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A candid conversation with American architect and designer David Rockwell

In an exclusive interview with STIR, the Tony Award-winning set designer David Rockwell discusses his ideas about designing from an audience-centric, empathy-driven point of view.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Dec 15, 2021

The ability to narrate a convincing tale is one part of storytelling, the other is the ability to build a world that an audience can then immerse themselves in. American architect and designer, David Rockwell, is one of the most proficient at doing so. Having created the Rockwell Group in 1984, the practice and Rockwell himself have created immersive work across design disciples. From creating Tony Award-winning Broadway sets to collaborative product design ventures, the scope of Rockwell's work and practice extend beyond the realms of architecture and interior design.

In an exclusive conversation with STIR, David Rockwell elaborates on his work, his process, and how his youth informed his desire to create memorable experiences.

Set for She loves me | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Set for She loves me Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group

Devanshi Shah (DS): You have spoken previously about growing up with theatre. Could you elaborate on how this continues to inform your design and architectural practice?

David Rockwell (DR): Since I was young, I wanted to be a part of and create memorable experiences, and theatre was really a key that I discovered for doing that. I have always thought about the human stories behind everything that needs design, even when it was an unpopular thing to do. Everything we do is about story. Architects and designers are imagining new futures, telling stories of how to get there, and inspiring people to go.

DS: The geographic change in your childhood is also another point of reference you call back to in your work, particularly in relation to your understanding of public space. How does this childhood memory continue to manifest in your work?  

DR: Our family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, when I was a child. The highly energetic and dense urban environments saturated with colour, objects and action exposed me to a thrill and vibrancy that stays with me to this day, and taught me the importance of using public space creatively. I have no doubts that this trickled down to inform our pro-bono projects DineOut NYC and OpenStage NYC.

Set of Kinky Boots, 2012 | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Set of Kinky Boots, 2012 Image: Courtesy of Ballogg Photography; Rockwell Group

Broadway and Set Design

DS: You have been nominated and have won numerous awards not only in relation to architecture but also Tony and Emmy Awards. Could you talk to us a bit more about designing your continued engagement across set design vs interior and architecture design?

DR: I have been thinking about the ways in which theatre and design overlap for many years. I believe that at Rockwell Group we have a very unique way of designing, whether it’s for a performing arts centre, Broadway production, or a retail or hospitality space, that invites and involves listening to a story and telling a story through design. Doing that fundamentally creates relationships, and the presence of a relationship in an experience creates greater meaning and lasting impact. These ideas about designing from an audience-centric, empathy-driven point of view are relevant in the theatre, and in architecture and hospitality. Focusing on how people gather, what their emotional experiences are, and what their memories become, and how design can massively impact on all of that is extremely relevant to strategy, human engagement community health, and sustainability.

Set design for Broadway production of She loves me | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Set design for Broadway production of She loves me Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group

DS: The Oscars this year were completely unique. What was the brief of this year’s event in addition to the aesthetical aspects? There were two parts to the Oscar set, both of which had their own identity and attention to details. Could you tell us a bit more about your inspiration?

DR: For the 93rd Academy Awards, Rockwell Group transformed Los Angeles’s Union Station into the set for an intimate Oscars ceremony. Viewers who were accustomed to the annual event taking place in a stadium theatre were delighted to see Hollywood glamour illuminate an iconic public transit hub. Replacing the typical row seating with cafe-style tables and banquets with custom table lamps created an atmosphere of unstated and intimate elegance—a welcome change for both live and televised audiences after more than a year of isolation. We were inspired by some of the very first Academy Award ceremonies and their understated elegance-these were informal dinners in iconic ballrooms in Los Angeles. The second part of the set, as you mention, was the north courtyard, which served as the backdrop for pre- and post-show celebrations, where guests could roam between platforms that included a DJ booth, piano, bars, and lounge areas furnished in Roche Bobois Mah Jong seating.

Oscars Main Ceremony stage | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Oscars Main Ceremony stage Image: Courtesy of Spencer Lowell for Rockwell Group

DS: Another theatre project this year were the sets for the seven deadly sins in an outdoor theatre series. This seemed to be an interesting overlap, where the building façade becomes a physical manifestation of the fourth wall. Could you tell us about how each of the sins were conceptualised? Could you also elaborate on how you negotiated the immersive nature of theatre with the exteriority of street life?

DR: Each play addressed a sin—pride, sloth, greed, lust, wrath, envy, and gluttony—and each took place in an empty storefront (with the exception of Envy, which took place in a shipping container) on West 13th Street and Gansevoort Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Socially distanced audiences of roughly 24 sat outside of the storefronts and were guided to the different locations. They began their journey in Purgatory—a loading dock across from the Whitney Museum with neon strips and a red Mylar curtain that doubled as the ticket window, introduction to the performance, and pop-up bar. Each play had a distinct colour and a seven-foot-tall sign that sat in the transom or outside of the storefront spelling out the name of the sin presented. Depending on the play, we took a very abstracted approach or a realistic approach to the set. For example, Gluttony took place in the Garden of Eden, but rather than create naturalistic foliage, we were inspired by Henri Rousseau’s bold jungle images and Kehinde Wiley’s representation of foliage in his take on Old Masters. A baroque set features a front ground row painted in bold, abstract flowers and foliage. A set of wings and a painted backdrop feature the same design. I think that the breaks between each play - the transitions - allowed for opportunities for the audience to become even more invested in the production, and built anticipation and suspense. Activating empty spaces created an intimacy with the audience and connected them to that time and place in New York, whether they were visitors or locals.

  • Set for Seven Deadly Sins (Sloth) | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
    Set for Seven Deadly Sins (Sloth) Image: Lawrence Sumulong; Courtesy of Rockwell Group
  • Set for Seven Deadly Sins (Pride) | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
    Set for Seven Deadly Sins (Pride) Image: Lawrence Sumulong; Courtesy of Rockwell Group
  • Set for Seven Deadly Sins (Lust) | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
    Set for Seven Deadly Sins (Lust) Image: Lawrence Sumulong; Courtesy of Rockwell Group

Design and details

DS: What is one of the key elements when designing hospitality projects?

DR: We are always looking to create nimble, adaptable spaces that can be quickly occupied and re-occupied, configured and reconfigured throughout the day, week, or year, to meet guests’ ever-changing needs. They let us take control of our environment, encouraging a type of spatial rule breaking. They also promote the free, informal moments when spontaneous creativity is born. Play is encouraged and surprise is always around the corner.

DS: Could you tell us a bit more about a recent architectural/design project undertaken by the studio?

DR: We are working on reimagining some iconic spaces such as The Boca Raton resort in Florida and 550 Madison here in New York City. We have also had several exciting openings these past few months including the Civilian Hotel in Manhattan’s Theater District, W Nashville, the Citizens food hall and restaurants at Manhattan West, and 1 Hotel Toronto, to name a few.

  • Moxy South Beach Courtyard | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
    Moxy South Beach Courtyard Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group
  • 30 Hudson Yard | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
    30 Hudson Yard Image: Emily Andrews; Courtesy of Rockwell Group
  • Camellias Clubhouse | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
    Camellias Clubhouse Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group

DS: A keen eye for detail, it is something that is visible in all your work; this has also led to some interesting collaborations such as Elba for Paola Lenti and many more. Could you tell us a bit more about these?

DR: We create immersive environments where everything tells a story, so product design is a natural extension of our work. Often we find ourselves creating something when there is a need in the marketplace for something transformable, flexible, and adaptable to a lot of different kinds of spaces. In the case of Elba, we had developed a friendship and relationship with Paola and her team over our many visits to Milan throughout the years. We have always loved the brand for its materiality and use of colour, and we often request samples and use it on boards. Because of its higher, residential price-point, we weren’t able to use it in as many of our hospitality projects as we would have liked. This became the incentive for us to work together with Paola Lenti’s research and development team and design something specifically for the hospitality market. We decided together to develop an elegant and plush-looking indoor/outdoor chair for a quintessential hospitality element that Paola Lenti didn’t currently have in the collection. Our hospitality DNA met Paola Lenti’s strong colours and materiality. We wanted something that was neutral and modern that would work in a variety of settings so that designers could adapt to their varied projects. Because of its form and materiality, the collection has both a classical and retro look.

Elba for Paola Lenti | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Elba for Paola Lenti Image: Sergio Chimenti; Courtesy of Paola Lenti

DS: This attention to details extends to even door handles, another recent collaboration is that with Dutch brand Formani. Tell us more about this.

DR: Rockwell Group is Formani’s first US design partner, and we bring our unique hospitality lens and sense of craftsmanship and innovation to the partnership. Our Eclipse Collection is a series of stainless steel, PVC-coated door fittings with a timeless, modern form that responds ergonomically to the human touch. The iconic silhouette is a cylindrical form with a curved, carved channel—an inflection point that perfectly meets the hand’s grasp. Simple, sculptural tooling offers both a square return and round return option and profile. We approached our design concept like we would for an interactive set piece on stage—transforming something everyday into a special object that marks a transition and transformation in a wide range of interiors.

Eclipse by Formani | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Eclipse by Formani Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group

Institutionally Inclined

DS: One of my final questions is actually about your most recent institutional intervention regarding the Futures exhibition at the Smithsonian. The studio did exhibition design; could you tell us a bit more about the project and how you created an interactive digital ecosystem?

DR: This was an incredible opportunity to work with the Smithsonian and help bring the Arts & Industries Building (AIB) back to life. For most of its life, the AIB served as our pre-eminent showcase for American innovation, like Edison’s lightbulb, the Apollo rockets, and the first airplane. For anyone with a deep appreciation for visionary thinking, it is hallowed ground. But it was the theme of this exhibit that became our obsession. Whether in museum exhibitions or World’s Fairs, we have always tended to look at one set notion of the future. A predetermined destination, passed down from on-high, that we are all blindly shuttling towards. We have done away with all that with Futures, and are inviting visitors to explore multiple futures that are pluralistic, democratic, and completely malleable.

FUTURES installation view, Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
FUTURES installation view, Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building Image: Courtesy of Ron Blunt

Our exhibition design encouraged a similarly non-linear experience. From the central rotunda, guests choose which hall to explore next. Each hall has a different concept, based on a specific value and each hall contains its own unique digital beacon, created by our LAB, prompting visitors with theme-based questions about the type of future they would like to see made real. Visitors can respond using gestures and immediately see how their responses compare to others. As visitors leave the exhibition, a large digital mirror will reflect their image at the centre of an ever-evolving giant kaleidoscope that represents the values, dreams and hopes of all visitors-the future we shape together. This interaction system uses data collected by the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto-based non-profit, in order to create a consistent thematic experience, grounded in research.

Installation view of the FUTURES exhibition | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Installation view of the FUTURES exhibition Image: Courtesy of Ron Blunt

DS: Could you elaborate on some of the other work undertaken by the LAB, Rockwell Group’s design innovation studio?

DR: The LAB recently completed the first Illuminarium, located along Atlanta’s BeltLine, a former railway corridor-turned-multi-use-trail. Our 25,000-square-foot space includes 10,000-square-feet of theatre and the rest is dedicated to retail, F&B, a lobby, and an outdoor terrace. Illuminarium is an entirely new type of collective experience and content. These reprogrammable, immersive theatres surround visitors in a sensory space of sight, sound, and scale. It’s a fully projected mapped environment, from the floor to the walls to the 22-foot-high ceiling. Radical Media produced the content. The LAB is in the midst of opening three more in Miami, Las Vegas, and Chicago.

Installation shot of an installation by the LAB | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Installation shot of an installation by the LAB Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group

For the debut show, WILD: Safari Experience, Radical sent film crews to Africa to capture cinematic content using custom camera arrays that provide a 240-degree native field of view, versus the average 210-degree human field of view, this is content at resolutions many times higher than HD. Each spectacle has an innovative sound design and custom musical score playing together to create a choreographed, ambisonic soundscape. The sound will change with the viewer’s location and perspective, increasing or decreasing in volume, or coming from a specific location. Even the floor responds to guests’ steps and movements, with sand or water rippling beneath them. Like theatre or restaurants, this project was driven by my desire to find ways to gather people and offer them surprising, meaningful experiences, and my interest in new typologies.

Every spectacle by the LAB has an innovative sound design and custom musical score | David Rockwell Group | David Rockwell | STIRworld
Every spectacle by the LAB has an innovative sound design and custom musical score Image: Courtesy of Rockwell Group

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