“Playfulness is everything to be honest,” says Leigh Nelson, cofounder of a delightful little Brooklyn-based studio with the equally delightful, sing-songy name, LMNOP. “Ninety percent of our projects have some sort of playful element: even if it’s a corporate identity, there might be a color or something we push on to make sure there’s one surprise element. That’s why a lot of our clients are drawn to our work.”
What drew us to their work, too, was the thoughtful, bold approach the studio takes to corporate client work. Here on Eye on Design we’re cock-a-hoop about projects with two bookish feet firmly planted in the worlds of conceptual thought and research, or studios working with cultural clients. But it’s a rare treat to see studios working with those clients that most designers count as their bread and butter—the for-profits, commerce-led brands, and corporate clients—and treating them with the same level of experimentation and delight more often reserved for personal projects.
The bulk of LMNOP’s work is with the hospitality sector. This is not necessarily by design—“I didn’t start out with one particular clientele to go searching for,” says Nelson, but her background, and that of her former work partner Lindsay McCabe (who left a couple of years back to start a family and wave goodbye to city life), certainly steered them in that direction. Before starting the studio eight years ago, Nelson was working in publishing as an art director on titles like Marie Claire and Travel and Leisure, while McCabe was working in hospitality. “We picked up a hotel client very early on, and a couple of restaurant projects,” says Nelson. “Branding wasn’t such a thing for restaurants then: it was ‘all we need is a logo’ and that would be slapped on the top of a menu. We loved the idea of getting our hands on a lot of touchpoints that might not be expected.
After that, more and more clients were coming for restaurant projects.”
One of the studio’s projects exemplifying this holistic approach to branding is for Tonchin, a chain of ramen restaurants from Tokyo that’s just launched in the U.S. The client wanted a look and feel inspired by traditional Japanese design, but that also “felt unmistakably New York,” says the studio. As such, the designs used bold, geometric graphics and patterns to create eight different menu backs, as well as to pattern the ramen bowls and scarves worn by the servers. “The idea behind these patterns is that they can come together to form endless combinations, much like a bowl of ramen,” says LMNOP. “These geometric shapes are also a nice contrast to some of the more organic textures in the space, such as the ceramics light fixtures and chopstick holders (by artist Helen Levi) that sit on the menus.” The branding also informed the restaurant’s wall graphics, created by another LMNOP client (and regular collaborator) Carpenter + Mason.
LMNOP also created custom uniforms comprising navy work coats, railroad denim striped aprons, and Peel’s work shirts; as well as commissioning textile artist Alison Charli Smith to transform one of their patterns into a hand-stitched noren hanging over the door to the kitchen. In addition, it designed a mural of swirling noodles to cover the bathroom walls. It’s a beautifully all-encompassing approach that can be traced back to Nelson’s own love of dining, travel, and the idea of “experience” in a more nebulous sense.
“So much of design is just the whole experience, it’s not one thing, it’s all of the things working together to give you a feeling, especially when it comes to hospitality,” she says. “Your meal and drink is important, but a lot of it is more than that—it’s the social energy and vibe and the decoration on the wall, and how that menu feels in your hands. It’s a lot of things you might not know you’re taking in, but that are really important in conveying the overall brand image and feeling.”
The studio is still small, numbering just five people based in what’s apparently a hub of all things excellent in design at the moment—The Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The friendliness born of both being small in number, and working with the famously everyone-knows-everyone quality of the hospitality industries has meant that LMNOP has won work solely through word of mouth. “I’ve never gone after anything or had to pitch for anything so we’ve been very lucky in that sense,” says Nelson. “I also think I didn’t start out necessarily with a business plan or goal in mind, it happened very organically.”
It’s one thing winning work, but it’s another thing maintaining those relationships. The studio has form in collaboration, too: as mentioned above, it’s long worked with interior architecture firm Carpenter + Mason, both in terms of bringing one another into projects they’re working on and in creating the Bauhaus leterring-esque identity for the firm. “We developed a great relationship with them and know their aesthetic really well,” says Nelson.
When working on the firm’s branding, LMNOP went through a process common to all new projects: they asked the team to bring in visual references relating not just to design, but to anything at all. “You don’t have to know why you like or dislike it, you don’t have to have the ‘why’—but it’s nice to see things people are drawn or not drawn to, whether or not they relate to the project,” says Nelson. “If we’re doing a brand identity, maybe they’ll bring menus; and I remember Carpenter + Mason bringing us a lot of visual art pieces that were so minimal, like a canvas with just one black square. That was one of those things where you have that vibe and aesthetic and you have to figure out how to translate that into a corporate aesthetic.
“The Carpenter + Mason work was inspired by a few art pieces they’d shown us as mood references, so we were piecing together those shapes and ended up making those brand shapes. The type system is very simple and minimal, like they are, and like a lot of their projects are. They’re designers themselves so materials are so important.”
Back to that “playfulness”. It’s a word bandied about a lot in the graphic design world—not least in tiresome conference talks—but the refreshing thing about LMNOP is that their work really is, and from chatting with Nelson, I’m confident their studio culture is, too. Even the most cursory glance at the studio’s work for the Morgans Hotel Group confirms it: what other hotel designs have you seen that run riot with anthropomorphized buildings? It turns out that these illustrations are all created in-house–the studio’s designers also double up as illustrators. These ones are by Heidi Chisholm.
So how can studios get to the point where they’re able to push a client to take a more fun, bold route than they might feel comfortable with, or that they might expect? “Over the years I’ve learned to be able to read in perspective clients how much they might be willing to push the boundaries, in one sense,” says Nelson. “We get people attracted to our work for a reason, so they’re open to it. You can gauge their reactions and forecast the sort of client they might be and how much we can be creative and push a project.
“It we see a red flag it might be something we don’t take on, but in terms of pushing people a bit more, we’ve always been able to convince them that a route that’s more predictable isn’t something people will be talking about six months or a year from now, it’ll just come and go. So it hasn’t been too hard.”