Design in Demand: The Man Behind the Brands

Writing by Beth Lebwohl, Photography by Chris Wiley

“I got canned six and a half years into my architecture career. Laid off,”Jett Butler tells me after finishing the last of his coffee.

“I was pretty full of myself,” Butler says. “Literally, I would be playing guitar in a band and I’d be like, ‘Seriously, guys, when’s my solo?’ So, I had to learn how to listen.”
Jett Butler, Owner of Föda

He doesn’t lace his words with regret. His gaze remains steady and kind. Still, I wonder if a decade earlier I might have found him tossing thunderbolts.

“I was indignant,” he confesses. “I was like, ‘You’re going to let me go just like that? Without giving me a clue, without telling me how I could improve?’ So, my boss said to me, ‘Well, Jett, I think you could learn to listen a little better.’ And it didn’t take long for me to realize he was right.”

This admission feels key to understanding why Butler, the head of Austin’s FÖDA design studio, is an internationally regarded designer. Sure, he’s made a few mistakes and had his pride flattened. But, like any good entrepreneur, he wrested lessons and opportunity from the experience.

Case in point: When his architecture career came to a screeching halt in 2003, Butler saw an opening. He had an “aha!” moment about starting his own design firm—one that specialized in branding—while on a trip to Uppsala, Sweden, where he traveled shortly after being laid off. Upon his return to the states, he birthed FÖDA, which means “bring forth” in Swedish.

At first, FÖDA was a one-man show in Austin; Butler’s talent for drawing earned him gigs. His easy manner and imposing physicality probably didn’t hurt, either. However, a few years into building his business, he began recalling the words of his old boss.

“I was pretty full of myself,” Butler says. “Literally, I would be playing guitar in a band and I’d be like, ‘Seriously, guys, when’s my solo?’ So, I had to learn how to listen. When you’re a designer, listening is critical. Most people don’t think of it this way, but design is a service industry job. Drawing is the least of it. Clients come to you because they have a problem they need solved, a story they need told. You’re there to make somebody’s life easier.”

When Butler figured this out, FÖDA started to take off. Its present incarnation is a studio propped up by a staff of eight who work out of a small office on Lavaca Street. They constitute the go-to team for entrepreneurs who seek high-end branding. Locally, FÖDA’s award-winning work can be found in the neon signage of Violet Crown Cinema, on the menus at Elizabeth Street Café and even amidst the wayfinding of I-35. FÖDA has helped build Austin, as Austin has helped build it.

A SNAPSHOT OF FÖDA’S WORK

chavez_austin_foda fodastudio.com ByGeorge_FODA

That said, FÖDA’s portfolio doesn’t have a Texas feel—perhaps because Butler, originally from Virginia, has traveled all over the world. (He explains to me that his father worked in aviation, had easy access to plane tickets and toted his young family across the globe. “I was very, very lucky to have had that upbringing,” Butler notes.)

Because he traveled so much in his youth, Butler developed a strong sense of place. That’s why, as an adult, he’s been able to head up a design firm that expertly tinkers with ambiance. Evidence of this appears at Sway, a Thai restaurant on South First Street. Restaurateur Jesse Herman hired FÖDA to create branding for the restaurant.

Ducking into Sway is like entering a giant wooden tea box—the place feels warm-yet-spare. To complement this aesthetic, FÖDA introduced subtle branding elements. Sway’s signage features only slight shifts in line weight, and while FÖDA did introduce a few flower-bursts of color in the restaurant, they’re confined to matchbooks and coasters.

FÖDA may have exercised a light design touch at Sway, but Butler and his team still had to do heavy listening to get the job done. They tuned in to Herman’s vision for the restaurant, and they also listened to the music of architecture itself. Michael Hsu, the architect who designed the restaurant, employed a kind of peek-a-boo style: many structural elements seem to hide and reappear. FÖDA tried to reflect this in Sway’s branding.

Butler’s team also paid heed to historical data. According to FÖDA designer Alice Du, “A lot of our work may seem deceptively simple at first glance because our decisions tend to be clean and considered. But when you look a little closer at the body of work created for a specific client, you’ll find lots of cues from their history and culture embedded into the branding.”

Elizabeth-street-cafe-citygram-magazine-austin

While working on the Sway project, for example, FÖDA waded knee-deep in Thai architecture and the Thai flower garland, which has a unique construction. Butler even reached out to a professor in Thailand because he wanted to be accurate with the menu translations.

FÖDA knows how to expertly create a brand, and the firm is hired to do it often. The team was also responsible for the branding of Sway’s neighbor Elizabeth Street Café, a Vietnamese restaurant established in 2011 by hot-ticket investor Larry McGuire.

If Sway is night, Elizabeth Street is day. Here, menus and signage incorporate hot pinks and blues with art deco geometry.

“The main direction we received from Larry McGuire about how he wanted the branding to look were the phrases ‘Hanoi 1920’ and ‘grandma’s house, if she was cool and lived on South First,’” says Butler, who considers McGuire a visionary.

With such open-ended direction, Butler’s team had to engage in a listening (and questioning) process with McGuire that resembled a Socratic dialogue. Multiple Q&As helped them discover, together, branding elements everyone could agree on: an intricate mashup of French and Vietnamese graphics and typography. Landing on the specifics wasn’t easy.

“The main direction we received from Larry McGuire about how he wanted the branding to look were the phrases ‘Hanoi 1920’ and ‘grandma’s house’, if she was cool and lived on South First.”
Jett Butler

“Both [McGuire and Butler] are passionate and opinionated,” says Ryan Smith, creative director at McGuire Moorman Hospitality.

While McGuire, a chef-turned-restaurateur, has often hired FÖDA, the firm doesn’t necessarily specialize in restaurant branding. FÖDA has designed programs for TEDX, and titles for film and books, too. But there’s something about FÖDA’s long-term relationship with McGuire—a gentleman who appears to open a new Austin restaurant every year—that’s symbolic of Butler’s own visibility and success… and failure.

McGuire (along with Herman) remained loyal to Butler during a difficult period. After the recession hit in 2008, Butler had to lay off his entire staff. By 2010, he was working alone in his living room, again. He was also dealing with a difficult breakup and a health crisis. But he kept putting one foot in front of the other and, eventually, put FÖDA back together.

I ask Butler whether this crisis changed the way he does business, and he suggests that it strengthened his commitment to his studio. “I feel like everyone [at FÖDA] is about putting the team or the studio or the work before themselves. I don’t think I was that way before.” But he is now.

In a way, Butler continues to reap the rewards of his mistakes. Having learned from them, he’s built a professional team whose members are present to the needs of others. His people, while immensely individually talented, collaborate peacefully. And they know how to listen.


Writing: Beth Lebwohl
Photo credits: Chris Wiley

Beth_Lebwohl_pic (1)Beth Lebwohl

 
Beth Lebwohl earned her writing chops here in Texas, where, for several years, she produced stories for EarthSky, a globally syndicated science radio program. In addition to her passion for the written (and spoken) word, Beth loves the graphic and decorative arts, tea, goat farms and the warm-hearted folks of Austin. She is a proud native of Queens, New York.


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