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April 27th, 2011 RUTH BROWN | Culture Features
 

Thingmakers’ Mark

The branding boys at OMFG make Portland look cool, one Pop-A-Shot at a time.

culturefeatuer_omfg_3725DESIGNERS WHO GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY: (From left) Fritz Mesenbrink, Mathew Foster and Jeremy Pelley. - IMAGE: Randall Garcia
     
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It’s 5 pm Friday, and the area around Southwest Stark Street and 10th Avenue is heaving. Pretty young things crowd the bar at Clyde Common, drifter hipsters lounge in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, and office workers click-clack cycling shoes through Stumptown Coffee for an after-work pick-me-up. The City of Portland couldn’t create a better tourism ad if it tried.

The food is great, the coffee is good, and the Wi-Fi is free. But it takes more than that to pull a crowd in this spoilt-for-choice market. Nowadays a business needs an image, a hook—a brand—to entice customers to choose it over the other craft roasters, buzzed-about restaurants and independent retailers around town.

Meet Jeremy Pelley, Fritz Mesenbrink and Mathew Foster—also known as the Official Manufacturing Company, or OMFG—the three designers who make this sort of branding happen. They look a bit like an art-school rock band: Confident, sharply dressed and always in control, Pelley, 34, would be the frontman; bespectacled, articulate Foster, 29, the bass player; and lanky, wise-cracking Mesenbrink, 32, the drummer. They wouldn’t look at all out of place in the Ace, or Clyde, or Stumptown. You’d never know the days they spent designing the menu you’re reading or the coffee cup you’re sipping from. And that’s exactly how they like it.

MEAT HERE: Olympic Provisions “collateral” (above) and the famous broken “Meat” sign (below).
Credits: Images courtesy OMFGCO

“We don’t want to be the focus to our clients,” says Pelley with a shrug. “Once we’re done with the branding, we hand them the keys.”

The company formed officially at the end of 2009. Foster and Mesenbrink worked together at Wieden & Kennedy. Pelley was the wunderkind behind the look of the famously fashionable Ace Hotel Portland, designing everything from the signage to the stationery. Meanwhile, Mesenbrink had scored both Stumptown Coffee and Clyde Common as clients, both brands that have become icons of that vintage, cool-but-classy look so many other venues in Portland (and beyond) strive to emulate.

After all three left their respective posts, they ended up renting a studio together, and eventually combined forces as OMFG. With three of Portland’s hottest properties under their belts, the company was well-placed to help other businesses tap into that now very identifiably Portland brand of cool.

One of OMFG’s first projects was Olympic Provisions, the industrial eastside charcuterie bar co-owned by Clyde Common’s Nate Tilden. As with Clyde, the outfit worked on the branding: the logo, packaging menu—they even designed an entire font. But the most important thing they created was something they weren’t commissioned—or possibly even qualified—to do.

“We were working with them for about a year, and we had this idea to do this broken sign,” says Pelley. The sign in question was a giant light-up wall decoration spelling out M-E-A-T. It would have cost thousands to have custom-made, and neither party had any money to spare, so the designers set about building it themselves. “It’s a miracle that we didn’t kill ourselves,” laughs Pelley. But they pulled it off, and the “broken” sign has become one of the restaurant’s most iconic images, snapped for newspapers and magazines across the country.

OMFG’s work for Olympic Provisions highlights the almost uncomfortable space the trio occupies between marketing and design. Did a group of former Wieden designers really just stumble onto such a marketing hit by happy accident?

Certainly, they don’t come across as your average ad men. Their jeans are indie designer rather than thrift store, but they’re clearly not afraid to get a bit of paint on them. There’s no talk of “target demographics” or “buzz,” and the concept of “viral videos” is met with sneers. Drawing inspiration from Pelley’s eclectic work at the Ace, they refer to themselves as “thingmakers” rather than “designers.”

As they tell it, they’re not trying to a construct a particular look or brand to appeal to the city’s hipsterati or trend-seeking tourists—just helping brands they already like “tell their story.”

“It’s never been, ‘Oh we can’t do that ’cause it’s not ‘Portland.’ It’s never been that,” insists Foster. “It’s inherent. It’s not like, ‘How do we make this Portland?’ it’s: ‘How do we make this smart, funny, creative?’”

Inherent as it may be, beneath the slang and swear words, it’s clear there are three savvy minds, finely tuned in to the city’s sensibilities.

The company was recently recruited by local vegetarian chef Aaron Woo, owner of Northeast Alberta Street’s Vita Cafe, to help brand his new venture—a high-end vegan and vegetarian supper club. It was a tough gig. Even in a hippie town like Portland—or perhaps especially—the V-word can be instant poison for a restaurant.

“It’s almost a bad word,” says Pelley. “Right away we had to start with a name. We threw out all these different directions, like Pythagoras was the very first vegetarian, before ‘vegetarian’ was a word, so we were talking about that. And then at the height of the Roman Empire there was a guy called Seneca the Younger that started a vegan and vegetarian sect, and that was really punk rock and really controversial, and were talking about the name ‘Seneca and Friends.’”

“We realized early on, ‘OK, Seneca started a vegetarian cult. Let’s not go that [route],’” says Foster. “The whole thing that sets this restaurant apart is the food, so how do we focus on the food and not the philosophical point of it?…. Writing the press release and the tag line, we wound up on: ‘A restaurant that’s built on vegetables, fruit and grains.’”

The result—they eventually settled on the name “Natural Selections”—is evidence of the effect a team like OMFG can have on making or breaking a new business. The small space (designed by Fix studio, also responsible for Portland icons like the Doug Fir and Clarklewis) is just two doors down from the casual Vita Cafe, but it feels worlds away, with a vintage aesthetic similar to that you’d find in and around the Ace—and nary a V-word in sight.

And then there’s OFMG’s crowning achievement to date, a collaboration between Nate Tilden and Ace Hotel co-owner Jack Barron with a lofty ambition: to create a “non-douchey” sports bar.

“So many people in this town don’t have cable, love the Blazers, but aren’t sports guys, ride their bikes everywhere,” says Mesenbrink (who, as if to illustrate the point, is sporting a “Rip City” bike cap; also designed by OMFG). “I was like, ‘Where the hell do we go to watch a game?’ It felt like you could either go to a total shithole or the douchiest place in town.”

The result was Spirit of 77, a giant single-room space in the Rose Quarter, with real food, cocktails, craft beer (not a PBR in sight) and a giant 221-inch screen towering above it all, blaring everything from basketball to boxing, day and night. It was a very deliberate move to give the bar a “community” atmosphere, says Foster, and it works brilliantly—whenever the Blazers score, the entire bar, seated at rows of benches facing the screen, absolutely erupts.

Under the guidance of Barron, OMFG spent four months physically building the bar, the tables and another giant light-up sign, as well as Spirit’s centerpiece—a custom-built Pop-A-Shot game. “Initially we were going to buy one, but for a four-lane game like that it’s like 28 grand,” says Pelley. So the trio found a friend who worked with electronics and built it themselves. The game has become one of the bar’s biggest draws.

More recently, the company has run campaigns for Google and Nike and was part of “those” Portland Timbers billboards. It’s now fielding offers from companies in L.A. and New York, who want to buy a piece of Portland style for themselves. (A resort in Venice Beach wanted a “Portland” restaurant. The trio said no.)

“If there was ever a project we’d just outright turn down—maybe the GOP?” says Foster.

“Though it sounds like an interesting challenge, right?” laughs Mesenbrink, only half-joking. “How do we make the Republican Party sound cool…?”

 
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