David Irvin’s gray felt bucket hat sports a black band, a pheasant feather and double “bullet holes” on the rim. The hat, from London “punk tailors” Art Comes First, complements Irvin’s Fu Manchu goatee. Of course, it’s not surprising that the branding expert has perfected his personal style; he’s been creating memorable looks for years.
We’re at Gjelina, Irvin’s first restaurant client and an Abbot Kinney juggernaut. The logo Irvin created for Gjelina breaks down its name phonetically, with the “silent” G colored orange to set it apart from the other, black letters (and encourage proper pronunciation). With the logo, Irvin captured the restaurant’s eclectic essence and beat out New York heavyweights for the job.
His success with Gjelina was partly responsible for Irvin launching Folklor, now one of L.A.’s most influential restaurant branding firms. Irvin has gone on to tackle the interior design of pioneering Venice high-end restaurant the Tasting Kitchen and to design the format-busting menus for Roy Choi’s POT and Commissary. More recently, he was tapped by Sherry Yard and Sang Yoon to help relaunch Helms Bakery.
The Seoul native spent his first six years in Korea before he was adopted by a single mother in the United States and raised in Philadelphia. He studied graphic design and communication arts at Parsons School of Design, emerging with a “very to-the-book” aesthetic. He says he’s since “embraced the imperfections. It’s become a little bit more like painting.”
Irvin worked in New York for 10 years, starting with fashion-focused Arnell Group before shifting to Motown Records. He would often work 16-hour days and says his only escape was food. Irvin befriended chefs at the restaurants he frequented. They would later share meals and travel to cities (including London) to eat.
Irvin says an anxiety attack eventually necessitated a lifestyle change. MCA Records recruited him to work as an art director, and Irvin was ready to “go to California to just chill out.”
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He says he felt lost during his first two years in L.A., until he co-founded a company called White Noise, where he helped create the signature dot-on-dot design for Sprinkles Cupcakes. That design, he says, was a breakthrough of sorts.
Irvin’s stars recently have aligned with Roy Choi. After working together on the Line hotel’s restaurants, Irvin helped with the launch of LocoL, Choi’s community-focused, health-conscious, fast-casual restaurant in Watts. “Roy wanted a community place, open, no bars on windows, and all the seating is building blocks.” The plan is for the concept — and the movement it represents — to spread to other cities. “We hope this is going to be the next McDonald’s,” Irvin says
Folklor also is rebranding a mixed-use complex and park downtown, at Fourth and Main, part of a partnership with chef Kuniko Yagi, who will be opening Tokyo Strike, a 300-square-foot Japanese-rockabilly–meets-diner ramen shop.
So what’s Irvin’s secret? He believes in studying people before starting on designs. “Restaurants and art depend on individuals,” he says. “I don’t really have any rules. Once you have a formula, all the fun goes.”