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Rockwell at the Oscars: Equal Parts Busby Berkeley and Michelangelo

For a man who loves spectacle, it’s hard to match Hollywood’s annual love-fest in the Kodak Theater. So for New York architect David Rockwell, last night’s crystal-swagged extravaganza was about as good as it gets–especially since he was the man draping the stage with 100,000 of the Swarovski dazzlers. Rockwell was the first architect ever to be invited to design the show’s sets, but he was no stranger to the theater, having designed the Kodak itself. Speaking prior to the broadcast, Rockwell said, "I know a project is good for me when it’s 50% terror, and 50% thrill."

For a man who loves spectacle, it’s hard to match Hollywood’s annual love-fest in the Kodak Theater. So for New York architect David Rockwell, last night’s crystal-swagged extravaganza was about as good as it gets–especially since he was the man draping the stage with 100,000 of the Swarovski dazzlers. Rockwell was the first architect ever to be invited to design the show’s sets, but he was no stranger to the theater, having designed the Kodak itself. Speaking prior to the broadcast, Rockwell said, “I know a project is good for me when it’s 50% terror, and 50% thrill.”

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For months, Rockwell has been shuttling between New York and LA, overseeing the set’s design, which borrowed equally from Busby Berkeley musicals and Michelangelo’s Piazza di Campidoglio in Rome. The tiles on the stage mimicked the kaleidoscopic paving on that square–a favorite Rockwell theme; his Union Square office is filled with kaleidoscopes of all sizes.

The main goal, said Rockwell Group’s Barry Richards (pictured below with Rockwell Group’s Joan McKeith), who had just flown in from Hollywood for an Oscar party in David’s honor at the Carlton Hotel, was “to make the event more like Broadway, where the action is married to the show’s narrative.” That meant designing a set where the sets could move in full view of the viewing audience, rather than during commercials, as in previous years.

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Broadway staging is something of a Rockwell specialty; his group has designed sets for a variety of Broadway shows including “Hairspray,” and they’re currently working on staging the upcoming “Catch Me If You Can.” The crystal curtain, which weighed three tons, took four days to mount. “We knew what it was supposed to look like, not how to put it together,” Richards confessed. “Hanging them precisely was a very slow process.”

In his book, Spectacle, Rockwell writes, “I am as Blackberry-addicted as they come; however the experience of virtual community pales in the face of the physical experience of spectacle. Spectacles are larger than life. They imprint memories. They induce a heightened state that can only be experienced in the flesh.”

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It was that goal that drove the set’s design, Rockwell says. “The most important thing design can contribute is creating this magical sense of occasion, and the feeling that this can only happen this one night.”

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The Carlton party, attended by a few dozen of Rockwell’s New York design industry pals, was a little short on crystals — although there were some lovely chandeliers in the hotel’s lobby, as well as a mesmerizing snowy painting of old New York lit with fiber optics, which Rockwell had also designed. But there was plenty of champagne, and lots of Oscar cookies.

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In a toast, Cindy Allen, editor of Interior Design magazine and the evening’s hostess, raised her glass to Rockwell. “At the end of the day, design happens everywhere,” she said, “even in Hollywood. So to honor that, we wanted to be together, and share a little love in these hard times.”

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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