September 23, 2013

Terminally Hip: Newark’s Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse

A first-class plane ticket has its perks, some enjoyed before takeoff. Tops among them, access to a private lounge allows you to avoid overpopulated departure gates. Aesthetically speaking, however, such facilities are often only a slight step up from the cracked-vinyl look elsewhere—the default decor being middle-tier corporate lobby-esque. Not so in Virgin Atlantic Airways’s Clubhouse at Newark Liberty International Airport. Patrons are at once dazzled and cosseted by Slade Architecture’s design, which captures the flavor of Hayes and James Slade’s downtown stomping ground.

Their virgin voyage with Virgin was the Clubhouse at John F. Kennedy International Airport, so a repeat collaboration with the company’s in-house design team presented an opportunity to create a dialogue between the two locations. J.F.K. has an “uptown” theme. To give Newark a funkier sensibility, the Slades—who work in TriBeCa and live on the Lower East Side—riffed on downtown’s unique scale and texture. “Streets are lined with small shops that have their own distinct personalities,” James Slade says. “We thought the notion of a series of intimate, contrasting experiences had a lot of legs architecturally.”

At 5,000 square feet, Newark’s Clubhouse is half the size of J.F.K.’s but serves roughly the same number of travelers. Accordingly, Hayes Slade explains, “We had to be judicious with the program.” That meant apportioning the open plan into zones, divided by ramps and low partitions but not compartmentalized. Colors and materials help establish zone identities. For example, the central bar’s surfacing segues from oak veneer to gray-stained solid oak and stainless steel to correspond to adjacent zones, each representing an urban archetype: coffee bar, indie movie house, café, nightclub.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just waltzed past a nightclub entry’s velvet rope when you reach Virgin’s reception desk, a curved stainless form. Directly above, a recessed skylight glows white like a flying saucer. Scattered across walls clad in black penny tile is a constellation of fiber-optic pinpoints, and the gray terrazzo incorporates recycled glass for added shimmer. Where reception ends, a swath of oak flooring begins, extending all the way across to the screening room, which will show art-house flicks directed by film-school students. It’s populated by aerodynamic armchairs, among the pieces refurbished and repurposed from Virgin’s former Clubhouse. The floorboards then descend, via two ramps skirting the bar, to the café and the Liquid Lounge, aka the coffee bar—adjacent spaces with concrete-composite flooring and oak-grain patterned wall covering that gives the impression of paneling. Carpet takes over in the two lounges, the larger of them dubbed the Passion Pit in reference to its dim light and recessed booths. “For making out,” James Slade quips. “Or napping.”

The booths and various other sections of banquette fabric and upholstery are standout accents in a sea of neutrals—fuchsia chosen because it’s between the company’s signature red and the purple upholstering seats in first-class cabins. “Our original scheme was more exuberantly colored. That’s one of the only places where Virgin gave us some push-back,” Hayes Slade admits. Virgin was more enthusiastic when it came to high-end finishes. “They tend to use natural materials,” James Slade says. “When we came to our first meeting with super-durable hospitality samples, they asked, ‘Can’t we use real leather and Kvadrat wool?’ No client ever asks to upgrade the upholstery!” Nonetheless, sturdiness was paramount. As Hayes Slade notes, “Use in an airport lounge is intense, since people visit for a short time and feel entitled.” Such industrial-chic touches as cement-board accent walls and a paper-composite counter withstand abuse while reiterating the downtown vibe.

“We pushed the idea of tapping into downtown gallery culture by commissioning emerging local talent,” James Slade continues. Two such artists were moonlighting on Slade Architecture’s graphic-design team when they provided the café’s digital animation of a finger-painting and collage nearby. The bathrooms’ squiggly curtain fabric and wall covering and “I Love Newark” decal are also that team’s work, as are the doors’ identifying men’s and women’s icons holding a torch à la Statue of Liberty.

The project’s greatest feat of sculpture belongs to the architects. After adding the skylight over the bar to brighten the windowless space, they turned the surrounding ceiling plane into a dramatically faceted composition. “You should have seen the steel that went into that,” Hayes Slade recalls. Rising toward it, like an iceberg from the center of the bar, is a roughly triangular bottle display built from regular and one-way mirror. “In daylight, all you see is a mirrored prism reflecting sunshine. When internal light sources are switched on at night, it lends a clubby vibe,” James Slade says. One side of the cabinet houses bottles of vodka and gin; the other holds decorative bottles in fuchsia. As the astounded GC said to the Slades, “Only an architect would bring an empty bottle to a bar!”

Project Team
Focus Lighting: Lighting Consultant. Next Step Design: Kitchen Consultant. Gilsanz Murray Steficek: Structural Engineer. HED: Acoustical Engineer. Ambrosino, Depinto & Schmieder: MEP. Allegheny Millwork: Woodwork. Cooper: Metalwork. Cement Board Fabricators: Cement-board Contractor. Shawmut Design and Construction: General Contractor.

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