David Rockwell Wants to Tell You a Story

The multihyphenate architect has masterminded airport terminals, world-class hotels, and Tony Award–winning set designs. In nearly every aspect, Rockwell is an artist attuned to the theater of everyday life.

The multihyphenate architect has masterminded airport terminals, world-class hotels, and Tony Award–winning set designs. In nearly every aspect, Rockwell is an artist attuned to the theater of everyday life.

David Rockwell kept time to the music, fingertips bouncing off his knee. “I think she’s going to figure it out,” he mused, leaning toward me, fruit-flavored Lifesavers he’d bought at the theater concessions sweet in the dark. Eliza Doolittle had her index fingers hooked inside either cheek as she struggled to pronounce a casual remark about rainfall in Spain. It was a bright, blustery afternoon in Manhattan, and Rockwell was retreating into the familiar pleasures of Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish production of My Fair Lady. The matinee was what he called an indulgent break from painstaking final rehearsals for another midcentury revival, Kiss Me, Kate, for which he designed the scenery 10 blocks downtown at Studio 54. Dressed in his customary head-to-toe black (sneakers, jeans, long-sleeve tee, and hooded North Face coat), the architect and designer had just come from rehearsal and would return there until close to midnight. For now, he seemed reinvigorated by our escape to Edwardian London and Eliza’s unflagging spirit. “It’s very life-giving, the act of going to the theater,” he said. “I get very lost.”

A few hard candies and pre-show gulps of Diet Coke scarcely explain the energy it takes to be David Rockwell. In addition to Kiss Me, Kate and Tootsie, a new musical he is designing on Broadway this spring, both with director Scott Ellis, Rockwell continues to head the eponymous design and architecture firm he founded 35 years ago this year, arriving at the office most mornings by eight o’clock. Rockwell Group has grown from one zealous 28-year-old bursting with promise to a prolific, multimillion-dollar firm of 250, including two partners, Greg Keffer and Shawn Sullivan, and five studio leaders, renowned for reshaping the hospitality industry and, increasingly, the New York City skyline.

Blue ombré walls and copper-hued antique velvet seats at the landmarked Hayes Theater in New York. Photography by Paul Warchol, courtesy of Rockwell Group.

To Rockwell, a successful design—be it a restaurant, an airport terminal, or an open-air playground—can engage and connect people, making them full participants in the life of a space. His design aims to tell a story, one that welcomes you as a character as soon as you walk through the door. It’s a principle that’s served him well for more than a dozen Broadway productions in what he calls his second career as a scenic designer. But for the whirlwind years that first made him a star in the built world, and now as a titan of urban hospitality, it’s simply how he thinks about space. Rockwell’s enormous real-world achievements, combining narrative with function, are sure to cement his legacy as a creator.

In April, the fast-rising Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side will welcome The Shed, a groundbreaking cultural mecca whose moveable shell will loom translucent over the High Line. A decade-long collaboration between Rockwell Group and lead architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro capitalized at $500 million, The Shed houses eight stories and 200,000 square feet worth of versatile space for visual and performing arts. The firms also worked in tandem on the nearby 15 Hudson Yards, a soaring curvilinear condo tower rising 88 stories. Rockwell Group is designing interiors for two new Moxy Hotels in the firm’s longtime partnership with Marriott, opening this year in Chelsea and the East Village; and Wayan, a French-Indonesian restaurant from Cedric Vongerichten (son of Jean-Georges) in SoHo. And that’s just to name a few in New York. Rockwell Group also has a satellite office in Madrid, and this year will debut hotels in Toronto, Barcelona, and Moscow. Italy is getting a Rockwell cruise ship. Rockwell’s instinct for fusing playful reinvention with polished refinement has led to worldwide expansion. The firm’s momentum shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.

The Shed under construction as seen from the High Line, 2019. Photo Credit: Brett Beyer. Project Design Credit: Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Lead Architects and Rockwell Group, Collaborating Architect.

His global footprint notwithstanding, it’s inside dark theaters, where storytelling is pure and the show only goes on for so long, that Rockwell seems to be having the most fun. “Theater only exists for the time you’re there with the audience and performers; [it’s] designed to come alive with people,” Rockwell told me as our matinee’s audience filled the lobby’s sunken atrium at intermission. “That’s analogous to any other form of design, or any other building that I work on,” he said. “What makes a good piece of theater is what makes a good piece of architecture.”

It is perhaps no surprise that in its sweeping array of projects, Rockwell Group has become known for its distinctive and precisely executed flair for drama, from 3-D brushstrokes of burnt ash suspended above the bar at recently opened Nobu Downtown, to the motion-activated digital pas de deux dancing across LED displays in the lobby of The Cosmopolitan, in Las Vegas. Rockwell even got his chance to make a mark on Broadway more enduring than any fleeting show, renovating its most intimate house, the Hayes, which reopened under the auspices of Second Stage Theater last fall.

Rockwell was already a decade into his burgeoning architecture career when made his first professional crossover into theater. An invitation to speak at his first TED conference in 1997 encouraged Rockwell to articulate how his understanding of theater colors the principles of his design. “It was such a gift for [TED founder Richard Wurman] to say, talk about something that you love,” but isn’t your profession. Up to that point, Rockwell said, “I really looked at theater as a place of inspiration, where I would go study and apply that to the world of architecture.” After giving the talk, Rockwell began pursuing work as a scenic designer. He met with directors and weathered a few false starts before landing his first job, designing The Rocky Horror Show in 2000. Nearly 20 years later, Rockwell is at work on a book about theater’s influence on his design practice, his second volume with Canadian designer Bruce Mau, which will launch later this year as an interactive multimedia publication, followed by a print version in 2020.

An immersive media display, which responds to the movement of guests, in the lobby at Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Photography by James Medcraft, courtesy of Rockwell Group.
Lounge at Nobu Downtown, which features ash paneling by John Houshmand. Photography by Eric Laignel, courtesy of Rockwell Group.

Rockwell’s devotion to narrative has undoubtedly paid off, both in lucrative business and plentiful honors, including the Presidential Design Award and induction into Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame. But perhaps sweetest of all for Rockwell, who keeps a headshot of his mother from her vaudeville days on a shelf opposite his desk, is his first Tony Award in scenic design, for 2016’s revival of She Loves Me, also directed by Ellis. “Underneath all of that greatness, I think theater is his true passion,” Ellis told me.

Director Bill Condon worked with Rockwell on the 2010 Oscars, for which the designer won a Creative Arts Emmy in outstanding art direction (Rockwell Group had also renovated the Dolby Theater, where the ceremony is held). “There’s always a sense of play in his designs,” said Condon, with whom Rockwell also designed Broadway’s Side Show. “I’ll never forget David sitting on the floor in his studio, ideas flowing as he ripped random pieces of paper and folded them—set design as play break.”

David Rockwell grew up immersed in the sort of small-town show business he compares to the movie Waiting for Guffman. His mother founded a troupe of community players in the Jersey Shore town of Deal, where his step-father moved the family shortly after Rockwell was born in Chicago, in 1956. “Everyone in town wanted to be a part of it.” The youngest of five brothers, Rockwell recalls building spook houses in the garage, mounting ambitious carnivals for charity, painting scenery, and acting in countless productions. “I loved the fact that [theater] transformed everyone into someone who wanted to play and participate,” he said.

But it was a single afternoon in the city that cemented his lifelong passions. Rockwell’s mother took him to see the original 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof designed by Boris Aronson, who became a personal hero, and to lunch at Schrafft’s, a mainstay of upscale Broadway dining. “One of the images that sticks with me from my earliest visits to New York was disbelief that everyone coexisted. I would look at all these big buildings and it was sort of amazing to think every two windows represented a different life,” he said, “I think people live in cities to rub up against dissimilar ideas, and theater is one example of that.”

His family’s next, more seismic move—to Guadalajara, Mexico when Rockwell was 12—may have upended any adolescent. But Rockwell, who described himself as a fearless and enthusiastic teenager with an overactive imagination, relished the complete 180. “I just loved everything about it,” he said. “It was a place to say yes to everything.” The vibrancy and bustle of double-wide, flower-lined streets were a stark contrast to East Coast suburbia, where everyday life had felt shut up inside private homes. “It really was like if you took Deal, New Jersey, and turned it inside out.” Rockwell relished the culture’s value of public over private space, and saw the market at times as a kind of art installation teeming with color, light, and—most importantly—crowds of people.

Rockwell’s interest in storytelling made him an outsider in his architecture studies at Syracuse University and London’s Architectural Association, where other students seemed more focused on their taste for particular aesthetics. In architecture school, a simple assignment to design a townhouse needed a backstory for the people who lived there. A semester working with a New York lighting designer offered Rockwell his first peek behind the scenes since he’d fallen hard for Broadway, though he was well on his way to pursuing architecture. When Rockwell moved to New York City, in 1979, he worked for several architects and designers (“I don’t think I was a particularly good employee, though I was never fired”) before quickly striking out on his own. His first freelance project, a breakneck, one-month renovation of storied French eatery Le Périgord, was followed by Sushi Zen, upstairs at the first reincarnation of Studio 54 following the disco’s demise. “I learned that a great idea is one that survives reality,” he said of lessons that came fast on those early gigs. The tastemaking restaurants swiftly put Rockwell on the map, so that when he founded his company the same year Sushi Zen opened, Rockwell Group hit the ground running.

“The first years are without any thought at all about looking sideways or backward,” Rockwell recalled, “I didn’t have any goal of having a big firm. Whatever was in front of me was the thing to do.” In the ensuing decade, that meant populating Manhattan’s dining scene with places where people of means longed to see and and be seen, including Monkey Bar, Jean-Georges’s Vong, and Nobu New York, the start of Rockwell’s 25-year collaboration with chef Nobu Matsuhisa, which now spans five continents and has grown to include a line of Nobu Hotels. Rockwell’s partnership with Marriott, the designer’s first move into hotels, began with the very first W New York in 1998, the start of an impressive portfolio of Rockwell-designed hotels around the world. “He brings a curiosity to everything he does,” says Arne Sorensen, president and CEO of Marriott, with whom Rockwell has worked on the company’s full range of brands since. “It always looks to me like his eyes are on the horizon, looking for trends, for things that are happening in the broader world, and not just in the place which is most obvious.” This perspective has no doubt served the designer well. His business has ballooned over the past three decades, often breathing new life into establishments resisting decay, including renovations to Grand Central and FAO Schwartz, and airport terminals at JFK and Newark.

Union Square Cafe’s main dining room. Photography by Emily Andrews, courtesy of Rockwell Group.

The framework of Rockwell’s approach to design grew out of his love for figuring out the best way to tell a story. A restaurant, in Rockwell’s view, ought to present “a portrait where the service and the design and the food are all coming from the same point of view.” Danny Meyer, another longtime collaborator of Rockwell’s, values the designer’s holistic approach. “If you say, ‘I have a story to tell and I want you to translate that story into design,’ David is amazing,” said Meyer, whose partnership with Rockwell now includes the relocation of Union Square Café, with the upcoming addition of its adjoining coffee and sandwich shop, Daily Provisions. “He’s got the self confidence and the humility to be able to say, ‘I’ve got a lot of great design solutions, but they’re not going to be worth anything if it’s not the custom design that you want.’”

In nearly every aspect of his approach, Rockwell behaves as an artist naturally attuned to the theater of everyday life. “The question I’m always interested in when I begin a project with a director, is what is the journey of the story? Where do we end that’s different than where we began?” It’s the same question he asks of any design, with an eye toward creating transformative and memorable experience. To this day, Rockwell’s process begins with voracious research, which includes speaking to the people who’ll share a space to determine a kind of script. “I’m always interested in the sequence of spaces, how you move from space to space,” Rockwell said, describing design as a kind of choreography. In many ways, applying his tools to the stage seemed to mark a return to where he’d fashioned them to begin with.

NeueHouse Los Angeles, located in a former CBS Radio studio dating back to 1938. Photography by Emily Andrews, courtesy of Rockwell Group.

Actress Kelli O’Hara cracked a whip downstage as Rockwell led me around the set of Kiss Me, Kate. It was 30 minutes until the company’s final dress rehearsal, and more than a dozen crew and creatives milled on stage and between rows of empty seats as the orchestra warmed up in the mezzanine boxes. A crew member crossed the stage carrying a curiously limp decorative cushion, pausing to consult with Rockwell on the optimum amount of filling for a pillow fight to result in feathery chaos rather than a clump on the floor. A three-story, three-piece set of exposed brick encasing dressing room doors and flanked by metal stairs idled along the back wall, representing backstage of the musical’s show-within-the-show, The Taming of the Shrew. Overhead, Rockwell pointed out the 15 hand-painted drops that would descend for various scenes when the actors, themselves playing actors, appeared in Shakespeare’s comedy. “His designs become a character,” Ellis said of their joint work on five Broadway productions. “Our collaborative trust was just so clear the first time I was in a room with him. It felt very, very comfortable.”

Rockwell, whose Hirschfeld caricature might exaggerate his warm downturned eyes, bulbous nose, and sweep of slate hair, wore a gray fleece over his uniform black (“the theater is supposed to be cold for comedy”) and black wire-rim glasses as he jotted notes and shuttled to and fro. He was generous with introductions, and each person I met seemed to light up in front of him. His day had begun in the office at 7:30 that morning and rehearsal would again run close to midnight. He looked to be having a blast. O’Hara’s voice soared, honeycrisp, through a second-act ballad; applause from the assembled parties seemed like a meager return. “When you see it with an audience, it’s like a magical transformation,” Rockwell said. A dress rehearsal without one has “the energy of something performed for people with no people. It’s missing that key element.”

Since Rockwell designed his first show, back in 2000, he’s formed continued creative partnerships with some of Broadway’s top directors, devising the look of fizzy box-office hits like Hairspray (only his second show, which he calls “a godsend”), Legally Blonde, and Kinky Boots, as well as plays by Nora Ephron, Larry Kramer, and Michael Moore. Though his scenic designs, like much of his work, often leave a lasting impression, Rockwell aims to enhance, never overshadow. “If you leave a Broadway show and what you remember more than anything is the sets, it probably wasn’t a very good show.”

Outside another matinee downtown, Rockwell turned contemplative as he fumbled to zip his coat and blinked in the brisk sun. Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal had both performed one-act monologues about fatherhood, love, and shattering loss on a near-empty stage, a piece collectively titled Sea Wall/A Life. Rockwell was headed to the Tribeca apartment he shares with his wife, Marcia, eager to see their 16-year-old daughter before again returning to Studio 54. “She loves the theater and visiting rehearsals,” Rockwell said. He’d recently invited his son, who’s studying at Bard, to fly to Chicago for a Bears playoff game. “We met as grownups, a little bit,” Rockwell said. “It was really incredible.” He can’t claim to understand his son’s taste for hard rap, but Rockwell tries to engage in a dialogue by introducing him to pioneering artists like Nina Simone.

(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) The Chandelier lounge at Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. Moxy Chelsea's Conservatory bar. Rockwell Group's set design for the Broadway show She Loves Me.

As we collected ourselves on the Public theater steps, Rockwell told me that he had lost three of his four brothers, one of them recently. I had read in previous interviews that their father died in a plane crash when David was 2, and their mother when David was 15, of complications from hepatitis. “The flipside of any form of optimism is acknowledging loss,” he said, referring back to the play, in which Gyllenhaal’s character lost his father and welcomed a baby girl all at once. “The whole nature of theater is acknowledging temporality and that things don’t last forever.”

It struck me that Rockwell’s early reckoning with mortality seems to have colored his unceasing appetite for more life, instilling an acute appreciation for facing the present moment, however difficult. After the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, many architects were already debating what ought to be rebuilt; Rockwell recognized that people would first need to process what happened at Ground Zero. So he designed a temporary viewing platform, an early collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Kevin Kennon Architects, built with funding Rockwell raised through a private foundation he created expressly for the purpose. After one of his brothers died, of AIDS in 1993, Rockwell found catharsis in organizing his first event as chairman of DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS), a lively outdoor bazaar at Lincoln Center. Over his 12-year tenure, he helped stabilize the organization’s finances by encouraging more involvement from the design community. “It really hadn’t occurred to me before producing that first event that there was an inherent life force and optimism just in the making of something.”

Reflecting on his expanding legacy, he pivoted back to the personal connections he’s made. “The mark probably has as much to do with the people I’ve worked with as the places,” some of which are already gone, he pointed out. Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA and a personal friend of Rockwell’s, was more candid. “It truly is about the glory,” she said of his tireless drive, “the desire to be something meaningful in the world.” Whatever the case, Rockwell’s mark on the city was apparent everywhere we went: the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new home on 65th Street, The Library supper club tucked into the Public Theater’s mezzanine level, the W Hotel just blocks from his Union Square Office.

Dining area at Wayan, a French-Indonesian concept restaurant in New York. Photography by Emily Andrews, courtesy of Rockwell Group.

When I met him there for a studio tour, every person I encountered gleamed with infectious goodwill. (There was no Kool-Aid in the reception waiting room, only house-brewed iced green tea and fresh citrus water.) Artwork from his childrens’ halcyon days cover the walls of his inner office, alongside snippets of inspiration, pinned fabrics, and framed accolades. A photo of Rockwell and his son, at the Bears game just weeks before, already has pride of place. Out on the open-plan office floor (the company spans three), Rockwell led me through the studio groups headed up by lead designers. He described himself as their director—“My job is to create a great culture for them.” Rockwell indicated recent projects among the models and renderings blanketing every surface, walked me past the office library (staffed with its own librarian), and introduced me to one employee’s scruffy lap dog named Monkey, perched between two desktops.

“To be a designer, you have to be an optimist to think you’re creating possibility,” Rockwell said. But possibility is different than perfection. When I ask him what an ideal world might look like to him, he resists the idea of absolutes. “Ideal worries me, because it insinuates a disconnection from the day-to-day,” he said. “One person’s idea of utopia is someone else’s idea of hell.” It’s an impossible idea to refute. But Rockwell does have a few more modest proposals, “I think ideal is made up by smaller building blocks,” he said floating a proposition for technology-free days in New York’s public spaces and year-round theater at the Delacorte in Central Park, where he designed several recent productions for the Public Theater.

Pursuit of an abstract ideal has never been Rockwell’s aim. When I ask, with a somewhat leading hand, whether he feels greater urgency in creating communal spaces during a time of extreme division, he answers no honestly. “It would be nice to say yes.” Still, he allows that large-scale experiences, like those he and Mau document in their first book, Spectacle, can compel people beyond their differences by making them feel part of something bigger than themselves. “Whether you go back to being as polarized as you were before or not, I do think space can absolutely be welcoming in a way that makes it harder to keep your barriers and defenses up.”

Beachfront infinity pool at Omnia Bali. Photography by Ed Reeve, courtesy of Rockwell Group.

“There,” he added with a half smile, as though he’d hit closer to the answer I suppose I had wanted to hear.

Rockwell led me through a white, code-locked door on a lower office floor. “This is my inner sanctum,” he said, as the door shut and the compact room’s sweet fragrance engulfed us. I understood what he meant. A black Eames chair sat low opposite a walnut Steinway Model L piano. In the corner, a cylindrical floor lamp I at first mistook for an enormous diffuser glowed in alternating ambers and soft white. The walls were mostly bare and subtly soundproofed. Against one leaned a painted portrait of Rockwell with the brother he’d recently lost. It seemed an idyllic world in miniature, fit for a hyperimagination refined with age.

Rockwell asked if I’d like to hear a little something. (“Chopin or Bach? Or Beethoven?”) He had played piano as a kid and took it up again four years ago, with master pianist Seymour Bernstein as his teacher. Rockwell visits his sanctum several times a day, practicing between here and at home for about nine hours a week. “The ideal performance of a Beethoven piece is made up by hours and hours of practice,” he said, and equal amounts of forgetting the practice and simply allowing yourself to play. After treating me to a few bars, he stood and told me piano provides him inspiration and a renewed sense of life. “And the frustration of knowing there’s a lot more to go.”

All Stories