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Beefed-up by design

Say goodbye to the gaudy arches and uncool colors as, at last, McDonald's enters the age of mass good taste.

July 07, 2006|Blair Kamin | Chicago Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For better and for worse -- mostly worse -- McDonald's has had a profound effect on the American landscape. Its golden (actually yellow) arches, it's said, are a brand icon more recognized than the Christian cross. Its cookie-cutter buildings have turned vast stretches of suburbia into seas of asphalt. Its very name has become synonymous with garish design, which is why we call those bloated houses that cram far too much square footage onto tiny suburban lots "McMansions."

So the new, Starbucks-like look that McDonald's has rolled out in this classic Middle American test market may tickle more design palettes than a knock-your-eyes-out architectural whammy by Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava ever will.

We visit museums by those architectural stars, but we practically live in McDonald's. The company estimates that more than 25 million people a day eat at its U.S. outlets.

And now McDonald's is playing a controversial, high-stakes game of architectural catch-up, transforming its harsh, plastic-heavy interiors into soft, earth-toned places where you might linger with your laptop in an upholstered chair beneath a stylish pendant light. On the outside, McDonald's wants to ditch those screeching ketchup-red and mustard-yellow mansard roofs for a more muted look. By year's end, assorted aspects of the makeover -- mostly changes to interiors -- will be in place in about 6,000 of McDonald's 13,700 U.S. outlets. They are part of a global "re-imaging" program that includes other new designs the fast-food giant has built for its 31,000 outlets worldwide.

While Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's is touting the changes as the inevitable path to the 21st century, a visit to four of its showcase restaurants in Columbus and its suburbs reveals a decidedly mixed outcome, which can be summarized this way: McDonald's new look serves up less aesthetic heartburn, but it needs a strong shot of architectural spice.

On the upside, the chain's model for a new building, a light-and-airy arched structure based on the famous golden arches, is (stop the presses!) pretty appealing. The refurbished interiors, at least in the Columbus area, are far more visually sophisticated and comfortable than their predecessors from the age of disco, leisure suits and glitter balls.

On the downside, the design quality of rank-and-file interiors that tweak the company's model is spotty, based on visits to several remodeled McDonald's in downtown Chicago. And there's more than a grain of truth to the argument espoused by dissident franchise operators that the planned remodeling of McDonald's exteriors, which hides the mansard roof behind a tacked-on front with an eyebrow-shaped yellow arch, differs little from the bland, brick-and-awnings facades of an Applebee's or a Panera Bread. It's as if McDonald's has gone too far toward the competition in doing penance for its decades of architectural sins.

The remodeling, quips franchise consultant Richard Adams of San Diego, a former franchise operator himself, "is too generic to hate." In one sense, to be sure, the changes are mere window dressing. They will do nothing to roll back the energy-wasting sprawl of the car culture that McDonald's helped bring to the rest of America from a drive-in hamburger stand in San Bernardino that the McDonald brothers (Richard and Maurice) opened more than 50 years ago. On the other hand, the changes will alter, in small ways at least, the everyday experience of millions of Americans. Indeed, the very fact that McDonald's is pushing for the changes shows how much design expectations have risen across America over the last decade.

At Target, you can pick up Michael Graves' tea kettles along with clothes by fashion maven Isaac Mizrahi. Kmart counters with bedding and other housewares by Martha Stewart. It's the age of the down-market designer label, where the highbrow and the lowbrow mix and mingle in ways previously unimaginable. And then, of course, there's Starbucks, which brings hip to the masses with its much-admired, multisensory mix of cool furniture, piped-in jazz and aroma-heavy java. Eateries such as Cosi have added their own design flair to the "fast casual" marketplace.

Four years ago, when its stock price had hit a new low, McDonald's was way behind this curve, trailing the expectations of a society that had shifted to quality-driven shopping along with health-conscious eating. The molded plastic seats that had symbolized cleanliness in the 1970s now represented sterility. And company leaders had grown uncomfortable with the overhanging double-hip parapet roof -- the so-called "double mansard" -- that McDonald's introduced in 1969 as part of a dull-brown look meant to combat objections that the original golden arches were eyesores.

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