As the executive creative director at Once Upon a Time, Jay Schwartz is responsible for creating the brand identity for the agency’s hospitality clients, a roster that includes EDITION Hotels, Major Food Group, Gurney’s Resorts, Restaurant DANIEL, and many more. Here, Schwartz discusses his early beginnings, his hands-on process, and what he’s currently working on.
Tell us about your background.
I’m a fine artist by nature and a graphic designer by trade. I started a hospitality branding and digital agency called IdeaWork Studios in Santa Barbara in 1999. In 2001, we expanded to Las Vegas, where I was brought in to work with major hotels, resorts, and casinos. We expanded again in 2010 to New York, where I was able to create brands for some of the most iconic and renowned hoteliers and chefs in the world. IdeaWork was acquired by Once Upon a Time, a London-based agency, in 2019. I’m currently the agency’s executive creative director and my focus is 100 percent on hospitality.
What led you to your career? How did you become interested in branding?
As a young designer, I was creating logos and collateral for restaurants and hotels and that morphed into naming new venues as my clients opened restaurants or hotels. I started creating more well-rounded identities as the agency started to grow and other team members were supporting the ongoing marketing of the brands I created—we needed a set of standards and guidelines. There was no branding curriculum and nobody used the word branding. It happened for me organically, necessity being the mother of invention.
Describe your approach to branding.
When I take on a project, I immerse myself in what I’m building. I’ll visit the site, do a comp set tour and analysis, and interview all the key stakeholders, but I’ll also sit at the local bar or restaurant and talk with people. Why are they here? What made them choose this place? How did they find it? What compelled them to book? Now, with the strength and multifaceted expertise of a larger agency, we have strategists and planners who take a data-driven approach. I’ll still do my immersive process, and we’ll layer in the strategists’ findings. We push each other to get to the core of what works best for the project.
What is the most difficult part of the creative process?
You can’t turn creativity on, and you can’t turn creativity off. If I’m not feeling something, it’s difficult to get into a groove. I’ll create visuals and collateral for a brand and then go back and look at it again a week or two later and take a completely different approach. It can position me as difficult at times, but most creatives are in the same boat. Conversely, when I’m in a groove it’s impossible to turn it off—getting the ideas out takes precedence over everything else.
Tell us about your recent projects.
I was brought in to build a brand for a restaurant in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. The process was challenging because there were a lot of stakeholders, but we got to a good place. I was then brought in to rebrand the hotel as well, which became ModernHaus SoHo. Because of how the hotel was presented, we had to re-rebrand the restaurant, which became Veranda SoHo. It’s such a beautiful property and so full of potential that I’ve taken on the role of creative director for the brand and get to keep telling an evolving brand story through all touchpoints within the hotel, Veranda, and now Jumpin Jacks, a special venue that transitions from daytime to nighttime.
Another fun project was creating a new lifestyle hotel brand called CIVILIAN for [hotelier and owner] Jason Pomeranc. Jason was very involved in the process, and we explored a lot of different avenues and directions that manifested themselves in the new CIVILIAN Hotel in New York. I’m currently working with a great F&B partner to brand the restaurant and rooftop bar, too.
I’m also in the middle of rebranding two properties in Israel—one in Jerusalem and one in Tiberias. I started with a clean slate and ownership has put a lot of trust in me and the process, and it’s great to see this brand become something special in a great part of the world.
There are several other projects on my plate, but a really cool one is creating the brand for a private lido/club/restaurant complex in Malta. The project details are still under wraps, but it’s going to be one of those special global destination projects that come around once in a career. The project was affected by global conditions but it’s back on track and the pause provided me with the opportunity to take a deeper dive into the original work and refine and enhance the visuals.
What do you love most about the hospitality industry?
I love when hospitality is done right. I love walking into a new space and picking up on the details and subtleties. I love when I can acknowledge that someone has put thought and craft together to make a lasting impression. Hospitality is not a place or a building. It’s an opportunity to create lasting memories that guests will carry with them forever (yes, that sounds corny, but it’s true). It’s all in the details: the way a phone call is answered, the lapel pin on the maître d’, the feel of a business card, the whimsical saying underneath a coaster at the bar.