With a slate of vastly different projects, David Rockwell just might be all things to all clients
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 9/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
The founder and CEO of Rockwell Group.
Kids enjoying a portable Imagination Playground in a Box.
Aloft hotel in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Nobu Hotel and Residences in Herzliya, Israel.
The Hall of Fragments for the architecture exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia.
The JetBlue Airways terminal at JFK International Airport.
Dos Caminos restaurant in Las Vegas.
Photography: From top: Paul Godwin; TalismanPhoto; Cristian Costea; Iomedia; Courtesy of Rockwell Group; Courtesy of Gensler and Rockwell Group; Tim Street-Porter.
You may think you know David Rockwell. The founder of the New York firm Rockwell Group has made a name designing memorably theatrical restaurants and hotels such as Nobu and the W chain, as well as actual stage sets for Hairspray, Legally Blond, and other Broadway productions. But you probably didn't know that Rockwell has designed portable playgrounds, soon to hit hundreds of schoolyards all over the country. Or that he developed an in-house digital software lab. Here, the gregarious Rockwell—who will receive a National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum next month—talks about what kids do best, stretching technological limits, and keeping one's curiosity in shape.
Tell us about the playgrounds you've designed.
Our concept, called Imagination Playground, is based on the idea of free play. It includes loose polyethylene foam elements that are like big building blocks, letting kids do what kids do best: construct their own world, break it down, start over. There's also a portable version consisting of 150 pieces in two crates. We're partnering with the advocacy group Kaboom! In the next couple of years, they hope to provide Imagination Playgrounds to about 500 schools and communities across the country. The first I.P. is going up next summer at Burling Slip, near the South Street Seaport, while Kaboom! funded the first portable I.P., in Brooklyn.
When did your in-house digital lab come into being?
The lab has existed for four or five years, but was formalized in its own space when we renovated our New York office in 2007. We've used it to create installations in hotel lobbies and restaurants like Alain Ducasse's Adour, and to test new ideas. The most interesting aspect is using technology in direct relation with craft. Right now, the lab is working on a digital projection for the Mauboussin jewelry store in New York, which opens this month; a new outdoor grill for Viking; and a way-finding system and interactive graphics for the new market at London's Covent Garden. The lab is also developing our design, along with Jones/Kroloff, for the entrance to the architecture exhibition of this year's Biennale di Venezia.
How do you begin to design the sets for a theatrical production?
You have to figure out what the engine of the play is—what's propelling the story forward—in the same way a building is driven by the plan or a sculptural idea. I'm starting to design the musical version of the movie Catch Me If You Can, which opens on Broadway next fall. It takes place between 1963 and 1968, so I'm looking at television specials from that era—Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. Some of it will be set in or inspired by Eero Saarinen's iconic TWA terminal.
Speaking of TWA, tell us about the interiors of the new JetBlue Airways terminal at JFK International Airport, opening this month.
Yes, we did the marketplace at the center of the Gensler-designed building, which wraps around and behind the TWA terminal. We wanted to use JetBlue's DNA—a sense of style and wit combined with usefulness—in a celebration of New York. We designed a grandstand, where you can sit on cushions—like the steps at the Met—and a platform for performances and exhibitions. We tried to continue the idea of intuitive movement found in the Saarinen building, so everything is clearly organized and meant to emphasize lightness and flight.
You designed the original Nobu restaurant in New York, and now you're designing Nobu hotels. How are you creating continuity between the two?
It's a natural expansion. Nobu was one of the first new casual restaurants that had three stars but no tablecloths—it's about service, hospitality, and curating food. We're hoping to redefine the high-end hotel formula at every point we can, from check-in to guest rooms to bathrooms, using the Japanese idea of omakase—putting yourself in the hands of a master. Our design cues came from the ideas inherent in Nobu's food, like wrapping and the simple presentation of elaborate ingredients. We were also inspired by traditional Japanese inns, or ryokans, which have incredible attention to detail.
The first hotel opens next summer in Herzliya, the Silicon Valley of Israel. We wrapped the existing building in teak screens and added sliding teak panels on the balconies to merge inside and out. The use of wood as an abstraction of nature will be familiar to anyone who knows Nobu.
Your firm has grown from a funky little shop of about a dozen people to a full-time staff of 250, with a satellite office in Madrid. Has the expansion altered your creative process?
It's the same process, with the same fears and obsessions that everything is riding on each project. The project mix is more challenging, but we're still focused on creating a mixing chamber for ideas. What's most critical, creatively speaking, is maintaining your curiosity—staying on the edge of not knowing what the answer is.