the mold of institutional reports.

Jo: Right after college, I was in the corporate world for a few years—I did market research for Cebu Holdings Inc./Ayala Land and then brand management for Globe after that. Mark and I met during that time. Although we did, for a little while, live on the same street as kids, we only became friends after college. We hit it off right away and did creative projects together on weekends. We liked doing creative work so much that we decided to quit our corporate jobs and put up our own studio. Happy Garaje is the name we use as an artist duo and also became the name of the studio.

When I think of Cebu and creativity, Happy Garaje is one of the first names that comes to mind. How would you describe Cebuano design?
Mark & Jo: Cebuano design heritage is very rich and a big part of it has its foundations in craft, object making, and product design.

Cebuano graphic design feels like it is evolving at a much faster pace now than a decade ago. When we started the studio there was a big exodus of talented graphic designers and illustrators who now have successful careers abroad. We were one of the few from our peers who stayed and put up an independent design practice here.

Today, Cebu graphic design is very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the design world, and designers are doing it from home just as much as in faraway places. The vocabulary, images, and forms are a combination of things that are influenced by a global view, by specific interests, and personal experiences as people living here in Cebu—so the work is very interesting, varied, and peculiar.

What are your favorite projects? How does a project become a favorite?
Mark & Jo: We like a lot of our projects, especially because of all the wonderful people we got to work with. We worked as production designers for Disney Pixar’s Coco music video and Disney’s Art Attack, the latter was a show that we were big fans of as kids. Making picture books is always special, we’ve illustrated a delightful dual-language (Bisaya and English) children’s book called Kalipay and the Tiniest Tiktik, written by Christina Newhard (of Sari-Sari Storybooks). It’s a book about a girl who meets a new friend and the new friend turns out to be a manananggal (surprise!). Luckily, the manananggal in the story is vegetarian so the story is a happy one. Kidding aside, it’s a really excellent story about friendship and seeing beyond differences. We’re happy that Christina has brought the book (as well as others in the series of dual-language books) to more Filipino-American children in the US. We also designed the book Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish by environmental activist Tony Oposa, who we consider a superhero.

We are especially happy with our work for local brands like The Abaca Group. They are a restaurant group that makes really good food and they have many different kinds of dining places in the city. We like the work because restaurants are really places for family and friends to gather. We feel like a lot of our work comes from celebrating family and friendship. They let us do all sorts of things for their restaurants. In one of them we had seven-foot statues of a fictional wrestler whose name is also the name of the restaurant. It was a place and a rare occurrence where our interests in storytelling, sculpture, painting and branding all came together. It’s nice to have work in the city that you live in because people that are close to you get to interact with what you do and you get all sorts of surprising and sometimes funny responses.

We design toys and collaborate with industrial designers in the city to make objects. We got to design a shirt for Uniqlo and also worked with Jay Aldeguer and the Islands brand, and other independent labels in the city.

Perhaps one of our all-time favorites was being designers-in-residence for Door To Asia, a residency program for designers that aims to help local communities. The program flies in designers from Asian countries, groups them into teams, and immerses them in a community for close to two weeks to come up with communication design solutions for people/groups like farmers, community centers, small shops. This really opened our eyes to a different kind of communication design, which seemed like it was on the opposite end of the spectrum where the other end was working for big brands. Dan Matutina was our design director and he and Dang Sering invited us to join. Roxy Navarro and Russ Vergara were also part of the program and, if you are familiar with these designers, you can understand a little bit more about what motivates this kind of work.

Johanna with Summer at the studio.

How else do you enjoy working with the community?
Mark & Jo: Other community events that we enjoyed being a part of were: Tropical Futures Forum, which we organized with designer CJ Fuusner (a conference about creatives and their local community projects), Cebu Literary Festival, Geeks on a Beach (a tech startup conference), and Cebu Design Week. We’ve had Summer internship programs for art and design students. Once or twice a year, we do Storytellers’ Night where people gather to tell stories based on a theme, kinda like campfire storytelling. A lot of the stories shared are funny, surprising, poignant.

A huge part of a project becoming a favorite is the people we get to work with. Some people that have started off as clients/collaborators have become our friends. It’s nice to be a part of something where you get to build up on each other’s work. Making things is wonderful and most of the time the results are not totally what we expect.

For Mark and Johanna, the focus on community goes beyond inviting people to their studio. This communal spirit is in how they work as well. “A huge part of a project becoming a favorite is the people we get to work with,” they say. “It’s nice to be part of something where you get to build up on each other’s work.”

This year presented unique challenges, like the dissolution of the boundary between work and home. Your studio is literally an extension of your home. How has your studio responded to the pandemic?
Mark & Jo: 2020 was a big shock. Coming into this year, we were very excited about all our plans for the studio but then COVID-19 happened.

We got some new equipment for the workshop but the city lockdown meant we couldn’t do any production work. The design side of the studio was also greatly affected, especially at the beginning of lockdown. Since many of our clients are in the travel/tourism, hospitality, event industries, a lot of projects were either cancelled or postponed.

The studio is in the middle of the city, very near the business district, and the big universities and, by virtue of that location it has become a meeting place for our friends. They did all sorts of things here—from secret music gigs, storytellers nights, to board game nights, celebrations, or just hanging out for chit-chat—that has all stopped for the time being and we miss it.

On a more personal level, it also made our world much smaller. Our house is beside the studio but in the old days (laughs), our daughter would be in school, and one or the both of us would be in physical meetings. Now, we’re always at home, physical meetings have become Zoom meetings, school has transitioned into online classes, we’re cooking and gardening more, we have merienda together every afternoon, we sleep earlier (which would have been unheard of pre-pandemic). There are certainly more quiet moments.

From Left to Right: The Airplane Boy sculpture—one of Happy Garaje’s most popular works—and sculptures from a resort project.

We get a glimpse of your whimsical nature in your toys and fine art. Where are you at with nurturing this space of otherworldly adventure?
Mark & Jo: Well, what’s always been important to us is that we can take care of our family, take care of the people who work with us, hang out with friends, visit different places, create things, and tell stories. In many instances, all of these hopes and wishes make their way into the work.

During the lockdown, on some early mornings, the three of us would get up on the roof of the house and there are times we would say how nice it would be to be some place “better” and then our daughter would say how cool it is that we can all be on the roof watching the sun rise. The world is always bittersweet. It seems that pain and love all happen at the same time. We are responsible for fixing our mistakes and fighting for what we believe in, but, also, if we ignore the good things, then what for?

We feel thankful for being able to do what we do and having met the people who have been a part of the studio. We would like to make things that somehow borrow from that spirit of the delicateness of life, the things that are easily lost, and the things that always remain.

What are Happy Garaje's plans for 2021? What adjustments will you be making?
Mark & Jo: We’ll have less face-to-face meetings. The gatherings in the studio will stop for now until it is safe. Maybe we will make a bike-through, toy pick-up counter or something like that.

The client work will continue where it was paused by the pandemic. We have a small client list but our relationships with them have spanned years, and as long as we are still helpful to their growth and sustainability then our work as communication designers will hopefully continue.

Then there is the toy workshop that is a growing endeavor in itself. Our toy portrait project— wooden toy versions of people— has steadily been growing and going into its third year.

We’re illustrating some picture books, one for Tahanan Books, who we’ve always wished we could work with. We’re designing a book about local design with the Cebu Furniture Industries Foundation. We have an art toy show next year and a few other art-related things, including an exciting collaboration between Philippine-based and UK-based artists. The program is called Hand to Hand and was put together by Dang Sering, Craft Manila, the British Council, and the Manchester Craft and Design Center.

As always, we’re working with different Cebu City groups, Cebu Design Week, DTI’s FabFest to name a few. We had plans with Door to Asia to bring the residency to Cebu in 2020 but then COVID-19 happened. We will probably continue to lay the groundwork for that or some form of it to happen here. 

There is always something to do and opportunities to work with many different types of people even for a small studio and practice like ours here in Cebu. If the world changes even more, then maybe we can build a shed and watch more sunsets (laughs). ︎

Marla Darwin is a writer and founder and creative director of Natural Selection Design..