David Rockwell Has a Lot of Nerve

This was the year that business lost its nerve. Innovation? Imagination? Who could afford them? But David Rockwell, the design visionary behind some of New York's hottest restaurants, the Academy Awards theater, and even the sets for the Broadway smash Hairspray, keeps on taking chances -- and building great spaces with a point of view.

New York architect David Rockwell doesn't fit in.
Not in this place. Clad in a gray T-shirt, black jeans, and black-suede Merrells, with a paint-smudged tote bag slung over his shoulder, he punches at his cell phone while waiting impatiently for an elevator. The lobby in which he finds himself is standard-issue design for a 57th Street office building: all black marble and colossal columns, it is cold, austere, and massive -- the impersonal gateway to a building that has been designed for the ages and therefore relates to no age at all.

After an ear-popping ascent to the top floor, Rockwell is ushered into a conference room where a hotel developer accompanied by a coterie of executive types awaits him. Rockwell slouches into a chair and makes his pitch for a chain of boutique hotels targeted at a demographic that has been ignored by the industry. Direct and steady, he cracks an occasional joke. But beneath the tousled, low-key approach is a boiling drive. Affably but insistently, he makes a bid to establish some firm deadlines and fast-track the project. Apparently, he makes some headway, for as the session concludes, the lead executive leans back and without smiling declares that he's excited by the plan. Yet another David Rockwell project has taken another step forward.

This will be remembered as the year that corporate America lost its nerve. Vast empires crumbled under the weight of bad strategies and phony accounting. CEOs desperate for profits devoted themselves to cutting costs rather than to launching products. Innovation? Imagination? Who could afford them?

Through it all, David Rockwell has kept building. More important, the spaces that he designs have continued to embrace a nervy commitment to such out-of-favor ideas as playful energy, visual daring, and, most significant, human connection. Arguably more than any other architect, Rockwell has put people -- not the stick figures of architectural renderings but flesh-and-blood human beings -- at the center of his projects. He and his firm of 90 designers, model makers, artists, craftspeople, and sculptors seek to invent places that engage and entertain. Or, to be more precise, Rockwell Group creates spaces where talented people -- the all-star chefs of Nobu, Town, and 32 other restaurants; McCann-Erickson WorldGroup's copywriters; the performers of Cirque du Soleil and of the Academy Awards' new Kodak Theatre, in Hollywood; the cast of the Broadway smash Hairspray -- can collaborate and create. "We love it when clients don't talk about what they want the space to look like but instead focus on the things they're really passionate about," says Rockwell. "That's when we start to understand them."

Rockwell likes to say that every space contains a "secret narrative," and it's up to his design team to make the narrative real. So the team members spend weeks interviewing, researching, and exploring the world beyond architecture to find inspiration. Only then will the look of the place be revealed. Nobu's serpentine space came out of research into Kabuki theater. The swirling silver-leaf ovals that crown the ceiling of Kodak Theatre are a tribute to Busby Berkeley's dance sequences. The sculpted tigers prowling the facade of the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park were inspired by the elephants at the Bronx Zoo. "You can't just look for interesting design devices," Rockwell says. "You have to discover the heart and soul of a project. Only then will you have a fighting chance of bringing the space to life."

"The Big Things Are Uncontrollable"
Walk into most architects' offices, and what you'll find is self-referential: framed elevations and photographs of the firm's "best of" projects. Enter Rockwell Group's loftlike space off of Union Square, which includes the former offices of the late Spy magazine, and you'll find the world. True, on Rockwell's desk stands a maquette from his staging of the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show. But then there's also his collection of kaleidoscopes ("They reframe the world in unfamiliar ways"), a spinable globe, and a pillow stenciled with a kind of Rockwellian motto ("If life is a stage, I want better lighting"). Outside his office, on other designers' desks, are packets of Crayola crayons, minimodels of NASCAR racers, Buddha prints, Japanese transformer toys, and stacks of reference books. It all adds up to a workplace of "messy vitality," as Rockwell puts it, where the designers' inspirations are drawn from nature, history, pop culture, film, and craft.

On a Tuesday morning in late summer, Rockwell huddles with his team of three lighting specialists to go over plans for Buddha Bar, a downtown restaurant set to open next month. In architectural lingo, this is a "crit": a meeting to critique the designers' progress. Rockwell is not entirely pleased. He doesn't like the facade: The color is wrong, and he's worried about a streetlight's glare seeping into the three windows that front the building. And about those windows: "What do they do for us?" he snaps. "Why are they there?" Not holding back, he follows up with a series of rapid-fire technical questions about the interior lighting. He likes some of the answers he hears, but he is concerned. The exterior is still a problem, he says. It needs another meeting.

Later, I ask Rockwell if he has ever visited one of his completed projects and hated something about it. He rolls his eyes and mutters, "All the time." He knows that he came off as a tad overbearing in the Buddha Bar meeting, but he is unapologetic. "The approach to the exterior of the building was a bit lazy, and it was important to let the team know that," he says. "It helps everyone if you really say what's on your mind, as opposed to trying to couch it through a series of niceties. I believe that ultimately, people want to make a difference. But they can't make a difference if they don't have real interactions."

Rockwell is disinclined -- and far too busy -- to micromanage. Still, he sweats the details. Much of that impulse is biographical. His father died when he was 2, and he lost his mother when he was 15. "You learn that the big things are uncontrollable," he muses. "So you end up obsessing over all the little things, which is what we do here."

What's Most Lasting Is Also Most Fleeting
The youngest in a family of five boys, Rockwell's early life was marked by transition and dislocation. He was born in Chicago, but as a kid, he lived in a small town on the Jersey shore, where his mother -- an ex - tap dancer who toured with Abbott and Costello -- directed community theater groups, recruiting Rockwell and his brothers to act in minor roles. The early experience of sitting in a darkened room, watching a new world come magically to life on stage, triggered one of his core insights: "The things that have the most-lasting effect are also the most fleeting." So it goes with design, which need not always aspire to the grandiose and the permanent. Like theater itself, design can also be ephemeral and experiential. A restaurant, a hotel lobby -- even a workplace -- can become a stage set that transforms everyday experience, if only for a few moments. That realization set Rockwell free from the dead-end ambition of aiming for architectural posterity. "If permanence is your goal," Rockwell says now, "it rules out everything that isn't permanent."

When Rockwell was 10, his stepfather announced to the family that he was retiring from work and moving all of them to Guadalajara, Mexico. One week later, the youngster was jolted into a new world of mountains, crowded markets, bullrings, and spectacle. Rockwell would later express those elements through his passion for the physical representations of abrupt transition: entrances into buildings, where people pass from the hurly-burly of the street into a fictional world of Rockwell's making; and stairways, where customers take on the role of performers, leaving one stage set to enter another.

And then there was the light in Mexico. Rockwell fell in love with light. Years later, while working on his first project as an independent architect -- a New York restaurant called Sushi Zen -- he commissioned an artist to make a silk mural that covered an entire wall. He then puckered neon light through the mural, creating an iridescent glow. A month before the opening, the owners told him that they couldn't afford the neon. Rockwell wouldn't back down. Lighting governs the mood of a place, its buzz -- and buzz is sacred. He anted up $5,000 and paid for the lighting himself. The design was a smash. It launched his career.

When he was 18, Rockwell left Mexico to study architecture at Syracuse University. He jokes that he got off to a "horrifying" start. "My first assignment was to draw something in nature. I went outside and spent an hour doing this still life of my sandals. When I was done, I looked over and saw that one of my classmates had done the most amazing drawing of the entire campus. The next day, I went to my professor and told him that I had made a terrible career choice. 'You'll be fine,' he said. 'Just remember: You have less to unlearn than they do.' "

After many false starts and setbacks, Rockwell gradually got braver about slipping his own ideas into his assignments. In his second year, the major project was to design a town house. Along with his sketches and scale model, he invented a narrative history of the structure and wrote biographies of the people who lived there. It felt like a breakthrough: He had combined the formal with the experiential. He had put people front and center in his design.

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"This Is About Fixing Problems As They Crop Up"
"Can we adjust the panties to make them look more pantylike?" says Rockwell to no one in particular as he paces the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre. It's three weeks from Hairspray's opening night, and Rockwell is futzing with the first of his 18 sets, a teenage girl's bedroom, ingeniously tilted at a 90-degree angle so that it gives the audience a bird's-eye view. For weeks now, Rockwell has spent most of his waking hours at the theater. One can imagine angry developers calling from Berlin and Jakarta, wondering why out-of-kilter panties, a 25-foot can of hairspray, and a stage curtain made to resemble a teenybopper's hairdo are taking precedence over their billion-dollar projects.

To create the Hairspray sets, Rockwell and his design team began where they always do: at the beginning. The musical is based on the John Waters film of the same name, a weird, slightly subversive effort that became a kind of camp classic. The story takes place in a Technicolor dreamland version of working-class Baltimore circa 1962. Waters celebrates the ordinariness of that city in an incredibly baroque way, and Rockwell and his team spent weeks researching the look of the place: the two-story row houses made of lime-green Formstone, a faux, rocklike material, with their screen doors and their flowerpots and their three-step marble stoops, scrubbed to an ultrawhite sheen. In Waters's world, everything is a little wonky and off center. Rockwell found that in order to make the row houses look fake, he first had to make them look real. He had artists paint each block of Formstone in each row house in a photorealistic style, but then he canted the houses so that the buildings lean at odd angles, to reflect Waters's flattened, on-screen perspective.

"Every design decision aims to get the audience to buy in emotionally to this teenage girl's view of the world, which is very optimistic," says Rockwell. "It's an incredibly complex undertaking."

Rockwell looks exhausted, but he's jazzed. The stage is once again proving to be an addictive place, a laboratory where he can experiment in real-time collaboration with the art producer, the director, the technical gurus, and the costume designers who are also living 24-7 on the Hairspray set. "This isn't auteurism," he declares, gesturing to the crew of coconspirators working alongside him. "This is about fixing problems as they crop up, and it's a model that we're going to use on future projects." He's already thinking about bringing in a team of scenery makers, lighting wizards, and choreographers (choreographers!) for that airport he's competing for -- and why not? Nearly 40 years ago, in one of those darkened community playhouses on the Jersey shore, the theater imparted its most valuable lesson: If you can find a way to yoke the collective talents of smart, experienced people, anything is possible.

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Designing a Narrative
David Rockwell's designs encourage people to make contact with built spaces -- to run their hands along the scorched ash of the tabletops and feel the ridges of raised grain that mimic the texture of the food at Nobu, to brush up against the thatches of wheatgrass sprouting out of the planters at W Union Square's reception desk. Rockwell even makes people want to connect with elements that are beyond their reach, such as the 30 million crystal beads suspended from the ceiling of Connecticut casino Mohegan Sun.

The core of connection is narrative -- the story line that brings a space to life. For the casino, Rockwell's team studied a history of Connecticut's Mohegan Indian tribe. They divided the 600,000 square feet of the project's first phase into quadrants, each section related to a season, which were all connected by a "life trail." For the second phase, the designers discovered that the tribe was originally drawn to a white rock in Connecticut, which they called Wombi Rock. So Rockwell's crew sculpted a translucent mountain out of onyx and lit it from within, creating a luminous, cathedral-sized diamond right there in the center of the space.

Rockwell doesn't expect visitors to decode Mohegan legend. But he wants to use the tribe's history to give the place an underlying intelligence, something not associated with casinos -- or, for that matter, with what passes for contemporary design.

Bill Breen (bbreen@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Learn more about David Rockwell and his firm on the Web (www.rockwellgroup.com).

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