Chicago graphic designer and artist pals create custom bill folders to benefit restaurant workers

·3 min read

After moving to Chicago and immersing himself in the city’s street art scene, Wicker Park graphic designer and engineer Ian Firestone started his Be Optimistic art brand and associated Instagram account in late 2014. Firestone began creating graphic stickers that combined logos from popular culture brands with his Be Optimistic catchphrase. He began selling the stickers at galleries like Chicago Truborn on Chicago Avenue and Galerie F in Logan Square, but to expand his audience and spread his positive message, Firestone started handing the stickers out to people, and soon they started showing up all over town.

“Really it’s been a way for me to have a creative outlet,” said Firestone. “I figured what better way to create art than to have a positive message, so I went with Be Optimistic. If you know me, it’s definitely something I subscribe to personally, so it was a good fit.”

After seeing the popularity of his Be Optimistic brand, Firestone developed another concept for an exhibition, but this time it had a charity component built in, but as he played out the logistics of the show, he hit a few stumbling blocks. He didn’t have a gallery, but also realized that a gallery show wouldn’t allow the economics to work out the way that he had hoped.

The exhibition titled “Thank You” consists of 140 black restaurant bill folders that he had custom made in China, with the words Thank You stamped in gold foil at the bottom. Firestone then reached out to a group of artist friends, mostly in Chicago, and sent each one four folders to customize as unique, functional works of art. He then created an e-commerce gallery site, with sales benefitting the artists and the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, which helps restaurant and gig workers facing unprecedented economic hardship from the coronavirus crisis.

“I did it to support the servers and support the artists,” said Firestone. “A lot of artists aren’t getting a lot of work right now, and I’m a foodie. I eat out a lot — or at least I used to — and have a lot of friends in that industry. I set it up so that 40% of the proceeds go to the artists, 40% to the fund, and 20% to curation and costs. Some artists have donated back their proceeds, so in those cases, 80% is going to the fund.”

Firestone sees the embellished bill folders as artwork that can be displayed but he has had some restaurant industry workers buying them to use.

“I wanted to keep the bill folders affordable so that servers could purchase them to actually use them in their jobs, so most are $75 or under,” said Firestone. “I really wasn’t able to get it done in normal times. But When COVID and the pandemic happened, I realized that a no-contact show was very important. Galleries were having issues getting people in the door, and I realized that people would be more receptive to an online art show now.”

You can see the “Thank You” charity art show at


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