Michael McDonough Architect’s design of the Lufthansa first- and business-class lounges at New York’s JFK International Airport makes sense of the unpredictable world of international travel.
How many hours have been wasted waiting in an airport? The skies darken, bolts of lightening flash, and the heavens open and pour down just as your flight to Munich is scheduled to board. And as a 30-minute wait before the scheduled departure turns into an indefinite delay, you’re thanking your lucky stars (or your company’s travel agent) that you’re sitting in Lufthansa Airlines’ posh new passenger lounge at New York’s JFK International Airport, designed by Michael McDonough Architect.
Dreaded airport visits can actually become pleasant experiences if the surroundings are right. And this was a primary goal of Michael McDonough, AlA, and his design team. “A lot of people see flight as drudgery,” McDonough contends. “And we want to remind them that flight can be delightful.” Airport lounges had been referred to as “beautiful prisons” because flyers felt trapped at the mercy of the airlines, so McDonough sought to break this paradigm with crisp colors and an intriguing aesthetic. He focused his designs on three points of interest: using green technology, addressing the romance of flight, and considering the high-tech digital age. The resulting lounge successfully incorporates all three factors in a space that sets itself apart from the typical pre-flight waiting area.
McDonough services were enlisted for this JFK lounge after he collaborated with German design firm frogdesign, Inc. to design a lounge for Lufthansa in Frankfurt. Aretin Altmann, the representative from Lufthansa German Airlines who put together the design team for the JFK project, decided that he liked the new direction and corporate identity McDonough had devised for Lufthansa abroad, and he wanted to see this “evolutionary approach to design brought to JFK,” McDonough recalls. McDonough reused some original designs that he developed with frogdesign in Germany, and teamed-up with Patric O’Malley, AlA, of Gensler to create a concept suited for this program. While McDonough and his team worked closely with Lufthansa, Altmann him gave the freedom to evolve his design ideas.
Following the example of environmentally sustainable design at the Frankfurt airport lounge, McDonough maintained earth-friendly practices at JFK as well. “In Germany ‘green’ design is assumed, not elective,” asserts McDonough, “and recycling is a necessity.” He prioritized this concept as a necessity for the JFK project. More windows and use of glass permit natural light and reduce energy use, and increased natural illumination reduces the heat released from light fixtures, which in turn decreases the need for air conditioning. Sustainable wood infuses a warm aesthetic throughout, with movable wood fixtures clipping onto the steel stud construction. And though McDonough also favored the generous use of glass and stone for fire safety reasons, he primarily sought to create an attractive, comfortable space and pleasing sensory experience. “I was looking for drama,” he admits. “I wanted to separate from the ‘old boys club’ and somehow romanticize the flight experience.” The resulting, eye-catching designs just “happen to be green, as well,” he says.
Within an “impossible” time frame of six to nine months, McDonough took an initially empty space at JFK Airport and accepted the challenge of creating positive flight experiences for international passengers. Modeled after his work in Frankfurt, McDonough added details to assure travelers that they are no where but New York City. Full-height windows orient travelers with runway views. And hand-cast glass murals that stand in both the first-class and business-class areas of the lounge reflect regional influences. Standing 12-ft. high and 20-ft. wide, the murals interpret maps of the New York region in the 17th and 18th centuries, establishing a sense of place, contributing to the “romance of flight theme,” and allowing for the transmission of light through the glass.
Jam-packed with aesthetically-pleasing goodies for weary travelers, this lounge resulted from a rigid program devised by McDonough. “We traced what a passenger does while in the space—where they go and what they do, with or without luggage,” McDonough explains. High-tech amenities (that are quickly becoming necessities) are inevitably incorporated into the lounge’s design. Phone/multi-media/Internet booths appear as old-fashioned 1920’s phone booths, yet deliver all the modern technology a 21st-century executive could want at his or her fingertips.
“It was a complicated program,” McDonough offers. “We had a lot we had to fit in. Many think that ‘form follows function’ implies linear design, but curves and expressionistic quality suited this program. The curves came from a programmatic directive.” Floating arches and sinuous architectural elements accentuated by Lufthansa’s bold corporate colors create interest. Corrugated wall panels behind the reception/reservation desk reference Lufthansa’s 1920’s aircraft construction, merging the modernity of flight in the present with the nostalgia of past travel. While the logistics of the space posed the biggest challenge-as the lounge was being constructed before the base building was completed-McDonough says that his team collaboration “made this project great fun.” “It’s easy to do predictable design,” he says. “But the talent was there, and we rose past logistical challenges to create something different and show what could really be accomplished.”
Feeling rewarded whenever people comment that this space is atypical for an airport lounge, McDonough admits, “I feel fortunate that I was able to bring in design innovation and curved geometry to make this space part of an adventurous experience.” So if a first- or business-class trip through Lufthansa’s JFK International Airport lounge is part of your itinerary, the excitement and romance of travel can begin long before your feet touch down on foreign soil.