David Rockwell breezes through 500,000 square feet of steel skeleton as if the 102-degree Las Vegas sun weren't baking him alive. It has been six weeks since the designer last visited Crystals, the high-end retail arm of CityCenter, Las Vegas's $8.5 billion city-within-a-city. A collaboration among eight architects, it will debut this December after three tumultuous years of construction and near-bankruptcy. In an ambitious attempt to infuse a small dose of highbrow into the city of kitsch, Rockwell's sprawling public interior for Daniel Libeskind's angular structure will be as much MoMA as it is Central Park—suspended gardens, a floor painting made of flowers, and a Vegas-worthy "tree house" resembling a ribbed wooden tornado.
While the indoor landscape is still a semi-raw tangle of pipes and cinder blocks, Rockwell is already channeling the anticipated tourist hordes, imagining how they'll experience this new kind of playground on the Strip. "Look at that cloud trail," he says, pointing up through the open-air roof, his overgrown salty-black hair spilling out of his hard hat. "That's the kind of live, organic, changeable contrast against all this hardware that we're trying to create." Then he adds, as if directing the scene, "A plane flying across would be even better."
Rockwell's inner choreographer can't help itself. The son of a vaudeville dancer who grew up doing community theater ("It was very Waiting for Guffman," he says of his early childhood), Rockwell has built his nearly 30-year career on the premise that designing interior spaces is about far more than sconces versus recessed LEDs, or damask versus moiré wallpaper; it too is a form of theater. "It's ultimately a complex mechanism about connecting an audience and a performer," says the Broadway junkie who carved out a name in New York by designing the first Nobu restaurant and the first W Hotel. "It's all storytelling."
Modern Luxury: The Hotels
Today, Rockwell's 140-person firm, Rockwell Group, has brought stories to life inside virtually every sort of commercial structure, from JetBlue's new Marketplace at JFK to Starwood's Aloft hotel chain to this year's Academy Awards produc-tion at the Kodak Theatre (he designed the theater, too, back in 2001). Because he isn't tethered to any particular technology or visual vocabulary, like Gehry or Calatrava, Rockwell approaches each project—think Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York, or the just-opened Walt Disney Family Museum, in San Francisco—as an unwritten script. "He's not just a stylist," Libeskind says. "He brings different responses to different spaces."
Rockwell certainly has fall-back aesthetics, such as using rich fabrics and textures as his paint, but a certain design catholicism sets him apart from most in his field. "In a classic architecture practice, you sort of know you're going to get a very accomplished version of whatever it is they do," says Marc Hacker, director of strategy at Rockwell Group, based in New York. "Here, there's no prejudice toward what the eventual outcome will be." In Rockwell's world, building the set for Broadway's Hairspray (2002), art directing the South Park creators' feature film Team America (2004), and designing the Imagination Playground in Lower Manhattan (2010) are equally compelling challenges; he's more interested in problem solving than in establishing a signature style. "As a designer, you have to push yourself not to fall into complacency," says Rockwell, 53, who seems to squeeze at least one artistic inspiration—Truman Capote, Busby Berkeley—into any given breath. "I think the way to do that is by creating situations where there's a sense of uncertainty."
Rockwell's fluency in uncertainty and detachment may have to do with a childhood that was filled with both. He was 2 when his father died. Soon afterward, his mother remarried and moved with her five sons to a beachside New Jersey town. Eight years later, they again relocated, this time to Guadalajara, Mexico. When Rockwell was 15, his mother passed away. "I think the rhythm of my life involved a lot of sudden transitions that were difficult, but I certainly developed flexibility about what I was doing," he says. But the painful times were interwoven with experiences that informed the designer to come, from building sets with his brothers in New Jersey to being swept up in the mariachi-filled public marketplaces of Mexico.
It was New York, however, a city imprinted on Rockwell during his childhood, that ultimately became his canvas. "Most people think of New York from a bird's-eye view, where it's very neat and gridded. I tend to look at the ground floor," says Rockwell, who has been living in Manhattan since graduating from architecture school at Syracuse three decades ago. "I thought it was the best laboratory for how messy and vital public space is."
Those close to Rockwell describe him as a shy extrovert ("Nothing gives him more pleasure than going home to play with his kids and be with his wife," says one colleague), a man with a gift for befriending nearly anyone who crosses his path ("I like to think of him as Mr. New York," says a client. "He always knows someone he wants to introduce you to"). In fact, Rockwell's gregarious tendencies all but launched his career: He landed his first restaurant-design gig after chatting up a restaurateur sitting on the next bar stool. "It's not like there was a core interest in restaurants," he admits. Yet now he is one of the most coveted restaurant designers in Manhattan; nearly every brand-name chef, including Alain Ducasse, Bobby Flay, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, has commissioned him. "He feels things, he researches them, then he thinks them through deeply," says the Modern's Danny Meyer, who recently hired Rockwell to design his new restaurant at the Gramercy Park Hotel. "He's got a rare confluence of perceptiveness, intuition, and intellect."
But it's not in Rockwell's nature to just do one thing really well. (He trained to be a concert pianist before studying architecture.) "His personal quest is to never repeat himself," says Rockwell Group's Hacker. His success with Starwood's first W led to some 30 other hotels; last year, Rockwell debuted the company's new discount-chic Aloft chain, which will eventually have 500 locations. "We were looking to have our sensibilities pushed," says Brian McGuinness, Starwood's senior vice president of specialty select brands. But what keeps clients like Starwood coming back—and new ones showing up (Rockwell's redesigned Ames hotel for Morgans opens this fall in Boston)—is his uniquely human-centered approach to interiors. "He does an amazing job of taking hard space and creating a platform for people to express themselves," says McGuinness, noting the flexible furniture in the Aloft's lobbies, like sofa cushions that guests can convert into booths. Fiona Morrison, JetBlue's director of brand strategy, explains that when Rockwell designed the marketplace for the airline's new $743 million terminal, he created an elevated platform where travelers could perch and watch people—an echo of the New York stoop. "He approached it not as a terminal, but more like a museum or restaurant where people come together," says Morrison.
Rockwell's entire career seemed to reach a crescendo last year when he became the first architect asked to design the Academy Awards. "It was a microcosm of many, many things," says Rockwell, who worked as a theater consultant when he was 19 and is currently designing the set for the Seattle stage production of Catch Me If You Can. "The problem was that people were bored by the show." Rockwell immersed himself in Oscars past, struck by how the electric party vibe of the original 1929 production had devolved into a monotonous ritual of efficiency. "It's a TV show that's about the movies that's presented as a live-theater piece, so it's a complicated amalgam of things," he says. To recapture the lost intimacy, he basically reinvented his own design of the Kodak: He elevated the orchestra to a bandstand on a Deco-style stage, tore up some 600 seats to create more of a supper-club feel, added a smaller "thrust" that allowed performers to physically interact with the audience, and built a curtain of 87,000 Swarovski crystals to nail the vintage-glam effect. To break down that fourth wall for TV viewers, five LED screens were used to introduce clips of each nominee, which then split open, revealing a live presenter behind each one. "We were using technology to bring people closer," he says.
Rockwell's human touch may ultimately prove to be his true signature. "I think in an age when it's so easy to be connected around the world, 'built by hand' is going to be more and more relevant," says Rockwell, who is increasingly doing global gigs, like renovating the restaurant and bar in the terrorist-attacked Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai. His conviction is so strong that he created the Lab, an interactive design hub within his firm that operates as a kind of think tank, focused on digital projects that "increase human interaction, rather than anesthetize us." And he has one employee whose sole mission is to track down artisans, craftsman, and, as he puts it, "radically hand-built stuff."
"The key is to stay curious," says Rockwell, who recently spent a Saturday night perfecting the art of cooking an onion. "As you have success in certain areas, you have to find ways to keep alive that sense of discovery, of not knowing all the answers."
Photograph by Jake Chessum