David Rockwell, founder and President of the New York based Rockwell Group, is one of the busiest architects in the business – not only designing hotels (The New York Edition, W Hotels worldwide, Virgin Hotels Chicago) restaurants and bars (Nobu, Vandal, Chefs Club in New York), but children’s playgrounds and hospitals and award-winning theatre sets (She Loves Me, Kinky Boots, and Hairspray) for Broadway.
Here he shares his insights into what makes great design.
WHAT DREW YOU TO ARCHITECTURE?
My love of making things all started when I helped make the sets for my mother’s repertory productions; then when I was 12, we moved to Guadalajara, Mexico where everything was happening on the streets in the market places and I could see how important it was for buildings to connect in a way that provided people with vital public spaces where they could meet and interact socially, culturally and emotionally. I studied architecture at Syracuse University and the Architectural Association in London before eventually starting Rockwell Group in 1984.
DO YOU HAVE A SIGNATURE STYLE?
There’s not so much a Rockwell Group house style but a philosophy – I like to bring people together as a community, to connect and share experiences. This underpins all of my work, whether it’s a hotel, a collective workspace like NeueHouse in NY or LA, or a portable theatre for TED talks.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE SPACES?
I like spaces that engage all the senses, the heart and soul. For example, a restaurant should be inviting and inclusive – not daunting and aloof – but whatever the space, it should tell a story and invite people in to become a part of it, whether as an active participant or passive observer. Everyone should feel welcome.
WITH SO MANY PROJECTS ON THE GO AT ONCE, HOW DO YOU MAKE EACH ONE UNIQUE?
Piquing people’s curiosity with layers of texture, sculptural objects and commissioned artwork that brings interest to a room. The handcrafted quality provides something that feels more organic, less perfect; being locally sourced, working with young local artists, also helps ground a design to its location.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE MATERIAL PALETTE?
I like the look and feel of blackened steel, brushed brass and cognac-coloured saddle leather, natural and reclaimed woods, soft and hard stone. There’s often the feeling of folded organic, lyrical forms meeting a raw industrial edge in my designs. Quality materials that feel good to touch add extra contrast in any interior design scheme.
DOES NEW YORK LOFT LIVING INSPIRE YOUR DESIGNS?
A good example is the Edition Hotel in Manhattan, where we wanted to create an authentic New York residential experience, using materials not usually used in hotels: solid wood millwork details, whitewashed wood flooring, silk fabrics, Venetian plaster, gold-leafed bar tops and heavy overscaled masonry details. It feels comfortable and urban, but with a homely authenticity unique to the city, inspired by timeless Manhattan apartments such as the famed Dakota apartment building.
WHY DO YOU LIKE TO DESIGN FURNITURE AND LIGHTING FOR EACH PROJECT?
Everything you touch helps tell a story so these ‘touch-points’, such as furniture, lights and accessories, are the things people remember most – the fabric on the chairs, the wall coverings, the door handles. To develop a total experience, it’s important to pay attention to even the smallest detail.
WHAT DOES HOME MEAN TO YOU?
Home is about family – the kitchen is the social hub, but there’s a balance of multifunctional, comfortable rooms that can easily transition from work to play, from moments of quiet to lively gatherings. Your home should allow you to experiment with and explore the things you love.
WHY IS LIGHTING SO IMPORTANT IN YOUR WORK?
Early in my career, I was lucky to work with the Broadway lighting designer Roger Morgan – I learnt how lighting has such a dramatic impact on the room’s atmosphere and really shapes a space. Dimmers provide great flexibility to amplify a room’s tone and mood, depending on the time of day, event, or mood.
TELL US YOUR TOP TRICKS OF THE TRADE
In most of my work, you’ll usually find a fireplace and hearth – these are an instant invitation to linger, converse and relax, the ultimate symbol of warmth and intimacy. Screens help divide, reveal, hide and guide people through a room – whether a laser-cut surface, shimmering mirror or generous curtain. They are a powerful tool for adding dimension and texture to a room, lending a hint of drama and mystery. And I love a great door too – it’s the first taste of what someone can expect from an interior. How you define the pathways through an interior really gives the space a tempo and rhythm.
HOW ABOUT UNUSUAL FINISHES IN A HOME?
Wallcoverings are a relatively easy way to transform a room – I like to work with Maya Romanoff and Flavor Paper, using designs that have subtle but tactile textures to really help set the tone of a space.
SHOULD DESIGN BE FUN?
I’ve always believed that it doesn’t take that much more work to create a space that’s provocative and playful, and therefore memorable.