Koelnmesse GmbH / FSB
Koelnmesse GmbH / FSB
Koelnmesse GmbH / FSB

Movers & Shakers

David Rockwell

Architect and scenic designer David Rockwell has earned a global reputation by bringing narrative and drama to everything he works on, from theatre sets to airports and hotels


A designer of both buildings and theatrical sets, David Rockwell could be described as having two distinct strings to his bow, but he doesn’t see it that way.

As president of the New York-based Rockwell Group, he and his 250-strong team have won international acclaim and numerous awards by making storytelling central to each and every project. Whether it’s the renovation of New York’s Grand Central Station, a Nobu restaurant, a new hotel brand for Starwood, a museum exhibit or a Broadway set, the focus is always the same: creating a unique narrative through a seamless combination of theatrical techniques, cutting-edge technology and high-end craftsmanship. So great is the synergy he sees between set design and architecture that he even collaborated with the Tony Award-winning choreographer-director Jerry Mitchell on the design of the Marketplace at T5, JetBlue’s terminal at JFK Airport.

It’s not all about showmanship, however. With an emotional range that can embrace everything from a children’s hospital to a civil rights museum, from a pioneering playground to a viewing platform at Ground Zero, Rockwell is about substance as well as style – which might explain why 30 years after founding his firm, his projects, theatrical and otherwise, are still packing them in.

Key projects

World Trade Center Viewing Platform, 2001, complete
Following 9/11, Rockwell collaborated with a team of designers and architects to create a temporary viewing platform overlooking Ground Zero that would be “a place for people to reflect and remember”. (TED Conference, February 2002) Using humble materials, including scaffolding and plywood, the structure comprised parallel ramps rising to a platform and included bare walls for visitors to leave personal tributes. The aim was to “create as few filters… between the viewer and the experience as possible.”

Nobu Hotel at Caesar’s Palace, 2013, complete
Two decades after collaborating with chef Nobu Matsuhisa on his first restaurant in Tribeca, New York, Rockwell has designed the first Nobu Hotel, in partnership with Matsuhisa, the actor Robert de Niro and restaurateur Meir Teper. “The design uses the rigour of Asian simplicity to balance the anything-goes setting of Las Vegas,” says Rockwell Group. “Materials like wood, rice, paper and stone add texture without adding complexity.”

The Center for Civil and Human Rights, 2014, complete
The content for this Atlanta museum dedicated to the American civil rights and global human rights movements was designed by Rockwell in collaboration with Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe and human rights activist Jill Savitt. Through a series of multi-media galleries, the civil rights exhibition delivers a theatre-like experience, so “every surface, every inch of space, tells part of the story, immersing you in the amazing swirl of history,” Rockwell says. (Interior Design, November 2014) Meanwhile, the human rights gallery aims to inspire personal connections – so, in one space, visitors input data into a mirror, which then reveals a persecuted person of a similar age, gender, race and background.

Aloft Prototype for Starwood Hotels, 2008, complete
Rockwell Group’s Aloft concept for Starwood aimed to combine the romance of Route 66 roadside accommodation with a boutique hotel experience that was also affordable. “The story that attracted us to Aloft was a luxury product that we conceived as a kind of motel model,” says Rockwell. “In each location it grows some local component, but you can create a design ... that allows the price point of the hotel to be substantially below what the product would normally be.” (Curbed, June 2013) The firm’s prototype design has since become the basis for 145 locations worldwide.

Canyon Ranch Living, 2007, complete
Billed as the world’s first residential spa community, Canyon Ranch Living is a Miami Beach development combining new buildings with the restoration of an existing art deco hotel. Rockwell Group says the design “translates health-consciousness into a fully realised environment with dining areas, a market, spa and fitness centre, while interiors are layered with indigenous and handcrafted materials that embrace the nearby ocean landscape.”

Imagination Playground Manhattan, 2010, complete
The Imagination Playground, created for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, allows children to create their own play space using sand, water and custom-designed loose parts such as wagons, carts and bright blue, biodegradable, foam blocks. Inspired by what father-of-two Rockwell saw as the failure of traditional playgrounds to encourage imagination and creativity, the initiative now has a second permanent site under construction in Brooklyn and an exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. It has also become part of the UNICEF P.L.A.Y. programme, which in partnership with Disney has brought the blocks to more than 13,000 children in Bangladesh and Haiti.

Rise to fame

Born in 1956, David Rockwell grew up in New Jersey, and Guadalajara, Mexico. His mother, a vaudeville dancer and choreographer, used to cast him in community repertory productions and Rockwell cites these early theatrical experiences as influences in his work. He received his architecture degree at Syracuse University in New York, and studied at the Architectural Association in London before founding Rockwell Group in 1984. Once he’d established himself as a major player in hospitality design, Rockwell moved into scenic design. His first credit was the Rocky Horror Picture Show, followed by Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and others. In 2004 he moved into film, as visual consultant on the puppet-based movie Team America: World Police. In 2009 and 2010 he designed the set for the Academy Awards. He has also written three books.

ROCKWELL on…

David Rockwell
David Rockwell

Theatre and hospitality design
“The overlap for me between theatre and hospitality is in theatre you’re given a script, or you’re involved as the script is being developed. In a restaurant or hotel, you’re extracting that script and you’re developing that, and creating a point of view.” (Hospitality Design, video interview, November 2014)

The definition of a successful project
“Our overarching goal is to create spaces that engage all the senses, and encourage connections to the environment and the people within those environments. So we consider it a success if those experiences are powerful and lasting, whether watching a play, sitting in a hotel lobby, enjoying a meal or seeing an exhibit.” (Phaidon, December 2010)

The appeal of hotel design
“There’s a kind of amazing mash-up that happens in a hotel… When you visit a city now, travellers may not say, ‘I’m visiting New York,’ they may say, ‘I’m visiting the Greenwich’ or I’m visiting the Wythe’. I think hotels have taken on more of a destination, which I think is a re-emergence of what hotels had been historically: social hubs. But they’re also a chance to design very fine-tuned, detail-oriented, residential-scale spaces, in the hotel room… so it’s a chance to get all those pieces right.” (Curbed, June 2013)

Choreography in the airport terminal
“I find that movement in airports is never intuitive. You can never find your gate, and everyone seems to be moving the wrong way. It just felt like, if we could start off thinking about movement as a dance and if you could find your gate intuitively, we’d be better off.” (The New Potato, April 2013)

The rise of temporary design
“I see an opportunity for more temporary installations and structures, as opposed to only permanent solutions. There’ll always be a need for traditional building schemes, but I think developers and architects are starting to think about alternatives [and] asking, ‘Do we need to build here?’ and ‘Can we solve this problem by repurposing the space or doing something temporary?’ (Phaidon, December 2010)

Not being predictable
“The thing that is most important to me as a creative person is to stay curious and to not repeat myself. There’s an element of surprise and delight and astonishment that we try to embed in our work.” (Huffington Post, June 2014)

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Koelnmesse GmbH / FSB
Koelnmesse GmbH / FSB