The Opulent Modernism of Platner
If you’ve ever wondered how we got from the glass boxes, stainless steel furniture, and white walls of the 1950s to the fern bars, wood paneling, and brass of the 1970s, Warren Platner is one answer. The career of the Connecticut–based architect and interior designer, who died in 2006 at age 86, spans the late 20th century’s architectural styles, from corporate modernism and sky-high restaurants to postmodern ferries. Not all of his work was good, or even in good taste, but it reveals a smart designer trying to avoid stagnation. Even when Platner went over the top (those dangling golden handkerchiefs at the Pan Am Building—–now the MetLife Building—–as part of a renovation in 1986 come to mind), there was always a clear architectural idea behind the glittering decoration.
Platner had all the serious modernist credentials: He worked with I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, and Minoru Yamasaki on such signifiers of mid-century cool as the TWA Flight Terminal at New York International Airport (now JetBlue’s T5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport); the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan; and furniture designs for Knoll. Though much of his work adhered to a rigid modular grid, he also had a flashy side, one that bubbled up in his use of brass and mirrors in the 1960s (that’s the fern bar aesthetic) and reached its apotheosis at Windows on the World, the restaurant and club that opened in 1976 at the top of the New York City World Trade Center’s North Tower.
Platner knew not to upstage the panoramic view of that high-altitude eatery but showed no such restraint in the lead-up. Just off the elevators, past the golden reception room, and likely dizzy from the ascent, visitors had to pass through the "crystalline gallery" where, as Architectural Record wrote, "great pieces of semiprecious stone from around the world are reflected and re-reflected from glass arches and mirrors on the walls, floor, and ceiling. In this space images are so kaleidoscopic that for some the walk is like a trip through space." Photo murals of New York added to the disorientation, and huge chunks of lustrous stone served as sculpture. Platner created a modernist Versailles, geometric and sensual, and unlike any other elevator lobby in the world.
By comparison, the dining rooms were relatively sedate, with tufted beige banquettes and columns dotted with small brass discs. In a deft stroke, he managed to create intimate alcoves and terraces for every table while still giving each a generous view.
But Platner is best known for his line of iconic wire chairs and tables for Knoll. Designed ten years earlier than Windows on the World, the chairs combine bases made of thin steel rods with old-fashioned upholstered seats and backs. The plush part looks as if it should crush the see-through base, and in the long modernist search for the chair without legs (like Marcel Breuer’s cantilever and Saarinen’s pedestal), Platner may have won out by defiantly adding more spines.
In retrospect, much of Platner’s work seems perverse. And, frankly, some of it from the 1980s and 1990s, like the garish lobbies in the Pan Am Building in New York, or the pastel interiors of ferries Fantasia and Fiesta, is just plain awful. Because he didn’t stick to the browns and blacks and tasteful grids of his employers and peers, this heir of Saarinen wasn’t easy to pigeonhole and was duly accused of modernist apostasy. But his material and aesthetic wanderlust—–brass-plated rods, crystal chunks, the bent oak he turned into a ceiling decoration for the American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1974—–were all part of his search for an appropriate palette for each client.
Though the majority of Platner’s work was interiors, he addressed a great variety of places, from restaurants to shopping malls to corporate headquarters, each an integration of architectural ideas into an inner space. Perhaps his greatest skill was the ability to create a mood with architecture, incorporating a dash of his hallmark glitter into the structure rather than adding it as decoration.
One of his first jobs, and yet another entry in his designer resume, was working for industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who taught him, Platner later said, that it is "worthwhile to pay attention to a very simple object." As his contemporaries climbed the architectural ladder toward the skyscraper, Platner held faith with Loewy’s lesson and rarely seemed interested in building bigger. "It is lacking to ignore interiors," he said, "because after all, what’s the building for?"