Warren Platner: Designing the Great Society

Architect, interior designer and planner, Warren Platner produced a furniture collection that has proved to be a continuing icon of 1960s Modernism. He is also famed with designing several prominent interiors in New York, including headquarter offices for the Ford Foundation building and the original Windows on the World restaurant, atop the World Trade Centre.

Warren Platner (1919-2006)

Born Joseph Warren Platner in Baltimore on June 18, 1919, he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in architecture in 1941. His career began with work in some of the most prominent and remarkable architecture practices in the country. Between 1945 and 1950, he worked for Raymond Loewy and I.M. Pei.

“My experience with Raymond Loewy showed me that it could be fascinating and worthwhile to pay attention to very simple objects. Where does architecture end? Where does space end? Objects in space modify space, and have a lot to do with the success of it.”

He received the Rome Prize in architecture in 1955.

Warren Platner dining table, Knoll International, 1960s

Platner was a part of Eero Saarinen’s office from 1960-65, participating in the designs for the Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., the Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Centre and several dormitories at Yale University. 

Working in the firms of Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche in the early and mid-1960s, Platner unveiled his seminal collection of chairs, ottomans and tables in 1966. Produced by Knoll International, with the aid of a grant from the Graham Foundation, each piece rested on a sculptural base of nickel-plated steel rods resembling a “shiny sheaf of wheat”, according to the Knoll catalogue.

Production was complicated. The sculptural bases were made of hundreds of rods, and for some chairs, required more than 1,000 welds. An intricate cylindrical mesh steel base, creating a unique architectural play between the interior and exterior space, supported the upholstered seat.

Warren Platner sofa and lounge chair, Knoll International, 1960s

The collection has been in continuous production since its introduction, highlighting the ever-growing interest by collectors of mid-century modern design.

Platner outlined the definition of a ‘classic’ as being, “something that every time you look at it, you accept it as it is and you see no way of improving it”. As such, this is a quality that has often been applied to this series of furniture.

As the head of interior design at Kevin Roche’s firm, Platner created office spaces that were flexible, understated and efficient. He chose a rich, quiet colour scheme to create a warm environment and installed custom-made furniture designed to eliminate needless effort. Ergonomic desks included built-in telephones and special compartments for files and office machines.

Warren Platner lounge chair and coffee table, Knoll International, 1960s

Platner was a firm believer that a building’s design should come from within: “I try to conceive of what would be the best atmosphere, the best character [for a particular building].”

After extensive exposure to many innovative, modern designers of the period, and having gathered a great deal of experience, Platner opened his own office, Warren Platner Associates, in Connecticut in 1965, while continuing to work on the Ford Foundation headquarters building, at 320 East 43rd Street, near Second Avenue in Manhattan. Designed by Kevin Roche and opened in 1967, its steel, granite and glass construction, with its soaring central garden, epitomised the confident, optimistic outlook of ‘the Great Society’, a set of US domestic programs promoted by President Lyndon B. Johnson and fellow Democrats in Congress in the 1960s.

Platner’s firm was purely comprised of fully-qualified architects, whom he believed could manage any design task, whether it was interior planning or the architecture of a skyscraper: “Architects can do any design task, if they wish to do so.”

Warren Platner sofa, Knoll International, 1960s

One of Platner’s first solo projects was the New York showroom for Georg Jensen, the high-end seller of Scandinavian furniture and lighting, called the Georg Jensen Design Centre. It opened in 1968.

Platner’s design for Windows on the World, a restaurant atop the World Trade Centre, which originally opened in 1976, is well known. Mimicking the interior of a grand ocean liner, the main dining room was elaborately terraced to provide views for every table, intimate seating and a sense of drama. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of The New York Times at the time, described the restaurant’s lush interior, with its soft pastels, fabric-covered walls and what seemed like miles of brass railings, as an example of “sensuous modernism”.

Windows on the World restaurant

Platner, who also created lighting fixtures, floor and window coverings, furniture and architectural ornaments for clients, completed many other noteworthy projects, including the interior design of Water Tower Place, the vertical shopping mall that opened in Chicago in 1976, and the 1986 renovation of the Pan Am Building lobby for its new owner, MetLife.

 “Architecture is design, not personal expression. The architect is here to serve others’ needs, not express himself.”

Warren Platner was inducted into Interior Design magazine’s hall of fame in 1985.

Until falling ill, Platner was still active in his firm, Warren Platner Associates, working on projects, including a new shopping centre in Greece. He died, aged 86, in 2006.

 

References:

- Warren Platner - R 20th Century Design. 2012. Warren Platner - R 20th Century Design. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.r20thcentury.com/biography_detail.cfm?designer_id=91. [Accessed 06 July 2012].

- Warren Platner - Furniture, Designs & Home Decor - Design Within Reach . 2012. Warren Platner - Furniture, Designs & Home Decor - Design Within Reach . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dwr.com/category/designers/m-p/warren-platner.do. [Accessed 06 July 2012].

- Knoll : Designer. 2012. Knoll : Designer. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.knoll.com/designer/designer_detail.jsp?designer_id=136. [Accessed 06 July 2012].

Image references:

'Warren Platner dining table' sold by mid-centuryonline.com

'Warren Platner sofa and lounge chair' sold by mid-centuryonline.com

'Warren Platner lounge chair and coffee table' sold by mid-centuryonline.com

'Warren Platner sofa' available http://mid-centuryonline.com/warren-platner-sofa

'Windows on the World restaurant' http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1234697&page=2