Going Dutch

Hella Jongerius, Rem Koolhaas, and Irma Boom redesign the Delegates’ Lounge at the renovated United Nations building in New York City.

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The furniture mix includes her own pieces as well as classics. From the left: The Utrecht chair by Gerrit Rietveld, coffee table by Joep van Lieshout, vintage chair from the existing U.N. collection, Peacock chair by Hans Wagner, and U.N. Lounge Chair by Jongerius. 

Courtesy Frank Oudeman

In September, the Dutch-born designer Hella Jongerius was toasted by Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, for her latest accomplishment: the refurbishment of the North Delegates’ Lounge at the U.N., a large rectangular room where, in the words of the secretary-general, “there have been many diplomatic breakthroughs over cocktails.” The following night, she flew home to Europe in a business-class cabin of her own design—after KLM Royal Dutch Airlines rerouted a plane to JFK just for that purpose. (So far, five of the airline’s 22 747s have gotten the Jongerius treatment.) Over coffee a few hours before her flight, at a Manhattan hotel, Jongerius said she had visited mock-ups of the cabin many times, but this would be the first time she would see the colors she had chosen at a cruising altitude. “Above the clouds,” she said excitedly, “the light is totally different.”

Jongerius inspects the Knots & Beads curtain after its installation in the lounge. Jongerius shaped by hand the original beads used for the molds. 

Courtesy Jongeriuslab

But Jongerius’s life isn’t always so glamorously high-flying. Describing her renovation of the Delegates’ Lounge, as head of a team that included Rem Koolhaas and the graphic designer Irma Boom, she recounted a multiyear process during which one idea after another was shot down. A series of architectural interventions by Koolhaas that would have added complexity to the overly boxy room were deemed too expensive (the budget was $3.35 million, contributed by the Dutch government). And nonarchitectural methods for breaking up the huge space were rejected by the U.N.’s security experts, who wouldn’t allow anything in the room to rise above eye level (so much for room dividers, or even the high-backed chairs by Jurgen Bey that Jongerius had settled on). That left the designers to create intimacy, to the extent they could, with furniture groupings that are as colorful and textured as possible. Jongerius created a palette consisting of, she says, “contemporary variations of the greens, the blues, and the reddish-browns” that predominated in the original 1950s United Nations, and had new fabrics created in those colors.

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