IIDA Notes: Warren Platner: An Appreciation

June 1, 2006
By Eric Engstrom, FIIDA
Remembering a true pioneer of furniture and restaurant industry design.

By Eric Engstrom FIIDA

Warren Platner, a legendary architect, interior designer, furniture designer, and one of the pioneers of hospitality design, recently passed away in New Haven, CT, at the age of 86. He began his design career in the New York office of SOM and opened his own office in New Haven in the late 1960s. In the 1950s and 1960s he created signature furniture designs for Knoll that combined small diameter chromed steel rods and upholstered seats and backs to create a new idiom in the modernist design movement. The Platner chairs and tables are now considered to be classics that combined the simplicity and elegance of mid-century American design with a dramatic decorative flair and style.

In the early 1970s, he received a commission that would prove to be a seminal project in the development of hospitality design as a specialty. Platner had consulted in restaurant design with the 21 Club (NYC) and other venues but he was mainly involved in corporate office design. When Joe Baum, Michael Whiteman and Dennis Sweeney were retained to create a new series of restaurants for the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York, Platner was hired to design a private dining club, a wine bar and multiple food service locations for the office workers in the huge complex.

From this creative collaboration evolved what would become the most dramatic and exciting group of contemporary restaurants in New York since Philip Johnson created the Four Seasons. For the first time, a stylish collection of spaces that combined clear organizational layout with highly-decorated modern design elements and new methods of food service—with views of Manhattan and the other boroughs from over 100 stories high serving as a major design element.

The main series of restaurant spaces, Windows on the World, first opened as a private club for tenants of the WTC. However, the venue quickly became so popular that the facilities were opened to the public. With table seating cascading like theater seats toward the view and windows, each diner could feel as if they had private views of the city. Design elements included glass partitions with etched patterns and brass metallic accents. Deep burgundy upholstery enhanced the richness of the dining spaces. The "Cellar in the Sky," a wine cellar and tasting venue with glass wine racks and environmentally controlled temperature and humidity, celebrated French and American wines. It was the first "wine bar" of its kind.

As a young designer interested in restaurant design, I was enthralled with each new article in the design and general media. Windows on the World was an inspiration—a way of looking at restaurant design that had not been done before. Concept developer and co-owner Michael Whiteman said of Platner "he was a perfectionist, especially about the decorative details. He worked everything out with sketches, models and mock-ups. (When) we had to go to New Haven—he wouldn't come to New York—he didn't want to stop work to do a presentation."

Windows on the World opened in 1976 and was a major influence on a generation of designers. After operating for 15 years, the restaurant closed following the WTC bombing in 1993. Completely redesigned, it re-opened under new ownership in 1996 but was lost forever on 9/11. At the time of his death, Warren Platner still worked in his New Haven studio and was known more for his furniture designs than for his pioneering efforts in restaurant design. It's surprising that the major listings on Google.com are for eBay offerings of his furniture— virtually no articles or listings note his project design accomplishments. Hopefully his death will heighten the appreciation of his interior design triumphs.

  • Eric Engstrom, FIIDA, is president of IIDA, and founder and president of Engstrom Design Group (edg), San Rafael, CA. IIDA is headquartered in suite 13-500 at the Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL, and can be reached at (888) 799-IIDA; www.iida.org.

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