Sqirl’s Creative Director on Building a Brand That Breathes

Scott Barry chats about collecting inspiration and the restaurant’s regrettable missed connection with Chloë Sevigny.

Image via Sqirl

Image via Sqirl

december 8, 2016 | Magenta

Scott Barry is a Los Angeles-based creative director and the man behind thebrand design of Sqirl, the cult L.A. eatery that began as a jam company in 2011. Its small space in Silver Lake has become an influential foodie destination that’s credited with no less than kickstarting an entire American dining movement. Barry has touched every facet of the brand, from the restaurant’s daily menu to the pages of chef Jessica Koslow’s first cookbook, “Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking,” which was released by Abrams in October.

Now, Barry is working on the design of an 8,000 square foot dining “compound,” slated to open in 2017, that will be part gallery, part restaurant, and part event space. It’s a culmination and expansion of Sqirl’s success over the last several years, building on relationships with local farmers and creatives as well as envisioning a brand that has room to grow.

“We’ve always been really interested in the social dynamics and the cultural aspects of food,” says Scott. “I think right now chefs are way more conscious of how their decisions affect many parts of the city economically and socially. A lot of people we work with at Sqirl are artists too, and it just made sense to connect it all.”

He recently spoke with Magenta about how he stays creative amid daily demands and an unpredictable schedule.

First Thing

I brew my own iced tea at home, sun tea, and then I usually sit on the porch and work and write emails in the morning. But my days are random. In the last year, there have been so many meetings all over the place. I love morning routines, but I haven’t been able to have one lately.

Serial Interests

I obsessively collect periodicals and books. I’ve been really into serial collecting lately, like trying to get whole editions of things.

I’ve been after a lot of interior magazines from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I recently moved into a studio in Chinatown in Los Angeles and there’s an architect who just moved in there as well. His name is Paul Prejza. He and his wife run a firm called Sussman/Prejza, which has been a really big graphic and interior and architecture firm in L.A. since the late ‘70s. They did the ’84 Olympic branding. They’re incredible, but she passed away last year so he’s dealing with the archive. I’ve been helping him go through some of the books there. He has a whole set of Domus magazines that’s been really amazing to go through.

One Book, Two Book

In the studio, I keep everything hidden away except one or two books that I’m thinking about at the time. My studio is just a single table and two shelving units that I custom built. The shelving units only really hold one book each, although they’re big units, so they really help me to focus and digest those two things.

Being Sqirl-ly

I look around and people seem way more focused than me. I think with Sqirl our work is pretty unfocused. Allowing a brand to be flexible, allowing it to breathe with time and to open up, is something we’ve explored, for better or worse.

Jess, my partner, totally trusts me so we generally don’t really show each other stuff. We just do it.

Deadline Driven

One thing we do for the restaurant is custom-designed, custom-printed menus. They’re very experimental for menus. I’ll get the actual ingredients the night before or the day before, because all of our food is driven by the market, so they’re challenging because there’s not a lot of time to think about them.

A lot of times I wish I had more time, but deadlines create efficiency.

Chasing Biscuits

I always ask a lot of questions and will approach random people. You always need to be interested in what other people are doing and be able to be interested in the world and have that influence your work.

We’re trying to put together a limited-edition vinyl record for the Sqirl cookbook, and we wanted to have four people each read a recipe. We thought it would be amazing to get Chloë Sevigny to read this recipe for flaky-ass biscuits. But it’s been very difficult to get her.

I was in New York recently, walking through SoHo, and I see her walking down the street. I tapped her on the shoulder. I was like, “Excuse me, are you Chloë Sevigny?” And she’s like, “Umm, yeah.” You know when you do those things and you’re like, “Shit, I should not be doing this?” I said, “You know we’re doing this thing, blah blah blah, and I sent you an email,” and she’s just like, “Uhh, yeah, okay. Let me take a look at it again.”

I haven’t heard from her since. It’s fine. The record’s not going to happen. Who’s going to take her place?

On Mentors

I went to Cal Arts for grad school in design. There’s a professor there named Mark Owens. He lives in Philadelphia and he’s a design educator and designer himself.

I think he helped me understand that designers aren’t just designers anymore. They’re writers and cultural movers and artists, essentially, because you can do a lot more with design than just work behind a computer. You can move in really any way that you want. Design is really just a tool, not a profession.

Red Light Sound

I collect music and listen to music obsessively (a recent mix is here), from first thing in the morning to the time I go to sleep. I DJ, too. I usually only listen to non-word driven music for the first half of the day until like noon.

I listen to a lot of Internet radio. At the moment NTS just moved to Los Angeles and it’s very exciting. To my neighborhood, actually. They’re an Internet radio station from the U.K. I’ve been listening to a lot of Red Light Radio which is really, really good. They’re out of Amsterdam. Dub Lab is an amazing Internet radio station out of L.A. that’s a 10-year institution.

Good People

When we started Sqirl six years ago, restaurants weren’t really this whole branded experience. With the new spot we’ve taken an opposite route, where it’s thoroughly structured and thought out, and we’ve created actual skeletons to make all of that exist. Sqirl is this bubbling disaster that’s somehow taken hold.

I think a brand really is just the people behind it, so if the people behind it are good people and interesting, and allow their brand to be a part of them, then you feel that.