The design story of the UN Headquarters in NY is well known. A cadre of international architects, including Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Matthew Nowiki, came together in 1948 under the direction of American pragmatic Wallace K. Harrison to help shape a new “Workshop for Peace” at the edge of the East River. The global collaboration of the building itself was meant to anticipate the diplomatic processes–and in some cases, fiery dramas–that would unfold at the future UN complex.
More than 60 years later, a new team of designers contributed their talent to the landmark building and icon of International Style–though this time around, the stakes were admittedly lower (and the collaborators all Dutch). Consisting of designers, architects, and luminaries, the group was tasked with updating the North Delegates’ Lounge as a new kind of meeting place for policymakers. The project was funded by the Dutch state as a gift to the UN.
“We all had our own egos and characters, but during the meetings and talks on the design, we all had the same goal,” Hella Jongerius, principal of her eponymous studio tells Co.Design. Jongerius assumed the lion’s share of the work. She was responsible for the new furnishings, upholstery, and the carpeting, as well as keeping and rearranging some of the original pieces and curating a mix of contemporary Dutch and international designs for the space.
The contributions of the remaining members of the team were integral to the project, if more subtle and difficult to detect. Rem Koolhaas and OMA removed a mezzanine that was fixed to the east facade of the lounge in 1979–and which had obscured the view to the river. The architects also contributed the lounge bar and information desk, both made of black resin that complements Jongerius’s lively wares, including winking furniture designs that reinterpret the high, jet-age glamour of the early ’60s.
Visual artist Gabriel Lester relocated original artworks, including a vibrant tapestry of the Great Wall. Graphic designer Irma Boom developed a gridded curtain that drapes the room’s extensive northern facade. The theorist Louise Schouwenberg lent texts to the project brief and helped formulate the final design concept.
Everything ties together as a satisfying whole, and the idea of the gesamkunstwerk, Jongerius says, was at the forefront of the team’s design goals, as was displaying a distinctly Dutch identity in a global context. “We wanted to show the world what the Dutch are good in,” Jongerius says about her country’s gifts for “architecture, design, and art.”
Her UN Lounge Chairs, an eccentric take on the club chair with front legs propped up on chunky plastic wheels, come in muted blue pigment and are sprinkled throughout the room. A fleet of Sphere Tables, small desks partially encased in frosted bubble shells, line the southern wall. Jongerius also remixed pieces of furniture, like the Polder sofa, with a duo-tone fabric scheme she developed with Vitra, based on archival material from Dutch textile manufacturer De Ploeg. The east facade, a far smaller portal than the northern one, but with views to FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, is cloaked with a permeable curtain with a look of fine fishnet, made of 30,000 porcelain beads from Dutch clay.
As finished, the lounge is a winning effort, even if it’s ultimately just a footnote in the building’s storied chronology. That’s fine with the designers, who from the get-go had worked toward what Jongerius calls a “careful editing of history.”