design

Playtime: Inside architect David Rockwell's pleasure-seeking world

Updated 27th June 2019
American architect and designer David Rockwell is photographed at a piano in his New York office.
Credit: Celeste Sloman for CNN
Playtime: Inside architect David Rockwell's pleasure-seeking world
Written by Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN
American architect and designer David Rockwell is a mastermind of what could be described as the adult playground. His creations -- which span high-end restaurants, luxury hotels, penthouse apartments, cultural institutions and glitzy theater stage design -- are notably hedonistic in nature, catering to the world's pleasure-seekers.
A recent trio of projects, all set within New York's ambitious new Hudson Yards development, offer an indicative snapshot of his vast body of work.
His architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, an international operation of some 250 staff, has designed the interiors within the development's soon-to-open Equinox Hotel. The company also worked on the 15 Hudson Yards residential tower as lead Interior architect, completing the lobby, a series of luxury amenities, and multi-million dollar apartments. They also collaborated with lead architects Diller Scofidio+Renfro (DSR) on the exterior.
The third project, another joint project with with DSR, is The Shed -- an eight-story cultural hub that launched in April this year.
During an interview in his Union Square office, a month after The Shed's official opening, Rockwell likened the multi-use arts center -- with its ability to host concerts, theater productions and art exhibitions simultaneously -- to his way of interpreting the world.
An exterior view of The Shed at Hudson Yards in New York.
An exterior view of The Shed at Hudson Yards in New York. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The 63-year-old said the venue's different components complement each other like parts of his own mind: "The part that loves creating structure and loves the architectural rigor," and the part that "love(s) performance and theater."
"Those things have come together (to inform) how I look at the world," he continued. "The Shed feels like it has that point of view."

Theater of design

Rockwell's affinity for music and performance can be traced back to his own youth. It was his mother, a vaudeville dancer and choreographer, who, according to Rockwell, introduced him to the stage and regularly cast him in community productions.
This early exposure to theater had an impact that can still be seen in his work today. His designs for "Tootsie" and "Kiss Me Kate" are currently on Broadway, and in 2016, Rockwell won a Tony award for Best Scenic Design in a Musical.
The show in question, "She Loves Me," was originally staged in 1963 and tells a love story that largely unfolds within a Budapest perfumery in the 1930s. Rockwell's whimsical interpretation of the set, which was painted with vintage Art Nouveau motifs, was designed to open and close, almost like a jewel box, to reveal vitrines filled with colorful perfumes and products.
Posters for a selection of David Rockwell's Broadway set design projects are seen in his office.
Posters for a selection of David Rockwell's Broadway set design projects are seen in his office. Credit: Celeste Sloman for CNN
Movement, adaptability and transformation are themes that Rockwell carries through all of his designs, both on- and off-stage.
At the Equinox Hotel, for instance, smart glass installed between the shower and sleeping areas in the rooms will allow guests to hide -- or reveal -- their modesty with the push of a button. At 15 Hudson Yards, meanwhile, the view from one of the penthouses puts lower Manhattan and the Hudson river on full display through large wrap-around windows in the living room. It stands to reason that the apartment's future inhabitants will enjoy changing scenery throughout the day, as the sun rises and sets on the city.
Even more reminiscent of a theater set are the meeting rooms in the Moxy Chelsea, another one of Rockwell's hotel projects in Manhattan. Its series of flexible working spaces are entirely adaptable thanks to gliding wall panels that can be maneuvered to create smaller or larger meeting rooms within minutes.
A model of the Price & Sons shoe factory set design from the Kinky Boots Broadway play.
A model of the Price & Sons shoe factory set design from the Kinky Boots Broadway play. Credit: Celeste Sloman for CNN
Design's ability to help people interact and make connections is often a focal point of Rockwell's work -- as is collaboration.
"I think one of the things I've learned from my work in theater, that's been inspiring to me, is that for a piece of scenery to move in theater there are four or five creatives who are collaborating," he said. "There's lighting, there's sound, there's automation, there's choreography. All of those disciplines create that memorable moment."

Beyond luxury

While much of Rockwell's work is characterized by glossy, high-end luxury, this doesn't tell the whole story.
This year, his firm's more experimental arm, LAB, designed the Tia Clinic, a modern alternative take on a women's health clinic in Manhattan's Flatiron district. Aimed at revolutionizing the experience of visiting a gynecologist, the members-only healthcare facility looks more like a living room than a waiting room, with welcoming furnishings and thoughtful injections of color.
The Tia Clinic in Manhattan was designed by Rockwell Group's more experimental arm, LAB.
The Tia Clinic in Manhattan was designed by Rockwell Group's more experimental arm, LAB. Credit: Kezi Ban/Blonde Artists, courtesy Rockwell Group
And years before, during the aftermath of 9/11, Rockwell worked with DSR and Kevin Kennon Architects to build a temporary viewing platform at Ground Zero in order to help people see and make sense of the devastation.
Rockwell Group even collaborated with British chef Jamie Oliver in 2010, designing a pro-bono truck for his Food Revolution project. The cooking school on wheels was taken on the road by Oliver and his team as they worked to teach children, professionals and parents about healthy eating.
A year later, Rockwell worked with the founders of the Blue Man Group performance act, to design an innovative new elementary school. The modern, colorful space -- although an aesthetic departure from his slick hotel and restaurant projects -- again demonstrated the role of interactivity and adaptability in his designs.
A teacher at the Blue School in New York leads students in a discussion about artwork illuminated by ultraviolet lamps in 2011.
A teacher at the Blue School in New York leads students in a discussion about artwork illuminated by ultraviolet lamps in 2011. Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP
Recently, Rockwell has himself gone back to school -- he's re-learning the piano.
"I'd wanted to (take up piano again) for four or five years but I was afraid it was too late -- that I'd never be as good as I wanted to be," he explained. "But I did what I do in design: I researched, I played around a little bit and tried different paths. I eventually met a teacher who inspired me."
Six months into his lessons, he bought a 1959 upright Steinway from a woman who sells restored pianos out of an old factory in Yonkers, New York. The instrument now lives downstairs in his firm's office.
How's he progressing? "I'm happy that I play all three movements of Beethoven's "Pathétique," he said.