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Tue 14 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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All about the drama

From the set of the 2009 Oscars to the Nobu restaurant at the Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah, David Rockwell has worked on an astounding array of projects. CID caught up with him during a recent trip to Dubai.

All about the drama
David Rockwell.
All about the drama
The set for Broadway musical, Hairspray.
All about the drama
W New York.
All about the drama
Starwood’s Aloft brand.
All about the drama
Starwood’s Aloft brand.
All about the drama
All about the drama
Nobu Dubai.
All about the drama
All about the drama
Nobu Dubai.
All about the drama
W Union Square, New York.

From the set of the 2009 Oscars to the Nobu restaurant at the Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah, David Rockwell has worked on an astounding array of projects. CID caught up with him during a recent trip to Dubai.

When the Rockwell Group says it is cross disciplinary, it isn't joking. Broadway sets, high-end restaurants, luxury hotels, exotic installations, airport terminals, wallcoverings, fabrics and light fixtures have all found a home in the Rockwell design portfolio.

From the Kodak theatre, home of the Oscars, to the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio, to playgrounds that encourage children to develop cognitive skills, there are few disciplines that the New York-based design firm has yet to explore.

In spite of this breadth, however, there are common, underlying influences that weave unobtrusively in and out of the company's body of work. Talk to David Rockwell, world-renowned designer and founder of the group, and it becomes clear where they stem from.

A mother heavily involved in theatre sparked Rockwell's childhood fascination with the form, and an appreciation of theatre as a unifying force; living in Mexico as a boy fuelled a fascination with public spaces and they way they are inhabited; and a childhood spent moving from place to place instilled an appreciation of the ‘here and now'.

Commercial Interior Design caught up with David Rockwell to find out more.

How did you become a designer?

I grew up in a large family with two older brothers and a mother who was a dancer in the theatre. By the time I was born she was no longer dancing professionally but she was very involved in community theatre.

We lived in a beautiful suburb in New Jersey and theatre became something that was very important to me as a kid because I realised that it was the only time that the whole community got together. The rest of the community was made up of private homes.

When I was 12 we moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, sort of suddenly, and here, everything was public. Private homes were teeny but there was a big market place and a big mariachi square. Everything collected around public space and my interest in architecture was transformed into an interest in public space.

I started becoming interested in architecture in Mexico in the late 1960s when there was a lot of experimentation with concrete. I thought that would be an interesting thing to study so I went to an architecture school, Syracuse University.

I had this idea that there was something about public space and marketplaces, and about how people inhabit public spaces; it was not so much any one physical place but the sense of ritual that connected all of those spaces that interested me. That continued throughout architecture school.

In 1979, when I came to New York, I was very excited by all of the interesting, smaller work that was going on, which started my interest in interiors. In 1984 I worked freelance on a restaurant. That restaurant was very successful and received a lot of attention. That's how I became a designer.

Tell us about the Rockwell Group.

This is our 24th year and we're about 150 designers. We started out early on in restaurants and then branched out into hotels. Now we do a bunch of different project types - airports, stadiums, Broadway shows, children's hospitals, but all based on the idea of creating places for people to come together and have a kind of social experience. Because I grew up moving around so much, I'm particularly interested in work that celebrates the moment, the here and now. Naturally, this is the driver of my business.

You talk about bringing people together in a social space. What can you do to help facilitate that through design?

Everything. The choreography, the movement, seating proximity, lighting, the way these forms embrace the room. You can create a common central experience, a sushi bar for example, or a movie stage. You can light a space to make sure people look good.

My most recent experience in that regard is designing the set for the Oscars this year, which was a totally new and slightly terrifying challenge.

What did you do with the set?

I wanted to make it less about a separation, more about the audience and the performers being in the same space. I wanted to kind of rip up the front section of the house. We took the orchestra out of the pit and created continuous seating. It was an amazing experience.

How do you reconcile your desire to bring people together in a more social space with the more private culture that exists in the Middle East?

That's all to be determined. It's something that we've been thinking about and are grappling with. Do you find, working in this region, that local influences play a significant part in the design?

They do. We're just at the beginning stages of learning that, really, but I see the office here as a two-way dialogue, not just to put our ideas out there but to get ideas in.

We'll see how that evolves but this is such a striking region. For me it's about having a presence to serve our clients and to hear our clients in the Middle East, in Asia, in India and in Africa. It's a hub and hopefully we will also find great artisans, great craftsmen and great collaborators from here.

Are all these regions new for you?

No. We already have work in all of those places. We have existing clients and thought we could serve them better by being here. So, it makes sense, even if we don't get any new work - but hopefully that won't happen! The Dubai office is really going to be about client relationships, with the majority of work being done in Madrid and the US.

How do you find working in the current economic situation, particularly here, where projects have been put on hold?

It's unfortunate that so many amazing projects have been put on hold. For us, we've been very lucky in that so much of our work isn't just permanent buildings but what goes on inside those buildings.

If you take Dubai, for instance, there's certainly enough vertical skyscrapers but places at the ground floor - parks, playgrounds, community spaces - those are the kinds of things that I am interested in and I think there will continue to be demand for those.

Are there plans to open offices in any other parts of the region?

No, Dubai is it. We have an office in Madrid with about 12 people, which services Europe. I never thought I'd even have that. The Dubai office has two people and opened six months ago.

We currently have work in India for the Taj Hotel Group. We have work in Algeria for Le Méridien and we are also doing a project in Abu Dhabi that opens in September called Aloft, which is a Starwood brand. It's kind of an inexpensive W. We are also doing a Nobu in Doha.

You've been involved with the Nobu concept since the very start. How did that come about?

I heard they were coming to town. I'd tasted Nobu's food at a festival of food as I was kind of a ‘foodie'! So I called up and said I want to design the restaurant. I met with Robert de Nero and I met with Nobu and I got the job. I was aggressive.

Do you find that helps?

I do. You know, designers tend to be insular and I think sometimes you need to step out of the box. And I was much younger then!

Aside from the state of the economy, what are the main challenges facing a designer at the moment?

One challenge is that nothing is unique anymore. If you introduce something in one part of the world, it is instantly known all around the world. I think the speed at which things change is also challenging.

But this also presents opportunities because it gives you a chance as a designer to create something that might be curatable. It can change and grow and morph.

Can you tell us about some of the other projects that you are working on?

There is the Belvedere in Mykonos, a high-end, 82 room, very beautiful, exquisitely-detailed resort. Here, we have facilitated little rituals, like the turndown service. We have expanded this into a ritual of furniture that opens up and a series of candles that are put out. Since so many projects are similar, one thing that can differentiate one from another are the rituals.

We've also created a new playground concept called Imagination Playground, which is being built in lower Manhattan. It is based on 450 pieces that we developed that allow kids to build things, and to create and to play. So, each day they are creating their own playground and taking it apart and starting over again.

We did tasks with New York Parks for three years and then we created a portable version of it that can go from playground to playground, and there are ten of those now travelling the US. It has been phenomenally successful. It gets kids to play together - and if you can get kids to play together, then maybe you can get adults to play together.

We are also developing wallcoverings and fabrics and lighting fixtures for Leucos out of Italy, and we are working on creating public seating. In most cases we'll find something where there's not a solution on the market, like inexpensive public seating, and then create something that solves it.

How will the current crisis actually impact design?

I think that we're going to find ways of using tighter economic controls to make the work better. I don't think being more cautious is the way to go.

I think it's about figuring out how to reuse things. There will be less new construction and more repurposing.

Is that a great opportunity for designers?

I think so. I'm optimistic. I think the market is bad but designers are going to have to come up with interesting ways to continue to be vital.

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