Low-Fat Industrial: The Mochi-Moderne Phase of the Frozen Yogurt Vernacular

One of my favorite places in the sprawling, desert suburbia of Reno, NV was , a self-serve Las Vegas-based frozen yogurt chain.  I often frequented the place with a group of college girls, whose obsession with the low-fat, choose-your-own-adventure fro yo experience was infectious.  I soon found myself suggesting we “go get uSwirl”, something that I had never done before.  The experience of swirling my own frozen yogurt and sprinkling it with toppings was made much richer by the crazed kids, but also by the relentless and shameless blaring of bubblegum techno-pop music, something else I love. This ridiculousness is only possible in the context of an environment like uSwirl, a typical yogurt store.  Other similar shops include flavaboom, Yogurt Beach, and 16 Handles.

Flavaboom is exemplary of the new typology. Its walls and floors are starkly white with brightly colored, bulbous furniture that resemble Mochi, the colorful Japanese jelly-like rice paste. The hyper-modern stores, by using bright lights and smooth, clean, plastic-like white materials with colorful accents in soft, plush furniture, simulate the experience of being in a giant bowl of yogurt.  Reyner Banham wrote of detached motifs and patterns on ice cream vans which paralleled the sprinkles and stars of the emerging ice cream trends of 70’s London.  A similar condition exists in the contemporary Yogurt Vernacular.  The pristine yogurt-like ivory glitz serves as a base for the “toppings”, smears of color, usually chairs, benches, tables, and graphics.  Why is it that frozen yogurt establishments have spawned a particular form of hi-tech bubblegum modernism, the Mochi-Moderne phase of the Yogurt Vernacular?

Frozen yogurt shops are the most “Modernist” buildings being built in 2011.  Self-serve is an update of the Modernist tradition of efficiency, technological innovation, and mechanization.  At flavaboom, for instance, brightly colored cartoon-like signs guide you through the experience, or more accurately, the process of the building. You start by getting a hygienic paper cup, and filling it with your choice of yogurt.  Workers are available to help you sample the different flavors.  Once you have your base, it is off to the topping bar.  Spatially, these are arranged in a more or less linear fashion, to speed the process and eliminate unnecessary movement. Toppings are dusted and drizzled, and then up next is the weigh in.  Payment is handed over based on weight.  This process cuts down on unnecessary workers leaving an employee to act as a personal assistant, should the need arise.  The self-serve process pares the need for food delivery infrastructure, and thus the building, down to a minimum.

Gropius and the Bauhaus, influencing this design, would herald it as perfectly “modern”.  It is efficient, but also clean.  Surfaces are smooth, unadorned, and easily cleaned.  The mechanized delivery system at self-serve Yogurt shops is integrated into the building and efficiently serves a healthy, mass-produced food product.

It is of course, updated to more accurately suit the “zeitgeist”.  The colorful LED screens above the yogurt machines, pulsing in synch with the techno-pop, truly embody the “Modernist” spirit. One cannot pretend, as Michael Meredith jokes that “time stopped in 1903 in Vienna”.  The music is extremely trendy, but it fits and reminds me of Uniqlo, whose seminal work, the Heattech Tunnel® at their global flagship on 5th Ave., employs the same led-fueled sensorial overload with animated LED screens and techno (though the tunnel cranks it up a notch with mirrors and high-tech underwear packaged in reflective metallic plastic bags).

The absurd interior design of these techno-fetishized escapes echoes self-serve yogurt’s technologically and politically progressive cultural construct.  The colored LED screens, lights, and furniture tell us a story about progress. The stores are not only progressive in their delivery methodology, but the architecture is also symbolic.  Ice cream stores tend to have striped awnings and nostalgic elements drawn from the days of the neighborhood ice cream shoppe.  This brings us back to the days of hand-churning milk from the farm into a sinfully sweet creamy blob of milk fat.  In today’s high-tech, high speed, but low-fat consumer sphere, there is no space for milk fat or the dumpy aesthetics of the small town ice cream parlour.  This is frozen yogurt; it is healthy, hip, and chic.  It is not the food of little kids or clowns; it is for clubbers and city-dwellers — the young, the fashionable.

This marketing strategy is apparent in the names of the shops. 16 Handles is named after the movie 16 candles, an overt pop reference that aims at two demographics.  The first is 30-something’s who grew up watching 16 Candles.  The second is the actual teens.  Both demographics are concerned with being healthy, and these are the users of the spaces.  Snog, a London-based yogurt chain, falls short in the Modernist test, as it is an old-fashioned walk up counter, but its name and its architecture is stunningly techno-funhouse-like.  It contains the same elements as flavaboom, LED pixels, white walls, and brightly colored “mochi” furniture.  Snog, a British slang, means to make out, so we immediately see who is being marketed to. It is again the young, hip urban city-dweller.

Techno is the music which embodies this spirit; it is colorful and fun with glittery synths mirroring the sparkly high tech interior. The remixes played over the speakers in the ceiling allude to the personalized yogurt mash-ups which are being constructed below.  The individualization of the yogurt-building process is thoroughly expressed in the absurd experience of these shops.  Young people are drawn to the experience because it is everything they crave: fast, healthy, and “hip”.  The architecture is part of this branding. I can’t get enough of it.

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