Interview with David Irvin: You want restaurant branding? It’s all in the details


If you’re a food-loving Angeleno with a penchant for checking out all the hottest-of-the-hot restaurants, then you’re probably already familiar with the work of David Irvin.

He isn’t a chef, a mixologist or a barista. He’s not a maitre d’. Nor is he a sommelier. But as the creative force behind design firm Folklor, the 43-year-old Irvin has put his spin on restaurants and shops such as Gjelina, the Tasting Kitchen, Hinoki & the Bird, Sprinkles, Mo-Chica and the entire Line Hotel, including all of Roy Choi’s restaurants therein – Pot, Pot Café, Pot Lobby Bar and Commissary.

His handiwork? Logos, menus, business cards, packaging and other tangibles and intangibles that have become the touchstones of a restaurant’s brand in the midst of L.A.’s burgeoning dining scene – at a time when “concepts,” for better or worse, are taken as seriously as what’s actually on the menu. You want brand identity? He’s got brand identity.


After all, might one go to Pot for the experience of opening its tabloid-size menu to see a photo of a pot-smoking ajuma as much as for enjoying Choi’s Korean hot pots? Yes. From the cafe, the brown paper bag with the big gold Pot logo of concentric circles is as desirable as the butterscotch brownie.

Though Irvin says his job is not to get in the way of the food, all the tiny details add up to part of the restaurant experience -- a button on a server’s uniform, an embossed card, letterforms that recall an old deck of cards.

On a recent afternoon his lineup of meetings included stopping by Terrine to discuss the new French restaurant’s logo and branding with chef Kris Morningstar and partner Stephane Bombet, then another at the Market in L.A. at the Medallion downtown, where Izzy Turk plans to open Lebanese restaurant El Souk. In between, he stopped by New Dragon for a bowl of wonton noodle soup. “I take lunch seriously,” he said.

Irvin, usually most comfortable staying behind the scenes, answered some of our questions about his life and work:

Where are you from?

I was born in Korea, not sure exactly where but was abandoned at age zero and left in a basket in front of this house, and the family that took me in was a Korean family that took care of me for about six years and then decided to put me up for adoption in the U.S. I ended up in Philadelphia, essentially that is my hometown, was raised by a single mother. It was a bit tough in Philly, as you would expect. Coming from Korea did not prep me for what was to come. I think a lot of my decisions are based on my unusual upbringing. I was exposed to all kinds of culture and especially foods. I thank my mom for that, we ate out a lot.


When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in design?

All I would do in school was draw, my mom would get calls all the time about my lack of focus. But in my eyes I was -- even if I was shopping or doing anything -- I was focusing on the small details: someone chewing or a particular smell or people’s mannerisms. My mom was a witness and a victim to my attention to detail. I went to school for fine arts, until I went to a senior show and they had communication arts. It was a eye opener for sure. “Do you mean I get to design movie posters and album covers?” That was the moment I knew.

What brought you to Los Angeles?

I moved to New York to go to Parsons School of Design in the ’90s. New York gave me my education, reality check – proving grounds for all types of creatives, fast paced, on-your-toes, always out hanging out, clubs, restaurants, bars -- music was all that good ‘90s hits, hip hop and R&B. Then I burned out after 10 years of working for places like the Arnell Group, Motown Records. I had a panic attack, I was doing way too much, burning both ends, so I got a call from MCA Records to come out for a visit, and that’s all it took. When I saw Venice Beach, I knew I had to move to L.A. I’m proud to say I’ve been in L.A. for 14 years. I still can’t stand the Lakers; Sixers for life. AI forever.

You worked at MCA Records but then ended up doing design work for restaurants?

When I got let go at Motown and got a year’s severance all I did was smoke weed and watch the Food Network and then go to the Amish market on the West Side and buy the same exact ingredients as what I watched and cook it that night. That’s how I learned about food and cooking, crash course -- that was a good time. Then I moved to L.A. to work for the man again at MCA. Then I met Kevin Hagen, my old business partner from Whitenoise Inc., that’s when we decided to form a company with Silvia Utiger, Kevin Hagen and myself, one of the first projects we worked on together was Sprinkles Cupcakes out of our Venice office before Venice got to be Venice. We ended up going on our own paths and that’s when I worked with Travis Lett at Gjelina creating the Gjelina brand. It was me and this cat from New York and I won the bid, just because he lived in Brooklyn and I lived, worked and surfed in Venice at the time. To me it’s really important to understand the client’s energy. My East Coast peeps would tell you I’ve been in L.A. too long, getting all cosmic on us. Well, it’s true, even brands are alive, so you have to pay attention to the details. Service is in the details.


And then it just snowballed from there?

I ended up designing the Tasting Kitchen’s interior, not sure how I got that gig but I learned a [bleep] load -- one thing is I will only do that again with an entire team behind me. Yeah, interior folks, I got mad respect for ya! Most of my work comes through word of mouth. I’ve made friendships with the best chefs in the city, and I don’t take that for granted. This is how I got to work on the epic Roy Choi project -- the Line Hotel was two years of my life and what a journey. I can at least cross off one of my wishes, branding an entire hotel including all services and restaurants. I always say I’m very lucky to be where I am and to work with the people I have worked with.

What was the first project that inspired you/challenged you/launched your career?

I would say Gjelina was that creative injection I needed to push the boundaries of what good design is -- my job is to take everything and make sense out of it all, essentially the name Folklor came to be because I was literally telling stories. It had to match the food, personality, culture, dishes, the people and of course it had to speak to the location/locals. The challenge is always making a place authentic.

The name was a really challenging issue -- I mean to this day people still have a hard time saying Gjelina. I broke it up phonetically to make it easier on the reader.... The beauty of Venice is everyone is unique and has their own flair -- so it was important to have the personality of the restaurant have different moods even if we are changing the image on a regular basis on the menu, that subtle human change makes it feel more grounded, design should never overpower the brand -- all should be in sync with each other for a restaurant to behave and work to its maximum potential.

I guess my most recent project with Roy Choi and the Sydell Group creating the Line brand was a dream to be involved in the project, just the pure scale of the project was a mind [bleep]. I enjoy seeing people interact with the brand -- have actual feelings towards it.


What’s next for you?

I always move forward, don’t dwell -- there is so much more out there. Don’t get stuck, also working with Travis from Gjelina, also David Myers on a couple things overseas and a project with Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson.... I consider myself lucky! Currently I have partnered up with a good friend of mine to pursue our own businesses, some are in the hospitality market, shhh....