A Modern Renaissance Man

by Amanda M. Fairbanks Photographed by Michael Mundy, Interview by Amanda Milner-Fairbanks
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Groomed by Sascha Hartford

It was a hectic Friday morning in July and David Rockwell, the architect and designer behind the Rockwell Group, moved seamlessly from project to project. He wore his trademark all-black uniform—a black T-shirt and black Levi’s—his salt-and-pepper, wavy hair parted over to one side. If ever he’s not wearing black, he’s in dark blue, but even then, only occasionally. Though his personal style is somewhat static, nothing else about or around him stays the same.

Rockwell’s New York office, open and light-filled, is pleasantly raw and overflowing with interesting-looking objects—handcrafted models made in-house, hard and soft finishes, a library of fabric swatches that stretch as far as the eye can see. At 61, Rockwell is a Renaissance man for the ages, a winner of professional honors that rang e from an Emmy Award to a Tony Award to design awards too numerous to count.

Over time, most architects come to specialize in one category—say, great, hulking skyscrapers or impossible structures that defy gravity. But Rockwell relishes in the creative process, evolving and expanding his eponymous company by taking on an array of projects that defy  categorization. Whether he’s fine-tuning the interior of a new hotel, designing sustainable, modular playground equipment, or putting the finishing touches on the set of a Broadway show, Rockwell is a man in constant motion, his mind forever churning with new ideas.

Though it was a steamy summer day, Rockwell seemed undiminished by the heat. For someone so busy and successful, he is open and friendly. Still, as one makes a mental list of just his current projects, a question immediately arises: How, exactly, does one man accomplish so much?

For instance, over the past year, the Rockwell Group has designed Brickell Heights (a luxury 690-condominium residential development in Miami), the Brightline (a train fleet that’s part of All Aboard Florida, the nation’s first privately owned, operated and financed express intercity passenger railroad project, and will eventually connect Miami, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale), Hyde Midtown Miami (a six-story hybrid hotel and residential building in the Design District) and Nobu Hotel Miami Beach (a 7,500-square-foot restaurant and 200-room hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean).

And that’s just in Florida.

“When you start a new project, one of the keys is not knowing the answer before you begin,” Rockwell explains, pausing briefly in his office at the Rockwell Group, a 250-person architecture and design firm that first opened its doors in 1984. It now occupies four floors overlooking Union Square West, with a second location in Madrid. The New York office last belonged to Spy, the now defunct magazine.

Rockwell’s interest in confronting new challenges began early on, during a peripatetic childhood.

“The early transitions in my life, moving, the death of my dad, living in multiple houses,” Rockwell says, starting and stopping. “Something about celebrating the moment seemed particularly important to me.”

The youngest of five boys, Rockwell was born in downtown Chicago. In 1959, his father, who ran a chain of department stores, died in a plane crash while on a business trip. Rockwell was two. His mother remarried, and the family soon moved to New Jersey to be closer to his stepfather’s job. They eventually settled in Deal, a bucolic, beachfront suburb on the Jersey Shore.

Rockwell was drawn less to the town’s beautiful houses than to its public spaces, particularly the Deal Players, a local community theater his mother started with a friend. Every summer, Rockwell would watch, transfixed, as the community came together, whether acting in shows, building sets or buying tickets. “It turned what was otherwise a very private suburb into a very acting-out community. I loved that.”

At 12, Rockwell’s stepfather sold his business and moved the family, rather abruptly, to Guadalajara, Mexico. The city, 8,000 feet above sea level, with its open-air marketplaces and vibrant street life, left an indelible mark on him.

If his interest in theater began during his boyhood in New Jersey, Rockwell’s adolescence in Mexico inspired a lifelong interest in capturing bright, warm light, and he eventually learned the careful art of making it flow through his work. A visit to New York City around the same time, when his mother took him to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Majestic Theater on 44th Street, also proved transformative. Again, he observed the magic as “1,300 people who were strangers become a community around storytelling”—a feeling he filed away for future use.

Another great tragedy came at fifteen, when his mother died from complications related to hepatitis. The two shared a close bond, both possessing a deep love of storytelling and music.

Rockwell took solace in playing the piano, which his mother and stepfather also played, and initially wavered on whether to pursue music or design. Rockwell recently started playing again. He now takes weekly lessons from Seymour Bernstein, the 90-year-old master.

After high school, somewhat on a whim, Rockwell and a close friend packed up his yellow Datsun and headed north to Syracuse University, where Rockwell studied architecture. He spent subsequent summers in New York and studied abroad in London for a year, apprenticing with theater consultants and lighting designers.

By 1984, he was back in New York and wo rking at another architecture firm when he was offered a freelance gig renovating Le Périgord, an iconic French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Though he didn’t know it at the time, that renovation would launch his career.

The only catch: Le Périgord had to be transformed in four weeks. But being only 28,Rockwell gave it little thought, and immediately said yes. With nothing to lose, he frantically worked to meet his fast-approaching deadline.

He next struck out on his own, designing Sushi Zen after Le Périgord.

For the following decade, the Rockwell Group developed a niche, growing rapidly in the hospitality field—specifically, the execution of high-end restaurants. Between 1993 and 1994, Rockwell and his then partner Jay Haverson designed the Monkey Bar, Vong and Nobu New York.

A 1993 New York Times review of Vong, the now shuttered French-Asian restaurant started by star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, focused on the superiority of its designers, particularly “their creative use of materials, their devotion to clients, their theatrical lighting.” Of note, the clever use of repurposed wooden chairs that likely saved its owners $15,000.

“That sum would have been regarded as insignificant in the 1980s, when restaurants often cost more than $1 million to open and design was sometimes considered more important than the choice of a chef or menu. But those days are gone,” wrote Trish Hall, the Times reporter. Rockwell continued to adapt his approach—part visionary architect, part hard-charging businessman—to suit the changing needs of his demanding clientele.

From there, business expanded at a rapid clip, with Rockwell and Nobu Matsuhisa, the famous Japanese chef, beginning a 26-year partnership. The two men have collaborated on 22 of Nobu’s 40 locations on five continents.

Another longtime collaborator is Danny Meyer, the renowned restaurateur and C.E.O. of the Union Square Hospitality Group. Meyer and Rockwell have worked on five restaurants—including the famous Union Square Cafe, both at its original location on East 16th Street and its new, spacious perch at the corner of East 19th Street and Park Avenue South.

When patrons sit down to eat there or in any of his other Rockwell-designed establishments, Meyer hopes they come away with a sense of “comfort, character and context.” Meyer describes Rockwell as a great listener, whose frequent “what ifs” have prompted him to “walk down a different and more enriched path.” Meyer also says that Rockwell is as capable of restraint as he is of making bold design statements, fusing practical elements alongside more fanciful touches.

Successful restaurant design hinges on seemingly inconsequential minutiae—from the comfort of one’s seat to the waitstaff’s traffic patterns. Yet perhaps most important is the lighting, and a room’s ability to transition from a bustling, bursting-at-the-seams Saturday night to a dreary, barely filled Wednesday afternoon.

“I grew up interested in how places tell stories and how places bring people together,” Rockwell says. He finds inspiration in how certain spaces encourage or discourage a feeling of closeness; the way light can move through a room, making visitors feel uplifted—happier, even.

From Rockwell’s work in restaurants, designing hotels and airports was a natural next step. Whether at the W Hotel in Union Square or at Jet Blue’s and United’s terminals at JFK and Newark airports, one key to Rockwell’s trajectory has been identifying areas ripe for overhaul. Another is surrounding himself with a talented and loyal cohort of designers, artists and makers. Rockwell and his two business partners encourage all their employees to “bring their full, amazing, eccentric selves to the table.”

Over the past 15 years, the Rockwell Group has also undertaken a small handful of public works.

Shortly after 9/11, Rockwell worked with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York–based architecture firm, and Kevin Kennon, another New York architect, to design and build a temporary viewing platform at the World Trade Center site. It allowed more than a million visitors to pay their respects until the National September 11 Memorial and Museum took its place. The Rockwell Group also designed Lower Manhattan’s creative, forward-thinking Imagination Playground at Burling Slip.

More recently, the Rockwell Group has again partnered with Diller Scofidio + Renfro to design and build The Shed. Located on the far west side of Manhattan (where Hudson Yards intersects with the High Line), The Shed is a 200,000-square-foot, six-story boxlike structure. As New York’s first multiarts center, slated to open in the spring of 2019, it’s designed to commission, produce and highlight all types of performing arts, visual arts and popular culture.

“The Shed is really a sort of memory machine,” Rockwell says, referring to its unique configurations that will allow for the preservation of moments.  The futuristic building has an open, movable infrastructure. It will transform on command into multiple stages and seatings—easily accommodating audiences from 500 to 3,000. The building, designed to be “permanently flexible for an unknowable future,” will be able to adapt to advances in media and technology, as well as the changing needs of artists.

All this volume and variety creates unexpected connections. “I think our theater work makes our architecture work better, and vice versa,” Rockwell says.

With so many projects happening at once, it’s fortunate that Rockwell doesn’t require much sleep, maybe six hours a night when he’s lucky. A typical day finds him sketching by hand (always in black pen) while working through a dozen or more design reviews and a near constant stream of phone calls. He personally scrutinizes every project and tends to be heavily involved at the beginning, when ideas are just taking shape, and at the end, when exacting details can make or break a project.

This past summer, T. J. Greenway, 37, an associate scenic designer who was a fabric dyer at a costume shop before joining the Rockwell Group nearly a decade ago, was hard at work on brightly colored sets made of yarn, rope, painted burlap and knitted scarves for As You Like It. The musical version, starring Lily Rabe, was part of the Shakespeare in the Park series at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. During the rapid-fire design review, Rockwell wore reading glasses and chewed gum, picking up a black felt marker to make small adjustments. Earlier in the morning, during an update on the United Terminal at Newark Airport, Michael Fischer, 57, an associate principal, showed Rockwell digital mockups of a food terminal that transforms in 10 seconds from a waffle house at breakfast to a burger joint at lunch.

Fischer has been with the firm since 1993, and is also working on the Helen Hayes Theatre project, The Rockwell Group’s complete renovation of the circa 1912 space, which is slated to open this spring. He says he can’t imagine having “any more fun anywhere else.”

Rockwell is a forward-thinking rainmaker. “The best ideas come from the intersection of other ideas,” he says. He considers curiosity “the most important quality.”

But Rockwell also has a thing for design that lives and breathes in the real world. Eschewing the platonic ideal of architecture, Rockwell prefers his buildings with people in them. And asked to name his favorite project, he dismisses the notion, saying: “My favorite kids are my most recent kids.”

When Rockwell isn’t working, the self-described “dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker” can be found in Tribeca, where he lives with his wife, a landscape designer, and their two teenaged children. Despite his quotidian life, he occupies a rarefied category among architects and designers. Yet, even with all his accolades, Rockwell says he’s still in the process of arriving at his destination.

“I’m always looking at what’s next or wondering what it would be like if we tried something else,” says Rockwell, thankful that the road ahead still unfolds in the strange and mysterious ways that led him from Chicago to Mexico to New York.

Architects are known for being obsessed with their legacies. Building something that will outlast you for generations requires a fair amount of ego. But Rockwell is refreshingly unbothered by his legacy.

“What’s important to me is doing work that I love and continuing to move forward and not get to the point where all I’m doing is repeating myself. If you start thinking about legacy, you start to freeze everything,” he says with a smile. “Everyone always says they want a timeless design. But in order to get to timeless, you have to pass through timely. You have to be willing to be of your time.” 


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