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The Branding Genius Behind the City’s Best Restaurants

Wizard of awes Marlo Onilla steps out from behind his design firm

By Andrew D'Cruz
Photography by Naomi Finlay

A funny thing happened to Marlo Onilla a couple of years ago as he walked along King Street West with his wife. The two were stopped at a light, waiting to cross, when she exclaimed, “That’s you! That’s you!” Here’s what she saw: a woman carrying a tote bag he had designed, a passing streetcar bearing his work on its side and a pair of buzz-worthy restaurants across the way that owed much of their trademark style – and success – to his keen eye.

“At that point, I realized this is what I live for,” recalls Onilla, principal of design firm Biography. “This is my reward.” He certainly isn’t in this line of work for the fame. Since launching his consultancy in 1998, the 49-year-old has flown under the radar, despite creating logos and visual identities for some of the city’s favourite restaurants. Nyood, Marben, Byblos, Toca, El Catrin – Biography’s client list reads like a potted history of Toronto’s recent dining boom. The bar for graphic design hasn’t so much been raised as it’s been exploded – thanks in no small measure to Onilla. Gone are the days when a few dozen menus run off at Kinko’s would do.

Onilla consistently finds ways to imbue subtle layers and storytelling into his projects. Take the logo for Cluny, the Distillery District’s enormous bistro and boulangerie. At first glance, it looks like just another faux antique seal. But closer examination reveals a chef and a baker, each wearing boxing gloves and wielding oversized tools, standing back to back – en garde against the competition.

Or consider his recent coup on King West, a 154-square-metre mural at the upscale Spanish spot Patria. Copper mesh covered in 17,109 cross-stitches veils the face of a Flamenco dancer. Fashioning the city’s most talked-about restaurant installation would be enough for most, but Onilla went further. He integrated those stitches into the overall branding – from the logo to the little Xs on the servers’ aprons – to create a unified whole.

Onilla didn’t set out to become a fixture of the dining landscape, but this fall he will open his own place, Ufficio, with a handful of backers behind him and a pescetarian menu courtesy of Campagnolo’s Craig Harding. “The beauty of Ufficio,” says Onilla, “is that there are no limitations.” And, it seems, quality knows no bounds: Servers will don 100 per cent linen jackets, and menus will be custom letter-pressed each time the offerings change.

As for the name: It means “office” in Italian, and if the new spot on Dundas Street West takes off Onilla can already see new “offices” springing up in New York, Los Angeles and beyond. Time, finally, for the humble designer to come out from behind the curtain and take a bow.

Originally published in our Fall 2015 issue as Wizard of Awes. Project Images courtesy of Biography Design.

Categories: Local Act

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