The United Nations complex is in the midst of a five-year extensive renovation after sixty years of intensive use that has taken a toll on the Manhattan headquarters. Each of the 193 member nations was invited to contribute to the makeover. The Netherlands government chose to adopt the Delegates’ Lounge adjoining the General Assembly Hall, and selected one of four competing teams to execute the project. Dutch designer Hella Jongerius, Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA, graphic designer Irma Boom, artist Gabriel Lester, and theoretician Louise Schouwenberg collaborated closely to infuse the old lounge with a fresh new look. It is a showcase of Dutch creativity that builds on the idealism of the postwar era, in which leading architects including Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier created an enduring symbol of international cooperation.
“This was the first interior I have done, because I don’t feel comfortable working at that scale,” says Jongerius, who is best known for her ceramics and furniture. Her apprehension was well-founded: the soaring, twenty-three-foot-high space is lit by floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows that capture views of the East River, and the designers had to accommodate the many concerns of the U.N. and the Dutch Foreign Ministry. There could be no barriers in the room obstructing views. “The delegates had to have a clear view of who is in the room, and all the art works donated over the years had to remain. We had to revise our original designs to meet the U.N. requirements,” Jongerius says.
Design interventions within constraints
At the outset, the design team made a close study of how the room had been used, and had six meetings to define goals and allocate responsibilities. OMA removed a mezzanine that had been inserted in the 1970s, restoring the integrity of the volume and an unbroken view of the river. Koolhaas’ firm also designed a new information desk and bar in translucent resin, placing each at opposite corners of the room, and turned the west wall into a digital bulletin board, comprising 231 small screens framed by MDF panels.
Lester won permission to consolidate the scattered art works in a row on the aluminum-clad south wall, suspending them from a grid to bring a fresh perspective to this eclectic collection. Boom shaded the north window with her Knots & Grid curtain, a translucent screen that alludes to the New York street grid and the curtain wall of the U.N. Secretariat. Bright blue fishermen’s knots attach the woven fabric to stainless steel cables that run vertically floor to ceiling, to accentuate the outward tilt of the window.
Classic furnishings mix with new custom pieces
“People come from many different countries, but they are all diplomats, mostly men over fifty years old, so it’s quite a homogenous group,” says Jongerius. “They meet informally after big meetings and the groupings are constantly changing so the furniture has to be easy to move around.”
Jongerious’ expertise in color found full expression in the varied palette of blues and greens, which allude to the water and pastures of the Netherlands and to the lounge’s original scheme. She also designed a curtain that incorporates knots and beads to evoke the Dutch maritime tradition and hand-crafted ceramics. Her duotone wool carpet shades from dark brown in the entry area to gray-brown beyond, and plays a subtle variation on the theme of a grid.
For the furniture, Jongerius retained classics by Jean Prouvé, Gerrit Rietveld, and Hans Wegener, along with the floor lamps of Max Abramovitz and Wallace Harrison, the American architects who designed the original buildings. She designed several new pieces, notably the mobile UN Lounge Chair, with its rear handle and wheels, and the Sphere Table, which incorporates a translucent hood to provide user privacy. Both designs were developed in association with Vitra.
Dutch design has a witty, iconoclastic streak that tweaks the conventions of a tidy, well-ordered society. At the U.N., Jongerius and Koolhaas have disciplined their inventiveness to fuse comfort and practicality, dignity and delight.
Key Design Highlights
- New furnishings—set alongside revived classics—infuse the space with a modern look while enhancing its original character.
- By removing a 1970s mezzanine addition, the designers restored the integrity of the space and views of the East River.
- The blue and green color palette evokes lush and pastoral Dutch landscapes and maritime traditions.
- Custom curtains filter light and make visual reference to both the city grid and the U.N. Secretariat’s curtain wall.
U.N. North Delegates’ Lounge
- Architect: Rem Koolhaas/OMA
- Designers: Hella Jongerius, Irma Boom, Gabriel Lester, and Louise Schouwenberg
- Client: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the United Nations
- Where: New York
- What: 6,750 square feet on one floor