Design at the Oscars: Rockwell Group’s set recaptures the spirit of Hollywood’s past

David Rockwell’s scenic design at LA Union Station for the 93rd Academy Awards crafts an intimate venue inspired by the elegance of the Oscars’ earliest ceremonies.

by STIRworldPublished on : Apr 29, 2021

An architectural jewel of the city and one of its historic landmarks, Los Angeles Union Station was one of the main venues for the recently held 93rd Academy Awards. Breaking away from the Dolby Theatre - the Oscars' home since 2002, this year's ceremony was conducted at multiple venues to accommodate the disruptions to travel and public gatherings imposed by the pandemic. In line with the Oscars 2021 campaign tagline of 'Bring Your Movie Love’, the event was touted as a celebration of cinema's power to inform, tell stories, foster relationships, and act as a bridge for communication. David Rockwell, Founder and President of Rockwell Group, returned to handle the event's scenic design for the third time, after having previously taken up the same responsibility during the 81st and 82nd ceremonies - both held in the Rockwell Group-designed Dolby Theatre.

Ticketing Concourse of Los Angeles Union Station: Completed in 1939, the venue is an iconic city landmark |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
Ticketing Concourse of Los Angeles Union Station: Completed in 1939, the venue is an iconic city landmark Image: Courtesy of Union Station - Panic Studio L.A.

“It was an honour to design the Oscars ceremony in such a critical year for cultural production,” said Rockwell in an official release, concerning the event’s set design. His team was tasked with creating an intimate space for the main segment of the ceremony, along with auxiliary venues for before and post-show festivities on the grounds of LA Union Station.  Completed in 1939 by the father-son architectural partnership of John and Donald Parkinson, this iconic train station features a distinctive blend of Spanish colonial design, Art Deco and Mission Revival styles - currently referred to as 'Mission Moderne’. For decades, it has functioned as a gateway into the city for innumerable hopeful performers chasing their dreams of breaking into Hollywood and forging a career in the film industry.

North Patio of Los Angeles Union Station, one of the spaces used for the ceremony |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
North Patio of Los Angeles Union Station, one of the spaces used for the Oscars ceremony Image: Courtesy of Union Station - Panic Studio L.A.

Inspired by the intimacy and understated charm of the earliest Oscars ceremonies - held as seated formal dinners within the iconic ballrooms of Los Angeles, the Rockwell Group devised a design concept that honoured the timeless spirit of this treasured industry event. To this end, they crafted four unique spaces within the station's Waiting Room, Ticket Concourse, and its North and South Patios.

Ceiling of the station’s Entrance Lobby: The building features a unique mixture of Spanish Colonial, Art Deco, and Mission Revival |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
Ceiling of the station’s entrance lobby: The building features a unique mixture of Spanish colonial, Art Deco, and Mission Revival Image: Courtesy of Union Station - Panic Studio L.A.

“People crave shared experiences, especially now, so we tried to create a celebration of the type of communal arts we have been missing. The Oscar ceremony is always intimate and grand at the same time, more so this year with Union Station’s soaring details and historic details,” explains Rockwell. A mixture of rich wood finishes, shimmering metallic elements, cool saturated hues, and lavish textures characterised the design aesthetic - complementing Union Station's architectural features while encapsulating the sentiments of yearning and ambition that have been perpetually associated with Hollywood. Moreover, technological implements added a modern touch and boosted the design’s adaptive capabilities. 

The Rockwell Group devised a concept inspired by the seated formal dinners of the earliest Oscars held in the city’s iconic ballrooms |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
The Rockwell Group devised a concept inspired by the seated formal dinners of the earliest Oscars held in the city’s iconic ballrooms Image: Courtesy of Spencer Lowell for the Rockwell Group

On entering the main hall from its left along a raised promenade, nominees and guests encountered a radially designed space with multi-tiered seating focused on the show's terraced main stage. This zone was populated by custom cafe tables with luxurious, upholstered chairs, and bespoke Oscar-inspired lamps that served as centerpieces. The lower tier also included custom wood-grain banquettes accented by warm, silver metal rails along their curved upper edges, adding to the intimate, tight-knit ambience of the event. "We conceived a room within a room that made circulation intuitive, enveloped the audience in an intimate embrace and created a space in which the action happens everywhere, not just on stage," says Rockwell.

Rich wood finishes, shimmering metallic elements, cool saturated hues, and lavish textures characterized the design aesthetic along with cafe tables and wood grain banquettes |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
Rich wood finishes, shimmering metallic elements, cool saturated hues, and lavish textures characterised the design aesthetic along with cafe tables and wood grain banquettes Image: Courtesy of Spencer Lowell for the Rockwell Group

Platinum-finish screens were arranged in geometrical patterns to distinguish the sections of the audience area from one another while maintaining enough negative space to avoid concealing the station's architectural and ornamental details. These screens initially featured live picture frames with photographs depicting historical moments from earlier Oscars’ ceremonies. However, they mirrored the live feed from the main stage once the proceedings commenced.

The main multi-tiered stage is set against a backdrop of royal blue velvet drapes and platinum finish screens |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
The main multi-tiered stage is set against a backdrop of royal blue velvet drapes and platinum finish screens Image: Courtesy of Spencer Lowell for the Rockwell Group

A massive velvet, royal blue drape finished with oversized matching tassels served as the background for the main stepped, circular thrust stage of rich inlaid wood. Flanked by LED screens fixed to platinum-finished dividers exhibiting similar motifs as those on the seating area, the stage had built-in LED lights that added subtle visual highlights during the event. Obscured by the drapery, usage of the backstage area was restricted to minimise congregation and maintain social distancing. Instead, presenters predominantly spoke from their seated places.

In the North Courtyard outside, they crafted a multi-levelled wooden deck space for the celebrations preceding and following the ceremony |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
In the North Courtyard outside, they crafted a multi-levelled wooden deck space for the celebrations preceding and following the ceremony Image: Courtesy of Spencer Lowell for the Rockwell Group

Outside in the North Courtyard, multi-leveled decking in teak wood grain was installed over all grassy areas in this space reserved for the special broadcast celebrations that took place prior to and following the event's live telecast. Open to both nominees and guests, it featured high-top tables along the stone patio and a blue carpeted walkway through the centre.

The Rockwell Group utilised a cool, serene palette inspired by the station’s tiling design with upholstered lounge chairs and cocktail tables |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
The Rockwell Group utilised a cool, serene palette inspired by the station’s tiling design with upholstered lounge chairs and cocktail tables Image: Courtesy of Spencer Lowell for the Rockwell Group

Here, the Rockwell Group employed a cool colour palette informed by the tiling design within Union Station. Working bars, a DJ booth, lounges, and a piano occupied most of the platforms. Lounge areas were decorated with outdoor furniture by Roche Bobois, that included their Missoni fabric upholstered Mah Jong seating and Cute Cut cocktail tables. These areas were outlined by drink rails along with trees ornamented by lanterns and flower baskets. Strategically located monitors displayed the live feed throughout the event, while huge award silhouettes filled with floral arrangements bordered the courtyard's lower level.

  • From the Ceremony:  Oscar® nominees Diane Warren and Laura Pausini before the live telecast |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
    From the ceremony: Oscar® nominees Diane Warren and Laura Pausini before the live telecast Image: Courtesy of Richard Harbaugh / A.M.P.A.S.
  • From the Ceremony:  Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera pose backstage with the Oscar® for Makeup and Hairstyling |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
    From the ceremony: Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera pose backstage with the Oscar® for makeup and hairstyling Image: Courtesy of Matt Sayles / A.M.P.A.S.

Based in New York, the Rockwell Group is an award-winning interdisciplinary architecture and design firm whose work encompasses the realms of hospitality, luxury residential developments, airport terminals, cultural institutes, set design, products, exhibitions, and festivals. Aside from handling scenic design duties for the Oscars, the practice has also conceived sets for numerous Broadway productions. Additionally, the Rockwell Group is also renowned for its work on Nobu Hotels and restaurants worldwide, the Warner Music Group Headquarters in Los Angeles, and the restoration of the Hayes Theater in New York.

From the ceremony: Yuh-Jung Youn accepts the Oscar® for Actress in a Supporting Role |The 93rd Academy Awards at Los Angeles Union Station by Rockwell Group | STIRworld
From the ceremony: Yuh-Jung Youn accepts the Oscar® for Actress in a Supporting Role Image: Courtesy of Todd Wawrychuk / A.M.P.A.S.

(Text by Jerry Joe Elengical, intern at STIRworld.com)

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