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Brains Behind the Brand

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Brains Behind the Brand: Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa

Ina Garten spoke at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Photo by Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

Ina Garten spoke at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Photo by Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

Millions of people are fans of Ina Garten, known for her “Barefoot Contessa” Food Network show and cookbooks.

Audiences adore her because she makes entertaining seem easy and approachable. How does she make hosting a sophisticated dinner party look so simple? By sharing useful information like a coveted friend who has the scoop on all the secret sources in town. Her advice on cooking (add coffee to chocolate desserts to make them more chocolate-y) and decorating (use monochromatic blooms to create a harmonious floral arrangement) will never steer you wrong.

So when Garten spoke about entrepreneurism in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s “Ideas of March” series, the at-capacity crowd knew they were in for a treat.  Indeed; now that it’s April, Garten’s words continue to inspire.

“I don’t like to sit in a classroom; I like to do,” Garten told her audience of college students and fellow entrepreneurs. “I like not knowing what’s coming. I love solving problems. I love making decisions.”

Instead of delivering a presentation, which is essentially what Garten does with each episode of her cooking show, she held a conversation on stage with Kansas City food writer and philanthropist Mary Bloch.

“If you love it, you’ll be really good at it,” Garten said of entering the business world.

While working as a policy analyst in 1978 in the White House Office of Management and Budget, Garten felt creatively unfulfilled. She spotted a New York Times ad for a gourmet shop in the Hamptons called “Barefoot Contessa.” Although she had a passion for food and entertaining, she’d never run a business before.

“You can always stand on the side of a pond and find a million reasons not to jump in,” she said. Intrigued, she made a low offer and was surprised it was accepted.

Garten said learning from role models is critical. Hers were Julia Child and her love for French cuisine, and Eli Zabar with his Manhattan food empire.

Garten built up the “Barefoot Contessa” store and sold it to two employees in 1996. She began writing cookbooks that became bestsellers, leading to her own Food Network television show in 2002 — this is when she really became famous.

Garten’s shows feel authentic because she has her real friends over for meals and parties. Many of the episodes feature her husband, Jeffrey, who as a Yale international business professor, is no slouch himself.

Garten declines offers to launch a magazine and endorse products because she “wants a life” and intends to protect the business she has built. She initially turned down the television series, too, but producers kept nudging. That willingness to let yourself go outside of your comfort zone, she said, can be the key to bigger and better opportunities.


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Inside the Mind of This MAD Designer

Early in my career, I worked for an architect. Roger possessed a brilliant mind, always curious, always pushing, always learning. His clients were mostly residential, a few commercial. The office was small and he ran it like an atelier in the fashion of Le Corbusier or Mackintosh. Like them, he designed in toto and sweated every detail. Like them, he too was a painter.

Roger lived in a Midtown six-plex his entire adult life. When I asked why he never designed a place of his own, he talked about the struggle of designing for oneself. He could confidently talk to a client, listen to his story, assess the situation, devise a solution and shepherd it to completion. But for himself? There were too many ideas to explore, too many variations that he wanted to try, too many options that presented themselves and demanded realization. It made more sense — for him —to take a humble approach, design a sofa or table or chair as the need arose, have it crafted by like-minded artisans, live modestly and meaningfully. I was young then and heard what he was saying, but I can’t claim that I understood it.

Today I am no longer a young man. But happily, I understand.

When we at MAD started discussing a poster design, my brain bubbled with ideas. But once I was staring down a white sheet of paper, those initial ideas evaporated and I suddenly understood everything that Roger had told me. Designers fresh out of school often complain about being hamstrung by client demands, and feel that their creativity is being squeezed out of their work. In time, most learn that the restrictions imposed by clients — budget, time constraints, audience needs, philosophical differences, whatever — can be a blessing, quickly focusing one’s mind and illuminating the path forward. Lifting any and all design restrictions can actually create its own unique kind of paralysis. It’s a common question among designers: When you can do anything you want to do, what do you want to do? That can be tough to answer, and finding that answer was a huge struggle for me as I imagined MAD’s first poster.

You can see where I landed. How did I get there? By imposing some restrictions on myself. We’re still a young company and we wanted to create something that could be printed economically and priced so that virtually anyone who liked it could afford it. Conversations with local printers led us to the modest but respectable dimensions of 14-by-21 inches. The color palette and typography are taken from our existing graphic identity. MAD is a partnership and wouldn’t exist if it weren’t, so thematically the idea of teamwork made sense. (Teamwork will likely be the theme of our next poster as well.)

Giving a twist to a well-worn cliché — and illustrating that with our brains driven by the rational and inspirational in equal measure — nicely distilled our vision of creative alchemy. I’ve always loved pattern-making and the decorative arts, which led to creating a background pattern of laboratory beakers. A game of solitaire inspired the symmetry of a flipped image à la a deck of playing cards.

Last, but not least: Who isn’t amused by the image of a brain in a jar?

Check out the poster in the MAD Shop.