Richard Branson’s New Virgin Clubhouse
By Marc Kristal
Nothing makes you feel more pampered, somehow, than a properly done first-class airport lounge. By which I don’t mean one of those tired-looking, afterthought kind of spaces with a couple of slow-moving computers, a few half-filled liquor bottles beside a bucket of melted ice, and carrot and celery sticks that look like they spent the afternoon at a bar mitzvah. No: I’m talking about a fluffy omelet with fresh herbs, served on glowing white porcelain and savored with a cold Vouvray, a shower with big enveloping towels – and above all precisely the right look: a 21st-century iteration of the “Mad Men”-era, Saarinen-style swank that characterized the first wave of design-forward membership-has-its-privileges clubs (the ne plus ultra of which is perhaps Marc Newsom’s Qantas lounge in Sydney where, when I looked in the bathroom mirror, I expected to see Frank Sinatra’s face and not my own).
The recently opened, 10,000-square-foot, $7 million Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at New York’s JFK Airport, could not be better kitted out. There is the long, curving bar, attended by first-rate mixologists. The savory, small-portion cuisine, available at the bar or in the adjoining dining space. A pool table. Virgin’s first overseas spa. The only hair salon to be found in any U.S. airport lounge, overseen by the well-regarded Bumble and bumble, and with skincare products by Dr. Haushka, should the prospect of a long flight have left you looking a bit sallow. And mostly helpfully, the Clubhouse is located past security and hard by the gate, so you’ll have time for an extra Martini.
From an aesthetic standpoint, however, the Clubhouse, created by Virgin’s in-house design team and the New York-based office Slade Architecture, feels like a bit less than the sum of its parts. The style cues are in place: the design is strongly curvilinear, with a signature rippling steel-and-walnut screen lightly separating the seating and dining/bar areas, blob-a-delic lounge chairs, and a semicircular banquette constructed from rows of red leather balls that feels like an homage to George Nelson’s Marshmallow sofa. But the elements don’t quite cohere into a uniform experience that displaces the essential airport-lounge condition, which is one of waiting. The problem, in part, is that – though the Clubhouse doubles the size of Virgin’s previous JFK first-class venue – its seating areas feel confining rather than spacious, hectic as opposed to relaxing (unlike its older counterpart at London’s Heathrow, which remains more various experientially and offers more opportunities to hide out, kick back, and chill).
Nonetheless, you won’t regret your visit, in large measure because what Virgin has on offer is pleasurable to take, and the staff treats you like you’re James (or Jamie) Bond. And if you visit the salon (as one of my traveling companions did), once you’ve boarded the aircraft, you can let your hair down without it doing the same thing to you.
Check in to the Virgin Atlantic JFK Clubhouse
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.