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.
The word theatrical is often mistaken for "lots of sequins." But for me, it's a sense of choreography, narrative, and acknowledging an audience.
I was born in Chicago, the youngest of five boys. My dad died when I was 2, and my mom remarried. We moved to Deal, New Jersey, when I was 4. My mom, a former vaudeville dancer, started a community theater, and the whole family participated—I helped build the sets and acted in all the plays. Even then, I was inspired by how you could collaborate with people to make a story that connected them in a meaningful way.
I went to Syracuse University for architecture and was a total outsider. Everyone there was interested in strict Modernist design—I was interested in storytelling. After I graduated, in 1979, I worked for several architects and designers in Manhattan before striking out on my own in 1984.
My first job was with a Japanese restaurant called Sushi Zen. A traditional sushi bar is straight, so the social interaction is between you and the chef. I created a lightning-bolt-shaped bar so groups of two or three could socialize in a more Western way. That led to other restaurant jobs, and soon I became known in that world. In 1994, I designed Nobu, Vong, and Monkey Bar—each wildly different, in rapid succession. In 1995, I wound up being featured in New York magazine. That same year, we moved into our current office on Union Square and went from 20 to 70 employees.
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 going after jobs rather than waiting for the phone to ring. I approached JetBlue to do their terminal at JFK. In the office, we are constantly asking ourselves, "Who do we want to work with? Why? How can we make a difference?" We also have a companywide retreat that starts with the question, "What kind of work do we want to be doing?"
Part of innovation in design is looking around to see what's not being done. In the mid-'90s, I met with Barry Sternlicht, the CEO of the Starwood hotel chain, to talk 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 spalike ability. For our first presentation, we filled a big grid with dried flowers and natural elements and talked about creating that kind of textured and earthy experience for guests. 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, which have become part of the W experience.
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.
I look for people who are curious. I also want people who like to engage with a client. Our business is based on having the most creative thinkers working together—and that includes the client. There are architects who find the client to be an annoyance. I think the client is a real partner.
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. For example, we're currently doing work for a museum, and I'm assigning a team that has theater experience, because a museum is about storytelling.
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.
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.
Collaboration is also a chance to get outside of your comfort zone. And for us, no job is too small. Right now, we're doing a little off-Broadway play called CQ/CX. I admire the director a lot. You don't agree to do a job because you know it's going to work. You agree because you think it's going to lead to the next interesting thing.