Hong Kong design house breaks the McDonald's mould with style
The dining experience at a high-end restaurant might be poles apart from that at a fast-food chain, but to architect Nelson Chow - who has created interiors for both - there's no difference in the design narrative.
One minute, Chow, founder of up-and-coming Hong Kong design house NC Design & Architecture (NCDA), was decking out the swank Krug Room at the Mandarin Oriental in Central, and the next he was in Shenzhen, reimagining a McDonald's outlet.
Chow, in fact, is making over a slew of outlets for the world's largest hamburger chain, for even though McDonald's is one the most valuable brands ever, reportedly selling more than 75 hamburgers a second worldwide, competition adds to the heat in the kitchen.
Decades after American Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald's in 1954, it became a kind of comfort for the masses to know that wherever they went in the world, they could walk into a McDonald's and it would look roughly the same. Other brands such as KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Subway followed suit.
Today, the tables have turned. Ed McMahon, a community planner and resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, says most fast-food chains are willing - sometimes eager - to give their restaurants an individual style, so that new franchises "can be an attractive community asset rather than a homogenising eyesore".
NCDA is rolling out new-look McDonald's restaurants in up to 500 locations across China, beginning with the new Shenzhen flagship.
Gustavo Maggio, co-founder of Singapore-based design collective Outofstock, says the trend towards more upmarket design of fast-food chains is linked to customer demand for healthier food. By designing the space to feel "less plastic and artificial", it gives the impression the food will also be fresh and natural, Maggio says.
He says that when Outofstock rolled out a new design theme for Burger King Asia-Pacific in Singapore in 2001, "we used the concept of 'flame-grilled' as a starting point, closely associated with our memories of barbecues and camp cook-outs, often shared with family and friends. This led us to name the project Burger King Garden Grill, which is based on bringing the garden, as well as colours and textures of the outdoors, into the restaurant."
Chow concedes that storytelling through design and architecture "is harder" when applied to a chain, but necessary in view of the competition. He coins the word "glocal" - "how a global quick service restaurant needs to go local".
Chow, as McDonald's lead designer for Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, has created a line called The Eatery, which initially will apply to China, South Korea and Malaysia. (In Hong Kong, the refit of certain McDonald's outlets is being undertaken by Sydney-based Juicy Design, which is working on stores across the region as well as in North America).
"The underlying philosophy of The Eatery is a farmers market, where you find the freshest ingredients and food at very reasonable prices. And, like a farmers market, McDonald's is also a very communal area," Chow says.
The design incorporates localised elements that are respectful of the individual culture and interchangeable depending on the country. "For example, for China we studied the latticed window frames, translated them to 2D graphics and applied that to the tabletops," he says.
Three-dimensional canopies above Chinese-style round tables are laser-cut to resemble steamed bun baskets. Stools are fashioned in the mushroom shape of dai pai dong seating, and screens are inspired by the abacus.
There's a uniform design for each country, depending on the restaurant's size. A 50-seat outlet may have just a few elements; for a 250-seat restaurant, various elements will be used to form smaller zones, creating a more intimate environment.
So it seems that today at trend-setting fast-food restaurants, bling is out and sophistication the order of the day, with a side of style.