RUNWAY MODERN

Waiting for a flight usually means sitting on the bony edge of your suitcase, gnawing on some stale peanuts, and nursing malevolent fantasies as flashing monitors push the hour of your departure back, and back, and back. By comparison, waiting in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Lounge at John F. Kennedy International Airport feels bizarrely pleasant. As you enter, leaving behind the chaos of JFK’s Terminal One, a receptionist takes your coat, then offers you a towel in case you’d like a shower in a sleek bathroom trimmed with modernist chrome fixtures. Or if you prefer, she suggests, you can savor a liqueur or an espresso at the stainless-steel, oak-topped bar, play chess in the main lounge, or settle down for a three-course meal in the dining area.

But wait, weren’t layovers supposed to be like this? “During the ’60s and ’70s, emphasis was placed on the future of air travel,” notes Patrick Hegerty of JHL Design, a consultancy that manages Virgin lounges worldwide. “There was widespread public fascination with space and technology, and flying was seen as a glamorous, luxurious adventure.”

Richard Branson’s hiply positioned airline has set out to capture the retro mystique of air travel; Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown made it a reality. Principals of New York firm Tsao & McKown Architects, the pair applied mid-century furnishings, spots of mod red and cool chrome, and a frisky jet-set attitude to the airline’s New York clubhouse. (Note that “membership” is granted only to international travelers who can afford Virgin’s upper-class tickets–$5,000-$7,000 for a quick hop across the pond.) “We’re from that generation in which Weekly Reader inspired our visions of the future,” says McKown. “Later we saw those visions spoofed in Austin Powers and other contexts.”

From its first bravura spectacle–a view through vast double-height windows to the tarmac, where Virgin’s sleek red-and-white jets wait to whisk you to London’s Heathrow–the design refers to the delights of pre-deregulation air travel while acknowledging the needs of 21st-century workaholics and the nerves of shaky passengers. If the thought of flying makes you jittery, the reception area sets a calming tone with a glowing bench of fluorescent tubes under a long slab of three-inch-thick resin. The spare entryway introduces end-grain block velva wood floors and paneling of end-grain white oak treated with an alcohol stain to bring out pacific gray hues.

The 5,500-square-foot main level is divided into several intimate spaces by furniture arrangements–two Windsor chairs bracketing a Pfister sofa by Knoll in one area, a circle of silver Eames lounges and antique Chinese drums in another, a bank of celadon Aarnio Ball chairs facing the runway. To the north is the long bar lined with dark brown barstools, and beyond, a small dining area with a row of Conan tables, each decorated with a purple orchid in a clear glass vase. To the south, you’ll find the showers and a business center, a circular bank of desks where passengers can plug in their laptops, send faxes, or search the Web on a computer with a flat-screen monitor. And though it’s a workspace, the layout doesn’t disrupt the room’s tranquility–the fax machine, paper shredder, and a globe are arranged in the wall like a museum display. The desks, inspired by library reading rooms, are flanked by comfortable Eames swivel chairs upholstered in light-gray wool.

Upstairs, a mezzanine level features a row of interlocking C-shaped carrels, covered in dark brown wool felt and arranged along a walkway. The carrels allow passengers to work alone and still peek out on what’s happening in the rest of the lounge. At the far end of this row, the space opens into a large circular area, where the architects have created a kind of 1970s romper room for adults: a low banquette covered in thick wool felt by Italian designer Paola Lenti forms a U facing the tarmac, and a large peanut-shaped sheepskin rug is sprinkled with a cluster of Lenti’s wool felt blocks and a bulbous red plastic Aarnio Tomato chair.

Unifying the design is a sense that flying can be joyful and humorous, an idea Virgin Atlantic aggressively promotes. McKown acknowledges that he experienced several “self-consciously Austin Powers moments” while designing the space, in part because the airline has such a playful image (and because that International Man of Mystery, a velvet frock-coated relic of Swinging London in the mod ’60s, served for a time as Virgin’s poster boy).

“What I thought was really great about Virgin was that it put the spunk back into air travel,” says Tsao. “That’s why we allude to those early years of optimism about it.” He hastens to add that the project was far less historic recreation than inspiration: “We used all kinds of things, as a metaphor for the Plurality of contemporary life, so it’s not really nostalgia at all. It was a nod to the period.” And what could be more modern than that?

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