Jingqi Fan’s chilli red and peony pink restaurant identity is a 90s-inspired palate cleanser
The kaleidoscopic visual look for the New York eatery MáLà Project digs into the rich visual history of China.
- Olivia Hingley
- 4 January 2024
New York’s MáLà Project restaurant takes its name from a famous Sichuan Dry Pot dish. Made with a blend of herbs and spices and fried in a signature Má (numbing) and Là (spicy) sauce, the dish is one that hit China’s culinary scene during the 1990s, making its way not only onto menus across the country, but the wider world too. So when the designer and art director Jingqi Fan started conjuring a whole new identity for the restaurant, she knew it needed to have a uniquely Chinese 90s nostalgia about it. “Think red decorative borders, flying dragons, and dumb big type,” she says.
Though Jingqi was keen to ensure that the visual look didn’t feel surface-level, run of the mill, or simply a “facsimile” of 90s Chinese aesthetics. So, she expanded her visual influences to other artistic and literary movements in Chinese history. Alongside late 20th century everyday ephemera, Jingqi looked to Tang dynasty heirloom seals, Su Shi classical poetry, Faye Wong’s cassette tape covers, and even Mao-era ration tickets. “I was interested in subverting these traditional elements and reimagining them in a modern context,” says Jingqi. “I decided to take on a more inquisitive approach to understand how certain Chinese cultural traditions shaped the visual landscape of both the past and present.”
Another visual element that roots the identity in tradition is the use of calligraphy, a highly esteemed artform in China and one that Jingqi has seen many Chinese restaurants using, “albeit poorly”. Collaborating with the calligrapher Guo Ming, the branding has a bold yet classic calligraphic wordmark that provides a “poetic interlude” amidst the rest of the kaleidoscopic identity. This wordmark is then paired with a type system consisting of a workhorse sans and serif pairing, one that emulates the “expressive and diverse” display styles used in 90s newspaper headlines.
The illustrator Lauren Doughty was enlisted on the project, her style fitting with Jingqi’s vision for the brand’s “whimsical” tone. Using her trademark brush and line work she created a luscious, mountainous spice garden – with traditional Chinese paintings providing the visual guide. “Doughty’s illustrations rely on the indelible mark of the inked brush,” says Jinqi. “Each stroke feels brisk yet considered – retaining the original movement of the brush itself.” In the same universe is BénBén, the brand’s Lion mascot who’s modelled on the Guardian Lion, who in Chinese folklore is inspired by the “youthful and rebellious spirit of the teenage deity NéZhā. Featuring on the restaurant’s sign and popping up at various moments in the dining experience, BénBén enhances the identity’s playful side while also nodding to the rich narrative history of China.
While varied, the identity’s colour palette is predominantly made up of chilli red and peony pink, a nod to the “fiery” cooking style and flavours. The secondary palette, however, takes cues from the films of iconic directors Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, both well known for their striking high-contrast style. “We opted for a palette dialled up on warmth and saturation whilst retaining a degree of softness and an analogue quality,” Jingqi says.
It’s not every day you get asked to create a whole new visual look for one of your favourite restaurants, so Jingqi knows this project is a special one, landing in her inbox when she least expected it. “It was such a pleasant surprise because they were the first restaurant I had tried when I moved to New York and I’ve been a fan of their food ever since,” Jingqi says. “Looking back, it was truly meant to be!” Being raised in Beijing for the first 13 years of her life before moving to Vancouver, Jingqi now sees the project as “secretly a love letter to my home”.
Overall, she hopes that MáLà Project’s look will give its attendees a more all-encompassing perspective on China’s visual culture. “Food is a reflection of culture and a carrier of memories, and a restaurant is this magical context where those memorable experiences are created,” she ends. “While I would, of course, love for people to experience all the flavours and culture in a new light, at the end of the day, I’m the happiest when guests are simply having a good time, surrounded by the visual universe we dreamt up.”
Jingqi Fan: MáLà Project (Copyright © Jingqi Fan, 2023)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.