Designing the Golden Arches

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Fast food is such a part of our lives we forget that someone invented it — and all the architecture, packaging and paraphernalia that go along with it.

A book is out and a movie comes out this month that tell the story of McDonalds — the people behind it and the design thinking that went into everything from the logo to the packaging and, of course, the arches.

The Founder, starring Michael Keaton, depicts the relationship between the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc, the marketing genius who wound up becoming a multi-millionaire on the back of the brothers’ invention.

Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away, by longtime public radio reporter Lisa Napoli, focuses on the relationship between Ray Kroc and his third wife Joan. On her death in 2003, Joan Kroc left over $200 million to NPR. Along the way Lisa tells the story of how postwar America gave rise to fast food culture .We also learn why her story starts at Santa Monica’s anti-nuclear sculpture Chain Reaction.

How Joan Kroc came to fund the Chain Reaction sculpture:

Joan Kroc became very close friends with Norman Cousins, the late Saturday Review editor and a major peace activist. He and several other people she got to know took Joan to see Paul Conrad speak in San Diego. He was a ferocious peace activist himself. Joan just fell in love with Paul Conrad and his ideals and his work and invited him on a yacht trip up to Alaska. He sketched out for Joan this 26-foot-tall work in cartoon form and said ‘if you give me the money, I’ll build this.’ So that’s how she became involved with this particular work. At the same time she was doing major funding of peace conferences and buying ads in newspapers to decry nuclear arms and really coming into her own as a philanthropist.

How McDonald’s was first conceived:

Dick and Mac McDonald came from New Hampshire at the dawn of the movie industry. Millions of people come here every year, bt these guys came out here because they wanted to get in on the game of film before there was even sound in film. They wound up hauling sets. It wasn’t very glamorous. And so in search of more entrepreneurial work they moved to Glendora, bought a movie theater, and ultimately opened a hot dog stand. Hot dog and orange juice stands were something that were very common in the early emerging roadsides of Southern California. People were driving, there was no air conditioning and they needed a drink and a quick easy snack. So they started one of those. Then they expanded and added ribs and hamburgers and fries. And then they expanded again and moved their shack, basically an octagonal structure, out to San Bernardino, because that was a very busy place of commerce then. And it grew and grew. And finally one day they decided, as more and more hamburger stands were opening, that there’s needed to be a little bit more efficient. This was the time of car hops where people served you to the window. People were so in love with their cars, they didn’t want to get out of them when they ate. But Dick and Mac recognized that if they sped up the process of serving you your hamburger and your fries and your milkshake that they could serve more people. And so that’s what they did. They shut down and they retrofitted their restaurant and came up with this efficient blueprint for serving food, almost like a ballet, in the little space that they had. And they were onto something. So much so that people came from all around the country to watch and mimic their little choreography of food.

How Ray Kroc got involved:

He was selling multi-spindled milkshake machine mixers, and the brothers ordered a number of them which blew Ray away because he couldn’t understand. You know, you could make six milkshakes at a time. But why would they need to make 36 milkshakes at a time? He wanted to go out and see this for himself. Because even though this was his stock and trade, this was a phenomenon. And so he flew to L.A. from Chicago and then drove out Route 66 to San Bernardino and saw the McDonald’s operation in full flush and was so in love with this incredibly efficient and clean system that the brothers had developed that he begged them to let him franchise it. He figured if he could franchise it that he’d sell way more milkshake machine mixers.

See over-the-top photos of the J&R Double Arch Ranch, with shag carpeting and gaudy floral wallpaper, in this 1968 spread in Architectural Digest (PDF).