David Rockwell: 2023 Interior Design Hall of Fame Icon
“Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major,” David Rockwell replies when asked what he’s working on next. He is fresh off a private recital of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, accompanied by a full orchestra (as well as notable guests Robert DeNiro, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jane Krakowski). The architect returned to classical piano lessons in 2016, picking up where he left off in childhood. In fact, at the Rockwell Group headquarters in New York, a former print room now serves as one of his practice studios. Just as Gershwin’s rhapsody has come to define the Jazz Age, the name David Rockwell has become virtually synonymous with the epitome of modern-day hospitality design. But his oeuvre extends far beyond restaurants and hotels.
It all began in 1984, when Rockwell founded the firm in Manhattan with just six other employees. The small team was soon filling the studio with mood boards for Nobu, Rosa Mexicano, and the W, along with thinking about how design could transform a young person’s stay for the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. In 2002, at age 46, Rockwell was welcomed into the Interior Design Hall of Fame, one of the youngest inductees ever. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Rockwell Group has grown to 330 employees, who occupy four floors of the Union Square HQ along with offices in Los Angeles and Madrid, and have worked in 40 countries on more than 125 hotels and 500 restaurants as well as such hybrid hospitality endeavors as NeueHouse Hollywood, Moynihan Train Hall, and a JetBlue terminal. Across the decades, their intrepid leader has continued to accumulate accolades, including Emmy Awards for the production design of the 2010 and 2021 Academy Awards and a 2016 Tony Award for the She Loves Me sets, making him the only architect to have won both such honors. But Rockwell has never been one to rest on his laurels.
“David is always hustling. It’s something I’ve come to really cherish about him,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public theater in New York and a repeat Rockwell client. Working with Eustis, Rockwell has designed sets for numerous productions, including four Shakespeare in the Park plays, as well as The Library restaurant at The Public. “Most people think it’s an old original library, but it’s designed from scratch,” Eustis adds, noting that Rockwell’s lifelong love of theater plays out in an unfolding series of researched details that suggest a backstory. Rockwell and team are currently devising the sets for another story: the revival of Doubt, opening on Broadway in February.
“He manages to see the beauty in our diversity, using food, fabric, music, art, and design as his canvas to unite us all,” says restaurateur and Food Network personality Melba Wilson. She first worked with Rockwell 30 years ago on a proposed refresh of Minton’s Playhouse jazz club. More recently, as president of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, Wilson partnered with Rockwell Group on DineOut NYC, a 2020 initiative that developed a prototype of outdoor dining to keep restaurants throughout the boroughs—including her Melba’s in Harlem—in business during the early months of the pandemic. It’s one of the latest in a series of pro-bono projects instigated by Rockwell. Others include Stoop NYC, designing the annual Citymeals on Wheels fundraising event, and serving as the chairman of DIFFA for more than two decades.
“David is the opposite of the designer who is locked in a kind of hermetic, self-referential world,” states architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who has followed Rockwell from the beginning. “He’s interested in architecture as it relates to the human experience.” Rockwell applies that human-centered approach to the design process itself, engaging consultants with critical questions and inviting them to be a part of the conversation.
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He is known for bringing in unexpected creative collaborators—choreographers, for example. A culture of collaboration is also in effect every day at all three studios. “It’s the thing I appreciate most,” says Rockwell Group partner Shawn Sullivan, who has been with the firm 26 years. Partner Greg Keffer agrees: “It’s led to our cross-disciplinary approach—and to a plurality of personalities and talents experimenting.” Keffer is the partner in charge of the Spain office, led day-to-day by principal Eva Longoria, a Madrid native who interned at RG New York as a student. “We’re constantly trying to break the boundary to do something even more special,” says Longoria, who adds that her studio is 80 percent female architects and designers—the same majority as RG’s executive team.
The commitment to collaboration is underpinned by curiosity, which may be Rockwell’s defining personal trait. “I’ve always been curious about how people come together,” notes the architect, who has also penned four books and designed furnishings for Stellar Works, Lasvit, Shaw Contract, Maya Romanoff, and Jim Thompson. “What are the kinds of things that attract people to want to collaborate? What are the different things that make a moment work?” he muses—and encourages his team to do the same. This means that sentences around the office are more likely to end with a question mark than a full stop. It’s a way of seeing with valuable practical implications.
“His flair for the dramatic and innovative use of space are second to none, and the reason I’ve called on David so often over the years,” says former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. He’s referring to the several projects they’ve worked on together from 2002 to today. One is the interior public spaces and restaurant at the just bowed Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center complex. It’s a site that Rockwell became intimately familiar with just after 9/11, when he collaborated, pro bono again, on the viewing platforms that served as a kind of temporary, grassroots memorial. Politician and architect further forged their professional relationship with Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, a 2010 children’s project initiated and developed by RG for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation that the Bloomberg administration advocated as part of the revitalization of lower Manhattan.
Their most recent collaboration is the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center, which opened in Washington in October. It’s RG’s first higher-education project. “We brought fresh eyes to creating opportunities for connectivity and spontaneous encounters,” the architect notes. Many firms lean into a practice area where they’ve found success. But Rockwell makes a point of exploring new territory, possibly a function of his trademark curiosity. Adds Bloomberg: “David has a rare combination of imaginative creativity, technical brilliance, and deep civic-mindedness.”
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2021 Best of Year winner for Transportation – Small. Rockwell Group designed a ticketed waiting area for Amtrak and Long Island Railroad customers that brings the glamour back to travel.
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