David Rockwell believes that all the world is a stage. The 56-year-old architect's love of theater informs every design project ever done by his firm, Rockwell Group, in New York City. Whether the projects are restaurants (Nobu, Emeril's), hotels (the W), the Oscar ceremonies (2009 and 2010), or Broadway sets (Hairspray), the $30 million company approaches each one as if it were an elaborate musical: Rockwell casts the right designers, finds the right collaborators, and thinks not only about the building material but about the way people experience it.
I prefer projects where there's a lot at stake, like the Academy Awards. We designed the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are held, in 2001. We designed the sets for the ceremonies in 2009 and 2010. The first year, we decided to rip up the theater and reconfigure the seating. My goal was to make the experience more about the audience and the performer being together—so we had cameras mounted to the stage so you could see the actors coming up for the awards as they approached. We were striving for intimacy, and it worked.
We now have 200 employees—graphic designers, interior designers, architects, technologists, and more. Pairing design teams with clients is like casting: You have to get the right team for that project, and it is not always a team that has done that specific work before.
In 1994, I designed Nobu, Vong, and Monkey Bar—each wildly different, in rapid succession. I'm not interested in what a space should look like but what meaning it should convey. Nobu Matsuhisa is a major Japanese chef from the countryside, so I got artisan craftsmen to build the light fixtures and furniture to create a rustic feel. It was the first three-star restaurant with no tablecloths. People saw it as radical, but I saw it as essential to telling Nobu's story.
I believe in collaborating with outside sources and do it often. We worked with a choreographer for the JetBlue terminal, because the challenge was, "How do 20 million people move through this building?" Airports seem antichoreographed—you get hassled going through security, your gate is at the other end of the terminal, and the signs point the wrong way. I thought choreography would make the building more intuitive.
In 2007, we started the Lab, a technology design group within our firm. Its sole purpose is to think of ways to use technology in public spaces to engage people. We have a mix of 20 technologists, researchers, and strategists working there.
They developed interactive software for the Cosmopolitan, a hotel we designed in Las Vegas. It senses people moving through the lobby and reacts by displaying moving images on the lobby's columns, which double as screens.
Part of innovation in design is looking around to see what's not being done. In the mid-'90s, I met with the CEO of the Starwood hotel chain about creating a new boutique hotel. I pitched a place that left you feeling healthier than when you arrived, as if the hotel had a spa-like ability. That became the first W Hotel, and the grid influenced every aspect of the design—from the healthy food served in the restaurant to the beds facing the window, and the wheatgrass shots. Read more about how David Rockewell built his design empire here.