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Interior Design Architect, Fantasia & Fiesta
|Perhaps the least likely architect ever to have been heavily involved in the design of cross-channel ferries, Warren Platner's previous and all subsequent projects would be land-based. The American's initial major involvement with Sea Containers, Sealink's parent company when Fantasia and Fiesta were being planned, came through working on the imposing Sea Containers House on London's South Bank.
Platner is perhaps most famous amongst the general public for the sumptuous original Windows on the World restaurant, completed in 1976 and located on the 107th floor of the north tower of New York's World Trade Center. Yet in design terms he is equally well known for the 1960s "Platner Collection" of furniture by Knoll. For a 1960s Knoll Platner stool, currently for sale at in excess of €2,000, the modern catalogue notes, "In the 1960s, Warren Platner transformed steel wire into a sculptural furniture collection, thus creating a design icon of the modern era. The furniture's unique, harmonious forms are produced by welding curved vertical steel wire rods to circular frames, producing a moiré effect and capturing the decorative, gentle, graceful quality that Platner sought to achieve."
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|Below: Motorists' Haven, Fantasia (1990).|
|Born in Baltimore in 1919, Warren Platner graduated from the Cornell University School of Architecture in 1941 and then gained experience by working in some of the most prominent architectural practices in the USA. Between 1945 and 1950 he worked for Raymond Loewy and I.M. Pei before joining Eero Saarinen's office where he worked between 1960 and 1965. There Platner was heavily involved in preparing the interior designs for Saarinen's masterpiece, the TWA Terminal at Idlewild (later JFK) airport in New York. Other significant jobs included the designs for the Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. and the Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Centre. Finally he established his own practice, Warren Platner Associates (WPA), in 1965. As a 'hands on' modern architect, Platner was known for personally designing down to the very last detail - including small items like dishes, as well as textiles, furniture and lighting.
The World Trade Center project was one of a series of high-profile commissions WPA completed in the 1970s. In 1970, Platner was able to do some work in his own right for Trans World at JFK airport where he was architect for airside restaurant The Grill. In 1974 The American Restaurant in Kansas City was completed to some acclaim - even a quarter of a century after its opening, it was still wowing the critics: "Easily the most elegant room in the city with the most spectacular downtown view, the most polished service and one of the city's best wine lists, this restaurant still looks stunning. It is a soaring multitiered space with fanned-out bent-oak shutters and ceiling fixtures, well-spaced tables and big circular booths, live piano and splashy flower arrangements". Back in New York, as well as the epic Windows on the World, WPA were also responsible for the observation deck at the top of the south World Trade Center tower, where requirements to handle 3 million visitors a year provided a rather different challenge to that of the exclusive restaurant in the adjacent tower. Windows on the World itself was Platner at his best; partially inspired by the design of the classic ocean liners, the Architectural Record noted that "each square inch of the one-acre space received the most careful design attention - in the creation of scores of very special places, and in the execution of the rich and varied and elegant detail. Windows on the World is, in a word, masterful".
|Below: Another view of The American Restaurant.|
|Above: Warren Platner/Knoll lounge chair (1966), retailing in 2006 for €2,200.|
|In 1987, Platner was commissioned to renovate the Walter Gropius-designed lobby of the monolithic Pan Am Building in the heart of Park Avenue, New York. Unfortunately, the Egyptian theme adopted to enhance what had previously been a stark, modernist space was widely perceived as both incongruous and inappropriate. In a foretaste of some reaction to certain elements of Fantasia and Fiesta, the refurbishment was dismissed as "ghastly and garish". The reaction highlighted an increasing trend for Platner, still widely considered a modernist designer, towards ornamentation and more frivolous decor; in reaction to the criticism, Meredith Clausen in The Pan Am Building & the Shattering of the Modernist Dream notes that Platner commented, "Our intent was to make it a more attractive and livelier place... everything we added was intended to have visual effect". Press comments were sometimes particularly acerbic: "a poor performance, even by Platner standards... with a striving for effect stretched even to the details.... No music here; even Liberace would have blushed at the vulgarity" (Interior Design).
The Platner additions to what became, after the demise of Pan Am, the MetLife Building were largely removed in 2002.
Platner's initial work for Sea Containers was in association with their London office block - fronting onto the River Thames in Blackfriars, Sea Containers House was originally conceived as a luxury hotel. The location, in the heart of London’s business district, led to the decision to complete it instead as office space with Platner to be responsible for interior and exterior designs. This association with SeaCon paid off for WPA in later years as they were appointed Interior Design Architects for the Fantasia and Fiesta project and would also later be involved in the interior design for The Upstairs at '21', a new addition to the landmark '21' Club New York restaurant owned by Orient-Express Hotels, another Sea Containers subsidiary.
|Below: Entrance gallery at Windows on the World (1976), featuring photo-murals of New York and semiprecious stone. The Architectural Record described entering through this space as "like a trip through space".|
|Below: Windows on the World (1976). Platner's speciality for creating intimate formal restaurants was never put to the test on Fantasia and Fiesta although elements of this design were put into practice in the self-service Speedy Gourmet, most notably the raised sections furthest away from the windows, to ensure all diners could have a view.|
|Below: The Cellar in the Sky at Windows on the World (1976).|
|Fantasia and Fiesta presented a unique challenge to a design team which had previously been strictly land-based. Platner noted that "the organisation of a ship and its spaces are of course the most important aspects, appreciated by all the passengers. Ships are, in a broad sense, Architecture. We ourselves [WPA] are unusually versatile architects in that we combine in one organisation and one professional practice an unusually broad array of design talents in many fields that, when co-ordinated together as they are in our practice, produce results of exceptional quality. This enables us to deal with complicated and unusual projects, such as these ships, in an unusually effective way".
One revealing legend regarding the Fantasia and Fiesta project relates an occasion when Platner revealed details of the interior decor to James Sherwood, President and founder of Sea Containers. Sherwood, apparently unimpressed, demanded significant redesigns. Knowing his client well however, Platner did nothing, simply reproducing the same schemes at a later date; this time Sherwood, with wife Shirley alongside, readily agreed to the same plans he had earlier dismissed out of hand. The architect however was keen to stress Sherwood's personal role in the project: "Jim Sherwood was the motivating force for these ships; he determined that a special effort be made to make them exceptional and he was personally involved in all the details. He created the opportunity and the result and many talented people throughout his organisation made it happen in exceptional ways.... they were all a pleasure to work with, in no sense difficult but of course the creation of anything of superior quality demands greater care and effort".
In Fantasia and Fiesta in their original guise, Warren Platner and his team created perhaps the most unique passenger ferry interiors the English Channel has seen, before or since. A grounding in land-based architecture was able to bring a unique perspective to ferry design - and Platner himself found the ships a fulfilling challenge. "While designing hotels in Singapore, shopping malls in Chicago, office buildings in London and houses in Surrey, I have found ships to be the ultimate trip. They are their own world".
Warren Platner died in April 2006, aged 86. In its obituary, The New York Times noted that the man whose furniture had become an "enduring icon of 1960's Modernism" was active in his firm right through until becoming ill early that year.
|Below: Pan Am Building - lobby renovation (1987).|
|Below: Sea Containers House.|
|Below: Sea Containers House. The banner crowing the building bears a passing resemblance to that originally planned for Fantasia and Fiesta.|
|Below: Interior view, Sea Containers House.|
|Below: The American Restaurant (1974). Huge walls of glass, albeit covered by wooden shutters, pre-dated the throughout floor-to-ceiling windows of Fantasia and Fiesta.|