Decoding Design

Is McDonald's winning the Olympics of chic fast-food design?

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McDonald's has been collaborating with hip Parisian designer Patrick Norguet to redesign its stores and coffee cups in France, with sophisticated and smart results.

McDonald's is the official restaurant of the 2012 London Olympics--and, perhaps counter-intuitively, the chain could be the winner in an unofficial competition to be the world's most stylish, design-conscious fast-food company.

This month, McDonald's unveiled its second collaboration with elegant Parisian designer Patrick Norguet: free, reusable ceramic coffee cups that will be offered in France. The cups are nothing like the paper or styrofoam vessels emblazoned with the McDonald's logo that most of the world is used to seeing. Norguet's new McDonald's cups are minimalistic and feature foam bands in a rainbow of lovely colors that aren't brand compliant--they come in colors other than that of the golden arches: pink, blue, orange, even in gray and black. The McDonald's logo appears in a very subtle way on the foam band and discreetly on the bottom.

Late last year, Norguet remade the interior for McDonald's French restaurants. Here's one look:

There are a lot of lovely birch plywood details, styled to reference the branches of a tree and to delineate different areas of the restaurant in an aesthetic way. The shapes and and placement of walls and furniture look beautiful, but they're also designed to maximize acoustics so diners can hear each other effectively in conversation. The designers used a lot of futuristic white, too. And Norguet's high-end "Still" metal chairs, created for Italian manufacturer Lapalma and which usually cost more than $200, served as the model for the restaurant's stools. The floors are those he created for fancy ceramics-maker Lea Ceramica.

Here's another image from Studio Norguet:

Norguet once worked for Louis Vuitton. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2009, Wallpaper magazine named him "Furniture Designer of the Year." Why would he take on a low-brow brand like McDonald's?

A press release from Norguet's studio states that "designing the new architectural identity for [McDonald's] restaurants in France...[is] a project which is exciting in terms of its scope as well as in its technical and sociological constraints, since it concerned McDonald's returning to its founding myth: familial fast food. If the brand was originally founded on the family, its image has little by little slide towards a more urban and adolescent tone."

Clearly, Norguet was up for a design challenge.

And he's not the only one. Other fast-food chains are experimenting with similar strategies, too. Wendy's, for instance, earlier this year announced it would roll out more modern, streamlined stores in the United States in 2012. These are based on research Wendy's conducted at a series of prototype restaurants it created around the U.S. in 2011 to update its image. Burger King Asia-Pacific last year hired design firm Outofstock to create an inviting interior for a pilot BK Garden Grill restaurant in Singapore; Dezeen reported that these designs will roll out in Japan in 2012, too.

But McDonald's, having hired such a sophisticated and recognized designer as Norguet, one who is taking a smart approach to his remake of the chain in France with a mix of high-low design and earth-friendliness, could be leading the pack.

His makeover for McDonald's in France reaches beyond a mere veneer of modernness: there seems to be a real consciousness of how design can influence a company's reinterpretation of the fast food industry, from a better customer experience to addressing waste in packaging.

(Note: by focusing on McDonald's design projects with Norguet in France, I'm not overlooking the deep-fried or other non-healthy food offered at McDonald's. But I should add that in my opinion, it is worth mentioning that the redesign of McDonald's menu offerings in recent years to include apple slices for kids in Happy Meals and salads with fresh mixes of lettuce and grilled chicken is worth noting, too.)

Combined with the ultra-modern-looking pop-up McDonald's restaurant that just opened at Olympic Park in London, which the chain says will be dismantled and 75% of its materials recycled and reused, the company seems to be taking an ultra-modern approach to restaurant design--at least in Europe. Here's a look at the Olympic restaurant, below:

And, here's another shot of the soon-to-be offered reusable coffee cups by Norguet, just because they're so pretty. The press photos aren't too shabby either, further giving McDonald's the sheen of chic. These factors could very well attract today's customers more than just a cool-looking new interior.

Images: copyright Studio Norguet; McDonald's Corporation/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure