Here at The List, we’re ever-curious about the culture of design, so who better to survey about the field’s current state than those currently working at the top of it? In Need to Know, we pick the brains of best-in-class creatives to find out how they got to where they are today—and to share an insider’s perspective on the challenges and highlights of their particular perches in the design world.
Why shouldn’t architects build? Why shouldn’t interior designers manufacture? Zach Rockhill’s burgeoning all-in-one practice Hatchet Design Build is making a strong argument for keeping all the various duties that go into executing amazing spaces under one big roof.
To hear the artist/architect tell it, the do-it-all attitude his team uses has allowed them to be united and adaptive, able to collectively react to a brief for a completely new construction or the idiosyncrasies of an old structure fluidly and intelligently. Looking at his projects—many of them played out in pre-war Brooklyn residences—it’s hard to argue.
We discussed the origins of this approach with Rockhill, his favorite projects, and his overall aims for Hatchet Design Build and walked away inspired and entertained. Read on below.
We’d love to hear about how you got your start in the industry.
I was raised in it to a certain degree.I worked for many years for my father’s design-build firm of Rockhill and Associates in Kansas before moving to New York.There is an ethos of non-specialization in the West that comes from ranch and farm life which imbued my father’s practice.You have to know how to do everything in that life.It is hard to tell what part of that was my father’s pragmatism, and what part was libertarianism, but it gave the work a quality of being un-beholden. “We can do it all!” I inherited that.
How did your upbringing influence the way you think about design?
I worked full-time as an artist for 15 years before I started Hatchet. These days, the office occupies most of my time, but I still consider myself an artist first and foremost. In fact, I used to joke that architecture was essentially sculpture with some rules about where to put the plumbing.
While my sense of the field has evolved over the years, I have little concern for setting limits between disciplines: it’s by allowing the various affinities in the office to overlap that we have produced some of our best work. It helps that my art practice in the studio revolved around architecture, sculptural space, and video—I guess I’ve been passing fluidly between disciplines for a long time.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
From the quotidian and the everyday—most of what resonates with me is natural, unconscious, or accidental. I also find energy in art that has a tactile quality, a strong sense of materiality.
What aspect of your Hatchet are you most proud of?
We have been able to gather various forms of creative practice, artistic license, and expansive energy into a field that requires, at the level of execution, a lot of pragmatic thinking. We’re proud of the fact that many of our staff are artists and look to support them in their endeavors.
We regularly collaborate in ways that are atypical for more established firms, including in the way we’ve structured the company so that three distinct offices can exist—an architecture office, a construction firm, and a fabrication studio—under one roof and working in constant collaboration.
Can you walk us through some of the more recent projects you’ve worked on?
Last summer we wrapped up a comprehensive renovation of a five-floor brownstone in Brooklyn. The building was in poor shape when we found it, covered in half a dozen layers of yellow paint, but it had remarkable character. Our field staff worked closely with our fabrication shop, GDR,to restore most of the existing millwork, with discrete insertions.We worked to draw out the grandeur of the existing building, making space for new life there.
More recently, we wrapped up a series of projects that entailed discrete interventions within existing contexts, as well as a number of millwork projects, including a co-working space just across the Hudson, in Newark.
Soon we will have also just finished the renovation of a large apartment in Brooklyn that is essentially a project about a hallway—all the rooms of the project flow along a central corridor. Our move was to redefine each room’s relationship to the corridor, so that it could become a sequence of spaces, rather than a jumble of them.
We placed a cyclorama at the end of the hallway so that, when one enters the apartment and peers down the corridor, it continues on without end. The project developed around the terminus of the corridor. Through a shift in perspective, that existing condition became the driving force of the project.
Are there any new projects we should know about?
It’s an exciting time for the company: we have a host of projects under way, ranging from lofts to townhouses; from rooftop suites to ground-up developments. Though most of them are in Brooklyn, each project has a wildly unique context—it’s a big city, after all—and each have their own idiosyncrasies. Because we are design-build, we are nimble enough to approach these varied conditions as opportunities, rather than impediments.
Given our fluid relationship between the office and the field, we have the remarkable luxury of being able to account for, and accommodate, the small charms of old homes that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle. Our projects in more contemporary contexts are driven by the same sensitivity to the quotidian and oft-overlooked, and we are interested in engendering the same sort of warmth and informality that can come from historic homes, but which so often seems to be missing from other contemporary projects in New York.
Do you have a dream project you’d love to work on, but haven’t yet?
I didn’t have any idea that what we’ve accomplished in the last three years would be possible.I started with four people and myself.Today there are three, self-sustaining businesses employing 35 people: design, construction and a mill shop/fabrication studio. We’re producing work that we all take a lot of pride in and have excellent people with us.
I have no idea what might be possible going forward. I’d made a rule in 2016 that I’d say “yes” to every opportunity regardless of what it was.While I’m no longer doing that, we’re constantly surprising ourselves. Maybe the dream project is the most expansive practice possible.
What advice do you have for young professionals in the field?
Don’t do it! Turn back now! Just kidding—don’t fear shape-shifting, allow the pull of undercurrents of attraction and interest to draw you in unknown directions.