L.A. Designer: Jessica Fleischmann Says Cheese at Grand Central Market

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Bon Appetit Magazine recently declared Grand Central Market to be America’s 10th best new restaurant, despite the market’s near century-long existence in downtown Los Angeles. The magazine justified its choice based on the market’s mashup of exciting vendors, both old and new — from Roast to Go, the taco place that’s been around more than 50 years to the newly arrived, trendy egg sandwich spot Eggslut

It’s not just the cuisine in the market that is changing, but the look of the space as well. The market owners have introduced vendor standards that outline color, type of surface treatments, and mandate that every leasee have a neon sign. 

One of the new vendors in Grand Central Market is DTLA Cheese, an artisanal cheese and prepared food stand helmed by chef Reed Herrick and owned by Lydia and Marni Clarke, who are granddaughters of a founder of Alta Dena Dairy; their family owns the Cheese Cave in Claremont. 

Eats of Borneo 11-10-2012

They invited graphic designer Jessica Fleischmann to create an identity for their counter. Fleischmann, principal of her own company still room and partner in Group Effort with architect Rachel Allen and landscape architect Allen Compton of Salt (above, Fleischmann is flanked by Allen, right, and Compton, left), brought in Rachel Allen as the architect for the space, and together they created a milk-white space, accented with pale pastels, dark green grout, and the black of the market, in contrast with the market’s colorful surroundings. 

DnA talked to Jessica about what’s involved in designing for food — and creating a very modern space while maintaining the character of the beloved market.

DnA: What is so alluring about cheese and how did you design your stand in Grand Central Market to draw people in? 

JF: It’s obviously about what happens in your mouth with the flavor of the cheese, but it’s also about the cows or the sheep or the goats that produce the milk and where they came from. And then how all of the traditions that go into it that produce these amazing results that are also visually kind of stunning.

The owners are super excited about cheese and they wanted an identity that expressed that excitement.

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DnA:  So the design on first impression is strong and simple. And the logo is not a cartoony cheese like gruyere with little holes in it. Tell us about it.

JF: The graphic design is sort of abstract. The logo is an abstracted wheel of cheese as well as a modified asterisk, indicating a burst of flavor. We were very conscious about not wanting to do anything cute or kitschy. We wanted to do something really fresh and something forward-looking, very modern, but also kind of timeless. We wanted to reference what the market’s doing in the sense that the market is very much excited about food and food culture. It’s excited about being part of a city and a civic life, but we didn’t want it necessarily to look old-fashioned. The market has this long history, but we wanted to look at the future and do something a little bit outside of trends.

DnA: Was it a challenge to go into a place that has a strong legacy and identity like Grand Central Market does and put in something new?

JF: The market has an amazing history and that history is evident when you walk in, just in the architecture and the structure and the sort of forest of columns and the high ceiling with the clerestory windows and the neon which is very much part of the continuing legacy of the market signage.

DnA: You’ve gone for white and crisp and minimal look. The older signs are more colorful and more decorative and in a way, I suppose quirky.

JF: So we wanted to stay and we thought that by being simple and straightforward we could stand out a little bit. If you look closely at the sign, it’s white neon, but it’s three colors of white just like the cabinets are three or five colors of white.

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DnA:  How do you avoid not getting over-sophisticated?

JF: I think some of that is something that I just try to do in my design as I listen to who the client is, and what the product is, and who it’s speaking to.  It’s not about me expressing some ideas about aesthetics.  It’s about who they are and Reed and Lydia and Marnie (the chef and owners) and their team are extremely exuberant, friendly, excited about the food that they are communicating to us; that was something that just had to come through. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it’s not complicated. The flavors might be complicated. The flavors might be dense and complex, but these people are are trying to communicate their simple exuberant love of cheese.

DnA: You have come to work in the food market within the last couple of years which is when this transition has been happening. Is there a new rulebook down at the market, for signage and so forth?

JF: Levin & Associates Architects put together a pretty comprehensive guideline of colors and what you can and cannot do. Their goal is to have coherence  and unity. They don’t want it to look like a theme park or crazy collage.  Part of their rules is that each stall exhibits its own unique identity and that their signage and their lettering comes from their product and their approach to their product, but then there are certain materials that aren’t allowed. A lot of it just has to do with the level of quality.

DTLA Cheese menu

DnA: But it’s interesting, because it did use to be a bit of a visual melee, but that was also part of its charm.

JF: And I think there still will be a bit of a visual melee, and as long as Rachel and I are and still involved there will be, because we’re reading the rules, but we are also pushing the boundaries of those rules.

But I recognize that every single stall is part of a much larger entity, and I like rules, because then I know where I can push things. The original market had absolute rules. Back in the day everything was very neat and tidy, and things would be color-coded with one color: some meats were one color, and poultry was another color, fish another color. It was very segregated.

DnA: There are some great markets around the world. Every great city used to have its central food market. Are there any that you have a particular fondness for?

JF: I would say that every market that I go to has its own personality. But it also has that market thing; part of it is sonic as well. You know its smells and sights but it’s also the sounds and the reverberations.

A great example is La Boqueria in Barcelona and Borough Food Market in London. They’re all amazing.

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DnA: So you answer to the DTLA Cheese client, you are answerable to the owners of Grand Central Market, and thirdly you answer to the customers. And Grand Central Market does in a way represent a crossroads between two different customer demographics in downtown. Are you conscious of not wanting to be exclusive to one group?

JF: Well I grew up in Los Angeles, and I worked for the Department of Cultural Affairs decades ago in in their Festivals Department. The offices were right around the corner from the market, and I would have lunch at the market every day.

And I see many of the same stalls there and I see the unique products and services that they’re providing, and the experience that they’re providing. And I think that that is part of our heritage as Angelenos. It’s exciting to bring in some of the other cultural experiences that wonderful new vendors are bringing in. But when I first heard about the redo of the market, I was concerned for some of the older vendors and especially the ones that sell nuts and seeds and mole and amazing tacos. I even kind of like that liquor store, even though I never purchased anything there, but the fact that it’s there, it’s part of a community and it serves the community that lives there. But demographics are changing in downtown Los Angeles. I think that there’s room for for both the old and the new. I think that the market is is conscious of that and is working with that. They are working with some of what they call the legacy vendors to bring their signage or their countertops up to code or to the new standards. Rachel and I were asked to consult with some of the legacy vendors on their signage and I asked, why do they need to change?

DnA: Because as far as you could see the signs were just dandy.

JF: Fine, yeah. So you know Rachel sort of turned and looked at me and said like oh yeah that’s the question… That’s why I work with you, because you ask those questions.

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DnA: Are you helping any other vendors adhere to the new rules? 

JF: Sticky Rice was the first new vendor that Joseph Schuldiner (consultant to the Central Market) brought in, and they had been a vendor at the Pasadena Farmers Market, and they wanted a brick and mortar place.

So Sticky Rice moved in, and made very little changes.  They made a sign, and that was it.  And now they’re about to really renovate the space and also expand into another.  They’re going expand with a different kind of street food, sort of Thai dim sum.

What we are doing for them will be completely different in that it’s extremely colorful, which is drawing on Thai culture and Thai kind of street food culture.  It’s very, very bright and saturated.  But it’s similar in that it’s very much about the vendor and it’s also very simple.  There’s not a lot of fancy lettering or cursive or swoops or anything like that, it’s very straightforward.

DnA: As a graphic designer who designs books and ephemera for arts institutions, is it fun designing for food?

JF: Absolutely. I love food. One of my first jobs out of college was cooking. I thought I wanted to be a writer so I got a job in a restaurant, and they didn’t need a waitress and so I cooked for several years and have always thought about opening a restaurant which now I know is absolutely not the thing to do.

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DnA: You have a family that is quite musical.  Your late father Ernest Fleischmann used to head the LA Philharmonic and your brother Martin Fleischmann is a concert promoter, but you landed in visual arts.

JF:  I’ve always been visual. I see things, I look at things, looking at beautiful things gives me delight. You know, even looking at ugly things gives me a sense of delight. I mean there’s just something in the visual world.  My sister’s a playwright, my mother is a landscape architect so, the men in the family, maybe they were musical. And you know, my sisters also quite musical but it chose not to work in it. I played the cello a little when I was a kid I was never that good. So, that’s the way I came out.

DnA: How did you choose graphic design? 

JF: A roundabout way of answering that is when I got into graphic design, I didn’t even really know what it was. I didn’t really know what book design was. I thought I wanted to design book covers, because I wanted to communicate the content of the book to the person on the outside. So I was interested in the interface between aesthetics and ideas. I wasn’t that into all the wacko stuff that was going on about 20 years ago, because for me, design always has to have a function. I am very interested in quieting down a lot of the noise, partly because I am so visually inclined. I mean even here (in the KCRW studio) I’m looking at all the colors that are going on here and the deep details and textures.  It’s very comforting when I can get the message clearly. And that’s another thing, it’s not just visual noise, there’s so much information, there’s so much media coming at us all the time. I mean when I was in school there was no…

photo (37)DnA:. . . iPhone.

JF: There was barely any Internet. I got my first email address at CalArts. And now it’s overwhelming how connected we are. So I think for me the idea of making design that can create a little bit of space or even a little bit of clarity for people,  and also be very direct about what is on the inside is fulfilling.

I think that my work will always have a level of that straightforwardness, also always with the touch of some kind of surprise or delight or whimsy.

See more of Jessica Fleischmann’s work in Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy, an exhibition opening this weekend at the Santa Monica Museum of Art; collaborated on a piece with artist Suzanne Lacy. Fleischmann also created the web site and identity for the forthcoming LA Islam Arts Initiative, starting later this month.