David Rockwell Sets the Scene for 'Houdini'
by r. couri hay
For nearly three decades, David Rockwell has stood at the helm of Rockwell Group, a Union Square–based design firm with nearly 150 employees, creating memorable spaces for restaurants, hospitals, museums, and hotels on several continents. Soon he will take on a new role—producer—when Houdini, written by Aaron Sorkin with music by Stephen Schwartz and starring Hugh Jackman, opens on Broadway. “It connected a few interesting dots for me,” says Rockwell, 56, who also designed the sets. “As a child, I was interested in magic, and I know a lot of magicians. I didn’t see it as producing; I saw it as ‘This is fun. Let’s all get together and put on a show.’”
Born to a former dancer who toured with the Abbott and Costello show, Rockwell has a portfolio of projects with a flair for the dramatic, notably the Kodak Theatre, where he also created groundbreaking sets for two Academy Awards shows. “Theaters support the creation of theater [productions],” says Rockwell, who has spoken at the popular TED Conferences on the relationship between theater and architecture. “I replaced 600 seats in the orchestra with cabaret-style seating so that the design of the audience was a continuation of what was happening on stage. It was a fantastic, terrifying experience.”
From the stage to the kitchen, Rockwell has also collaborated with elite chefs, namely, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Drew Nieporent, at marquee properties such as Vong and Nobu. “Nobu wanted a sushi chef to be able to greet people when they come into the restaurant, so we created a kind of back story about Nobu, the original one being an abstract landscape,” says Rockwell. “I think the architect’s job is to create the environment, and the entertainment is brought to life by the people there.”
This past summer, he revealed his latest restaurant project, Sugar and Plumm, a sweets and cocktail shop on the Upper West Side. “We wanted to showcase their extensive array of cavity-inducing sweets with the backdrop of the space evoking classic French pâtisseries and bistros,” says Rockwell, describing the design, which includes leaded glass transom panels that recall historic window shops of the 1930s, a glass wall filled with confection-inspired designs, and handblown lighting pendants swirled with color.
Growing up, Rockwell moved between Chicago, New Jersey, and Guadalajara, Mexico. “I never experienced anything like the Plaza de los Mariachis and the marketplaces and the bullrings, and the Virgin of Guadalupe festival with 10,000 people on their knees,” says Rockwell, who later recaptured these events in his coffee table book, Spectacle. “It was a total, total life change.”
This fascination with color and event later helped inform Rockwell’s design for a play space for PS 234, which had to abandon its Tribeca building in the wake of 9/11. “We did a kind of urban barn raising and in a week or two transformed the school,” says Rockwell of the project. “It was an unbelievably powerful experience, and it was my first experience of public-private partnership.”
The school project later beget the Imagination Playground, a Lower Manhattan play space filled with large Tinkertoy-like pieces that encourage “nonlinear kid directed fantasy play”; the playground has since been emulated across the country and several countries. Today, Rockwell is also helping build a cultural amphitheater in Southampton as well as launching a new project with the TAO Group following their successful renovation of Marquee. “I’m most interested in the beginnings and ends of projects, which is where I think I can have the most impact,” says Rockwell, a married father with two kids. “But I have to say, I like beginnings more than endings.”
photography by evan sung
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.