Dripping in nostalgia, restaurant MáLà Project's identity by Jingqi Fan hurtles us back to the ’90s
Flipping through the jewel-toned images of MáLà Project’s identity by New York-based graphic designer and art director, Jingqi Fan, is akin to stepping into a time machine. And yet, it’s not a regular time machine, for the identity takes us to a place that feels drenched in nostalgia, but is also immediately modern. MáLà Project, based in the Big Apple, celebrates neo-Sichuanese cuisine. Known for its dry pot dish – made from a complex blend of 24 herbs and spices, and wok-fried in its signature Má (numbing) Là (spicy) sauce – ‘it’s a fiery medley of mouthwatering ingredients that first snuck onto mainstream menus in 1990’s China, just as the country opened its doors to the rest of the world.’
When Fan began building a world for MáLà Project to live in, she was drawn back to ’90s China, a unique time in the country’s history, when Eastern tradition and Western novelty coexisted for the very first time. “The bilingual communications that followed were often a haphazard patchwork of elements that felt refreshingly new and rule-bending,” notes Fan. To draw from this unique cultural duality, and set a course for MáLà Project that distinguishes both its spirit and business, she dove deep into research. “Food is a reflection of culture and a carrier of memories. When this project first began, I noticed that the modern Chinese restaurant scene abounds in stereotypical motifs that only scratched the surface of a country with history developed over thousands of years,” she says.
From Tang dynasty heirloom seals, Su-Shi’s classical poetry to Mao-era ration tickets, and Faye Wong’s cassette tapes, Fan’s research was eclectic and wide-ranging. Focused on subverting the obvious and expected, she wanted to understand how certain cultural traditions shaped the visual language of the past and present. “Only in this way could I create a visual universe that embodied MáLà Project’s nostalgic spirit – not just a facsimile of the ’90s Chinese aesthetics,” she reveals.
In keeping with the bilingual brand system, Fan made space for both English and Chinese text. As the guests are mostly English-speaking, from a functional point of view, Latin typography was prioritised. The Chinese lettering – often incorporated to achieve visual impact – is aimed to aid guests who might feel more comfortable reading in their native tongue. “In addition to the more hardworking execution of typography, we also incorporated Chinese calligraphy within our visual language,” notes Fan, about the gestural quality of the calligraphy, which “provides poetic interludes amidst the explosion of colour and energy seen elsewhere in the identity.”
The choice of type too, with a sans and serif pairing of Latin and Chinese typefaces, adds an extra layer of flavour to the brand – the sans pairing of Helveesti and Hei nods to the subtly spiky letterforms often seen in the ephemera of decades past. “While the spikes were designed to compensate for ink bleeds, it also resembles the pointy corners in the pungent spices used in MáLà Project’s signature dry pot, like star anise, chilli peppers, and cardamom,” reveals Fan. On the other hand, the serif pairing of Rungli and ZhuZiGuDian is inspired by old style letterforms, lending to the nostalgic tone.
The brand also brims with a suite of illustrations by Lauren Doughty that hark back to the elemental beauty of Chinese brush and ink paintings – a quality carried over to the mascot of the brand, BènBèn. “He is based on the Guardian Lion, a noble protector, and is inspired by the youthful and rebellious spirit of the teenage deity, NéZha, in Chinese folklore,” adds Fan. BènBèn is the first thing you’ll spot when walking towards MáLà Project, his face glowing in a sign lit in a fiery ombre of chilli red and peony pink, subtly hinting at the warmth of both the food and the ambience of the restaurant.
FZ Hei and FZ ZhuZiGuDian by Founder Type
Chinese Calligraphy by Guo Ming