In the Shabby-Chic Trenches of the Airport-Lounge Wars

Forty-eight years ago, the writer Renata Adler referred to the 747 as “that slum of the air,” and flying hasn’t improved much in the intervening decades. But what about that liminal space before boarding? “You want the vacation to start earlier, right?” Leanne Fremar, the chief brand officer at JPMorgan Chase, said recently. “You’ve spent money on it, you’ve architected it and choreographed it, you want it all to be perfect. Getting there is sort of like having to take your medicine. But what if your vacation could start at the airport?”

In January, with Fremar’s assistance, a section of LaGuardia (which President Joe Biden once compared to a Third World country) became the Sapphire Lounge. Warmly lit and plushly appointed, the lounge is the snazziest of four new Chase clubs in airports around the world. On the menu: lobster rolls, pumpkin muhammara. To drink: the Red Eye, a cocktail made with vodka, espresso, and something called pearl dust. Fremar said, “You might end up being there for a while.”

She was sitting at a table at the Sunset Tower Hotel, in Los Angeles, wearing a black turtleneck and black jeans. One of her jobs is to make sure that the Chase spaces stand out amid the competition (such as American Express’s twenty-five Centurion Lounges). Each has its own style. Fremar said, “Our lounge in Boston Logan should be different from the one in Phoenix Sky Harbor.” She went on, “We’re looking for a vintage, aged look, without bringing in collector’s-level pieces. We need furniture that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter.” She put on her sunglasses and, seeking inspiration, walked out to a waiting S.U.V., which would shuttle her to galleries and furniture stores.

First stop: Nickey Kehoe, a West Hollywood home emporium known for a shabby-chic-gone-wild vibe. Fremar took a photo of a vase that looked like it was made of crumpled newspaper ($1,200). “We’ve got bookshelves, and we try to have some décor elements in there,” she said. “You don’t want to be kitschy, or totally generic. We’re past ‘living walls’ and shearling cabinetmaker chairs.” She looked up at a ceramic pendant light. “It’s gorgeous,” she said. “Craftsman.”

“It’s brutalist,” a salesman said.

Stop two: Galerie Half. Fremar considered, then vetoed, a long, eggplant-colored couch ($33,000). “If you were sitting here,” she said, having lowered herself onto the middle cushion, “you wouldn’t necessarily want five strangers lined up next to you.” Circular and L-shaped sectionals tend to work better, she said.

She tried out a velvet chaise longue. “Comfortable,” she said, testing the cushion’s give, “but not too domestic.”

Stop three: Karma, an art gallery. “We have a Silvia López Chavez in Boston and a Chelsea Odufu in LaGuardia,” Fremar said, taking in a marigold-heavy painting by Ouattara Watts ($325,000). “It’s nice to see something big, something with color, especially when you don’t have natural light.”

Final stop: Gallery Are. An Italian couch from the sixties mingled with Danish chairs from the forties. Shade Degges, the shop’s co-owner, said, “We only buy what I would put in my home. That way, when this goes out of business, I’ve got a house full of stuff.”

Fremar eyed a tufted sapphire-blue daybed and then exclaimed at a pair of wingback chairs. She had bought them online for her own house but hadn’t yet seen them in person.

“They’re so pretty in real life,” she said, sinking into the fuzzy camel upholstery. “And comfortable, too.”

“Mohair,” Degges said.

Could the chairs work in a Chase lounge? Degges and Fremar looked alarmed.

“Not mohair,” Degges said. “It crushes.”

“We have some really high-trafficked spaces,” Fremar said. “People spill stuff, there are little kids. You have to be able to bleach it clean.”

Degges said, “If you threw your luggage down on that chair to save a seat, it would have wheel marks until someone came over with water and a brush.”

Fremar stroked the chair’s nubby back. “It does bring depth to a space,” she said. “My team could find an industrial-grade version of this, something with a higher Martindale.” (Martindale is an industrial rating that pertains to a fabric’s “rub count.”) Something that could withstand the effects of innumerable Red Eyes, perhaps.

“You think about high-trafficked, with children?” Degges said, and shook his head. “Airports are like a room full of children, all the time. Non-stop rotation, every hour.”

“We do have to be mindful of that,” Fremar said. “Some things are better at home.”♦

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