A Seating Problem at McDonald's

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Steve Forrest / Insight-Visual / Panos

UK. London. McDonald's restaurant in Holborn, central London with the new interior decor.

With the novelty of burgers and fries on the wane, and health concerns of such food rising, fast-food chains have been searching for ever more inventive ways to attract new customers and keep revenues rising. Such was the motivation behind McDonald's' decision in 2006 to enlist Philippe Avanzi, one of France's leading interior designers, to develop a strategy to give 6,000-odd outlets across Europe a face-lift. Avanzi and McDonald's, in turn, engaged the services of one of the world's most highly regarded furniture producers, Fritz Hansen of Denmark, to supply chairs designed by legendary Danish Modernist Arne Jacobsen. McDonald's has called its high-profile strategy to bring upmarket style to the world's most ubiquitous restaurant the Less Is More campaign. But there may be even less than it bargained for, considering Fritz Hansen abruptly suspended the partnership on Monday, accusing McDonald's of supplementing its Fritz Hansen orders with unauthorized reproduction Jacobsen chairs.

"McDonald's approached us some six months ago to help revitalize and revamp their European restaurants," Fritz Hansen CEO Jacob Holm told TIME in Copenhagen. "We developed Arne Jacobsen chairs in special colors and began deliveries." In particular Avanzi and McDonald's chose The Egg and The Seven chairs, two of Jacobsen's most iconic creations. Jacobsen, who died in 1971, contracted Fritz Hansen to be the sole licensed manufacturer of his designs in 1934, meaning nobody else can make an original Egg (created in 1958) or Seven (1955). Approximately 2,500 of those chairs have already been sold to McDonald's, according to Holm. "But," he says, "we discovered that terrible copies of our furniture were also being used in the U.K. That is unacceptable. We simply will not work with people who use originals where they have to and copies elsewhere, legal or otherwise."

Specifically, Fritz Hansen says that at least two London McDonald's restaurants have installed copies of Arne Jacobsen not made by the company, in some cases alongside their Arne Jacobsen chairs. McDonald's freely admits that some of its U.K. restaurants are using Jacobsen reproductions bought from U.K.-based suppliers — but says it told Fritz Hansen it would be doing so.

Technically, McDonald's is doing nothing wrong. Since the U.K. rights on the designs of the chairs have expired, this is all perfectly legal. Thanks to U.K. design rights law — which holds that the rights on a design last a maximum of 25 years, instead of 70 as in much of Europe — British furniture stores and websites are legitimately selling copies of the Egg chair, for example, for a fraction of the original's $5,000 price tag. "A commercial decision was taken to use some reproduction similar chairs," Lorraine Homer, spokeswoman for McDonald's in the U.K., tells TIME via e-mail. "Whilst we wish to continue placing Fritz Hansen chairs at some restaurants, using an off-the-peg alternative allows us to re-image a greater number of restaurants."

Homer says that there are 28 McDonald's in the U.K. that were refurbished in 2006 and fitted with all original Fritz Hansen chairs. By the end of this year, another 100 restaurants will have gone through a "re-image": some using all originals, some using reproductions and some using a combination of both. "While the reproduction chairs are naturally very similar to the original design, there are differences," says Homer. "No attempt has been made to 'pass off' reproduction chairs as originals in any references or labeling."

That's not good enough for Fritz Hansen, which says the differences are only visible to someone who knows what they're looking for. Anyway, says designer Avanzi — who has had a relationship with McDonald's for almost 10 years and helped bring it together with Fritz Hansen — the use of reproductions seems to go against the food chain's vision for its redesigned restaurants. "The concept was to be authentic, and McDonald's was in perfect agreement with that," he says. "I don't feel betrayed, but poorly misunderstood by a few people in England who didn't understand the importance of staying authentic. This was something extremely clumsy, which the English are going to have to rectify. And they will."

Don't be too sure. McDonald's says it has no plans to yank the disputed chairs and is working with Fritz Hansen to find a compromise (what that means exactly, it won't say). But Fritz Hansen says it has definitively withdrawn from the partnership. The furniture producer has already booked revenue of nearly $2 million for the 2,500 chairs it sold to McDonald's, and has requests for more chairs from several European outlets. These orders, the company says, will not be filled. That means fast food fans on the Continent — with its stricter design rights and copyright laws — won't be eating their Big Macs sitting on a Jacobsen, real or reproduction. But, a spokeswoman for McDonald's Europe is quick to point out, "this impacts just one of a catalogue of re-image options." Instead, "we will look at using alternative chairs by other designers, and also continue developing our own designs, which is something McDonald's has always done."

Nonetheless, Avanzi is still hopeful that McDonald's and Fritz Hansen can work things out. "Whatever this was, a misunderstanding or what have you, I hope tomorrow it will be over," he says. "We are going to do everything possible to be able to continue this beautiful relationship, and we will just look back at this as a huge mistake someday." The McDonald's jingle may be I'm Lovin' It, but, right now, the folks at Fritz Hansen are singing a very different tune.
With reporting by Jeffrey T. Iverson/Paris