Talking Shop: Artist Merlin Mannelly
by Emily Wilson, August 3rd, 2021.
In Talking Shop, we spotlight the graphic designers, illustrators, ceramicists, florists, and other creative types whose work makes restaurants shine. First up is one of Merch 4’s artists-in-residence, Merlin Mannelly.
When Merch4Relief launched in March 2020, the idea was not to build a marketplace for existing restaurant merchandise but to design new wares that spoke to the unchartered time we were living in and the impetus of the project — to support restaurants directly. From the get-go, an important part of the business was that we didn’t only want to help owners, we also wanted to bring the industry’s individual employees into the fold. That’s why we specifically sought out artists who worked in restaurants. Some were really talented barbacks, baristas, and servers that we worked shifts alongside, or who we knew through friends. In turn, we were able to provide them with some extra dollars and something to fill the time, and most importantly, share in a sense of purpose for the industry we know and love.
As we brought restaurants on to collaborate with, there were a couple of rules. Nothing could be logo-only. Everything was to be limited-edition. So when our artist Merlin Mannelly (who worked with Pete at Roberta’s for several years) spoke to chefs and restaurateurs to kickstart the design process, he’d start by asking some open-ended questions: Do you have any inside jokes? Is there something you often say around the kitchen? Are there any objects or characters or ingredients that are meaningful to you?
“One of the most fun things about it was that restaurants would kind of let me go crazy because they were never going to do this again. It wasn’t like hiring an architect which is very permanent,” Merlin says. “The limited run aspect of it gave everybody the chance to just do something fun, they didn’t feel the need to be so beholden to their aesthetic.” For example, there’s the sold-out Llama San tee that looks like a Japanese Manga cover. Or the anthropomorphized orange character he created for The Narrows. “It’s very far from their aesthetic, which is very Art Deco and refined, but it was a play on a joke,” he says. Merlin loves a cartoon food guy, so The Narrows “I Got Peeled” tee was a dream design.
Merlin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and sign painter from Seattle. “I don't advertise myself as somebody who grew up writing graffiti, but a lot of sign painters did, and that’s what I did,” he says. Eventually, as many artists do, he found his way to New York City. Shortly thereafter, he joined the extended family of a certain cool-kid pizzeria in Bushwick. His task was bringing Roberta’s punk-rock aesthetic to life through hand-painted signs in their Tiki Garden and for pizza pop-up booths at various festivals. “A million people worked in the restaurant, and they would all go work at other places, and when they needed a sign painter, they would hit me up,” he remembers. Through friends of friends, he met some folks doing cool food projects in the Rockaways and immersed himself further in the craft of sign painting at the beach, incorporating as many illustrative elements as possible. “I’m always trying to push cartoons, which is obviously a big part of Coney Island sign painting,” Merlin says.
Fast forward to the onset of the pandemic. Merlin had recently returned from a yearlong stint in Japan, where his wife had a teaching gig and he had shifted his focus towards graphic design and digitally purposed illustration. Things weren’t looking too great for restaurants. Everyone was stuck inside. And he was quick to jump on the opportunity to make some fire designs that could put some money back into the pockets of struggling restaurants. He’s collaborated with classic institutions like Raoul’s, fine dining destinations like Nopa, the sandwiches and soft-serve shop Milk Drunk, the dive bar 169, and a whole bunch more.
Most people know him as @merlinsmagicsigns, but let’s hear it for Merlin’s Magic Merch! Follow him on Instagram, and hit him up if you need a sign painted, some hand-lettered illustration done, and especially for cartoon food guys.