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October 20, 2009

I had two legs to my trip as I flew back to San Francisco from Melbourne, Australia. And much as a nice little layover in Hawaii would have been, I actually changed planes in Sydney. As I was holed up in the Qantas hub for several hours, I stopped into the Marc Newson-designed Qantas First Lounge. Newson has dedicated the last several years of his career to getting the 2006 Lounge up and running, and his hands--mellowed since his neon-blob heyday of the 1990s--are all over this wonderfully sophisticated space.

Qantas First Lounge Dining

As I walked into the foyer I was immediately met by a lushly planted green wall curving around to the left. The space has a quickly calming quality, and as I took the escalator up through a circular cutout into the reception and main space of the lounge, white marble gave way to a limited palette of warm American pine, dark leather and massive sheets of glass that cant outward over a sea of asphalt before revealing Sydney's hazy skyline in the middle distance.

Qantas First Lounge Lobby

As a respite from the hassles of jetting about, it all works quite well. The ample natural light, soothing cleanliness of the marble and the periodic clapping of the three flapboards that display departures give the lounge a somewhat retro feel, as though the Sterling Cooper boys might come wandering through at any moment.

Beyond the vast windows, the biggest architectural move in the lounge is the American pine supports that run from floor to ceiling at intervals of, say, 25 feet. Neither columns nor pillars, the irregular quadrilaterals suggest little more than a monstrous airplane wing that we're all seated within, and the pine is merely the support that keeps it up. Huge cutouts allow light and sightlines between them, but taken at the right angle, they appear to curve on to infinity, a nice little trick that manages to evoke flying while remaining still.

Qantas First Lounge Silver

Newson's tables, chairs and armchairs continue in the same vein, with the dining room sets made of the same gently rounded pine and black leather. In fact there don't appear to be any sharp edges in the whole place, another subtlety of the design that suggests the streamlined Sixties without nodding to them too vociferously. I was less enamored of the silverware, which does suffer from the most obvious bit of streamlining, making it feel like some Italian Futurist museum piece, as opposed to the kind of urbane cutlery that the space demands.

Another miscue was the dizzying carpet. A black field with a fuzzy white honeycomb pattern, the carpet was nearly impossible to look at. The concierge told me that the goal was to keep visitors looking up and out as opposed to down, though none of my fellow loungers seemed to be skulking around, eyes on carpet, in the throes of terminal shyness. Whey then so assaulting a pattern when one's natural inclination is to watch the planes take off and land?

The other false note--albeit a rather small one--came in the form of the ventilation fans, which were cut to mimic the under-wing engines that propel a 747. Considering the fact that I was literally looking out onto an expanse of jumbo jets, do I really need the design to remind me of where precisely I am?

Though I liked the place very much and found it catered swiftly and well to my every need, my largest puzzlement came at just how placeless the whole design felt. Granted, the larder and wine cellar were well stocked with local treats, but from there it was America for the wood, Italy for the marble, a Parisian spa called Payot for a bit of relaxation, and some devilish hive for the carpet. The rest is a surprisingly well-realized Platonic ideal of a swanky 1964 airport lounge.

Qantas First Lounge Corridor

Perhaps Newson took the dislocation of international travel and the liminal quality of airports to get at some supranational design experience, but I kept finding myself longing for some touch of Australia in the place. Certainly the view of distant Sydney did wonders, but inside the hermetically sealed space I could only look and long for the landscape beyond. I'm not arguing for bedecking the place in didgeridoos, or installing a Ned Kelly display, but mightn't some element of the outside come in?

Perhaps the goal is to make the lounge repeatable in other places, to offer a model onto which dozens of classy new spots could be based. But surely even an airport owes something to its locale.

Qantas First Lounge Support

I may be splitting hairs here, making the perfect the enemy of the good. Because in nearly every regard, this lounge is quite good indeed. From the blueberry ricotta pancakes that were easily the best breakfast I had on the whole Australian sojourn, to the fine massage at the spa, to the glass of pinot gris that has me covetous of every Australian white wine I see these days, to the generally refined space and friendly staff. I only wished I had just a slightly better sense of where I was. That sort of thing does tend to inform where you're going.

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