By Charlotte Butterfield
Virgin Atlantic is renowned for its innovative approach and its recent roll-out of design-led clubhouses shows a synergy between the design language on the ground and in the air.
Virgin's trophy cabinet must surely be straining under the weight of the vast number of accolades and awards that have been heading its way for the design of its upper class clubhouse at London Heathrow Airport. It was voted Best Airline Lounge at the British Travel Awards 2006; Best Leisure or Entertainment Venue at the FX Design Awards 2006; it won the Red Dot Award for Superior Design; it was named Best Hospitality Environment and Best of Show at the Design Week Awards 2007. It was also recently listed as one of the ‘12 Coolest places to be on Earth' in Arena magazine (March 2007). A tour of the space and a chat with Virgin Atlantic's head of design, Joe Ferry, and it's not hard to see what the furore is about.
The 2,500m² flagship lounge now stands on the site of the much smaller original Virgin clubhouse. When it was offered the chance to expand the site and create a lounge that would raise the benchmark in club lounge design, Virgin was quick to accept. The whole design and fit out cost £11 million (AED 80 million) and took three years to complete from the initial design stage to the first guests using the lounge.
The design division of Virgin Atlantic is made up of architects, designers and interiors specialists who are responsible for designing all Virgin Atlantic spaces on the ground and in the air. Ferry explains: "We are basically the ‘guardians of the design' we would give non-Virgin designers the concept brief, in the case of LHR we specifically commissioned a smaller, fresh architecture firm for the job. We could have gone with a massive well-established firm, but we wanted to go down the innovative route and thought that a company like UK-based Softroom would be much better suited to our ethos and brand ethics. I have worked with them before on the Upper Class cabins and I had a lot of confidence in them and their ability."
The first step was to collaboratively generate a spatial layout and concept design. Ferry explains: "The original design concept was to create a ‘peaceful haven'. There is a wonderful moment in an aircraft when it clears the clouds in the sky and it's all blue and fabulous. We wanted to embody that feeling in the clubhouse. Airports are notoriously grey and frantic, and we wanted the clubhouse to signal a move away from the generic bustle of the rest of the airport and instead capture the sense of adventure and relaxation of travel."
The project was not without its obstacles. "Building airside has its own challenges. Ensuring every single engineer, contractor and electrician had the relevant experience and credentials to get past the tight airport security added to the cost and time of the project," Ferry explains. Also, the empty shell Virgin inherited was, "reminiscent of a car park," complete with concrete columns and disappointingly low ceilings due to the air conditioning vents. "We immediately set about integrating A/C vents under the banquette seating, enabling us to open up the height of the rooms more. To break up the space Softroom created the undulating ceiling with moving clouds and a lighting concept that creates interest and stops the monotony of a vast expanse of ceiling," he adds.
There is now a grand entrance, with two lifts and a sweeping marble staircase set against a mirrored wall, which tricks the eye and doubles the space. Reminiscent of a cruise ship with a cascading chandelier and a skylight in the roof, the natural daylight is dissected by the mirrors and adds much coveted natural light to the space. The entrance area gives a complete panoramic of the vast space, allowing the guest to immediately see the choices and amenities on offer, that are based on the type of quality facilities one would expect to find in a private members club, which isn't surprising when Ferry tells us about the collaboration with Soho House.
The founder of London members club Soho House, Nick Jones, is a frequent flyer with Virgin and so when he was approached to help devise an aspirational model for the space he was very keen. Ferry says: "Nick laughed and said that it was in his best interest, as he would be using the lounge a lot! We incorporated the same Cowshed spa concept and range of beauty products that Soho House uses, and we designed our spa to have a sleek moody feel with dark grey, Welsh slate floors, black glass mosaic tiled walls and splashes of autumnal colours." Jones also introduced Ferry to the Bumble and bumble hair salon concept that has taken New York by storm. "We wanted to embody every need our customers would have and even some needs guests didn't even know they needed! We have a spa, with Jacuzzi, steam baths, spray tan booth, showers, three treatment rooms and podiums for 15-minute massages."
A Japanese waterwall separates the spa area from the Poolside Lounge and creates a soothing atmosphere. The water runs down a translucent glass wall and ‘Globe' lights float above the water while soothing images play on the plasma screen, next to ‘Swan' chairs and ‘Bubble' hanging seats.
Soho House also has a close association with The Ivy restaurant and together the two London institutions helped Virgin establish the different dining experiences it should be offering, which of course then directly influenced the designs of the kitchen and dining areas. The Brasserie has a continental feel with individual tables accompanied by PearsonLloyd designed chairs and raspberry velour lined booths. A 7m long marble clad deli table with Knoll's Bertoia Barstools offers customers an informal dining option.
A 14m long cocktail bar lies in front of the long gallery, framed by a rose tinted glass wall with bespoke solid walnut and leather seating. A sloping glass wall with a deep red fade, which according to Ferry, "really comes to life when there's a sunset," segregates a serene gallery with lounge seating configurations from the rest of the clubhouse. It has light oak flooring and features a selection of Bertoia Bird high-back chairs from Harry Bertoia's 1952 seating collection sculpted from bent metal rods for Knoll.
The Observation Deck, or ‘plane-spotting gallery' as Ferry coins it, faces south-west and is orientated to take advantage of runway views and the setting sun. White leather ‘Karuselli' chairs and voluptuous ‘Gigi' seats nestle alongside club chairs and daybeds covered in a range of natural greens.
In the centre of the space are The Lodge and The Den. The Lodge has rough-hewn limestone blocks, which are positioned on an angle and topped with a screen of tinted glass. "It is lined with iridescent mosaic tiles and houses cushioned banquettes with blush leather bolsters. Unfortunately, the BAA wouldn't allow us to install a real fire for safety reasons and so we used fire-effect imagery on a TV screen, which adds to the après-ski feel," Ferry explains.
Described by Ferry as a: "Big kids paradise," The Den is the dedicated games area complete with a burgundy pool table, and 1980's retro computer games such as Pac Man and Space Invaders. It also boasts a state of the art multiscreen style cinema, which shows a variety of television programs, films and sporting events. Aubergine leather seats and velvet-covered chaises-longues are scattered around the space.
The Business Centre and the Library are separated from the rest of the clubhouse by a glass partition to filter noise and add an element of privacy. A rich wood ceiling is teamed with velvet wall panelling in the Business Centre and Softroom opted for Eames Soft pad executive chairs in dark green leather. The library has Richard Branson's original desk on which he signed most of his record deals, reputedly made from the timber sourced from a Spanish galleon.
A white staircase leads up to the Sky Lounge through the ‘clouds' up to the mezzanine level, which has a glass roof and sloping glass walls. "It looks like it's floating in the air and with a low glass table in the middle of it you can actually look down into the Den and see the pool table," Ferry says. A deep-pile blue carpet is complemented by champagne leather seating, yellow loungers and tan leather ‘Hockney' day beds.
"Every clubhouse around the world is different as we want to encompass the local culture in each airport. We don't overtly brand the space, the finished product could only be a Virgin club lounge but not because our logo is everywhere - in fact we haven't put our logo anywhere! But because the design is dynamic and embodies the brand attributes and spirit," he says. The Virgin Atlantic design team has just put the finishing touches to the clubhouse at Tokyo's Narita Airport in Japan, where it collaborated with Klein Dytham Architecture. Ferry explains that the demand for designs within the ambitious company is ever-increasing: "We are currently focusing on creating a boutique check-in area in Terminal 3 at Heathrow. As soon as one project is completed it's straight onto the next!"