Welcome to Dining & Designing, a new column in which Curbed National joins with the forces of Eater National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating. This will be fun.
Photos: Rockwell Group
David Rockwell is a luminary in the world of restaurant and hotel design. He draws his inspiration from theater (he often consults filmmakers and choreographers to help him work out the flow of his spaces); growing up in Mexico watching bullfights, and his mom, who was a vaudeville dancer. (No joke!) With the soon-to-open Yotel New York, Nobu Beijing, and a Nobu Hotel at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas all in the works, plus W Paris-Opera and a Le Meridien in Oran, Algeria, he has a cornucopia of projects to keep him busy. Here, we talk to him about what turns him on—restaurants versus hotels—so-called kid ‘jails’, food trucks, and the epic debate of ‘perchers’ versus two-hour chairs.
Which restaurants do you think are the best designed in the world?
The main job of the restaurant is to support the food and service concept. It sounds obvious, but so much of restaurant design works on how well food is integrated. It is not unlike theater, and how a physical production has to grow out of the theater. The Four Seasons in New York (in the Seagram Building) is timeless. The scale of it is perfectly proportioned so that it elevates the dining experience rather than dwarfs it. There are separate rooms and discreet spaces, but all of them feel like where you want to be—none have that Siberia feel. Ristorante Bagutta in Milan, for many reasons. The scale of the rooms is perfect. There is vibrancy and a sense of spontaneity reflected in the art on the walls and a sense of history that is tangible. The French Laundry in Napa Valley harks back to those two beautiful buildings built in the late 1800s. You really do feel like you are stepping into an immersive, carefully crafted experience that involves the setting and what rests on the plate.
Name some of your favorite hotels.
Hotel Cipriani is Venice is clearly in the top two or three. I was there a couple of years ago with the kids. It is accessible only by boat, so you really do feel like you are back in the Renaissance. It is one of the most magical places in the world. I just went to The Savoy [in London], and stayed there. I loved it before and love it more now. The Peninsula in Beverly Hills, just in terms of an example of service over design. The design is fine, it feels like a home, so when I am in LA, that is a wonderful place to be. Some of my other favorite hotels are Grand Hotel Quisiana in Capri, Italy and Singita Sweni Lodge in Kruger National Park in South Africa.
You live in Tribeca [NYC]. Anything at home you would incorporate into your restaurant or hotel designs?
Our home is on three levels. We’ve put in extra rooms for the kids and a secret passageway so they can go from room to room by climbing on the cabinets. I think in terms of how that might apply to restaurants and hotels; as in, places that invite discovery, places you don’t get all at once. That is one of the things I like about stairs—the seduction of space opening up. Many of my projects have signature stairs. At The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, the Chandelier Bar has a series of stairs that cuts through three levels—I think [about] moving vertically. The National at the Benjamin Hotel in New York, with Geoffrey Zakarian, has a stunning, curved bronze staircase that takes guests from the restaurant to the second-floor private dining rooms.
Tell us about Canyon Ranch Miami. It feels like none of their other properties, especially the restaurant and bar. Thank goodness you can get a glass of wine after working out all day. What was your inspiration here?
I wanted to use indigenous materials [like] wood and agate in the lobby and in the restaurant, not only to give the property fluidity, but to convey the sense of transition. We designed a four-story hanging mangrove wood sculpture with sliced agate for the main lobby that continues into the fourth-floor lobby and other public spaces, creating a vertical and artistic connection for the entire spa. I spent a lot of time there doing research. You are either there detoxing, or you are in some form of transition. I felt like you could use design to be kind of a host, [with] light materials that would relax you a bit. You would go through a period of transition in a more comfortable way. The yoga room is an amphitheater toward the sea. The gym is a two-story space that overlooks the water.
What and who are your major design influences?
Mexico was a huge influence—the public spaces of Mexico, and architecture. I studied in London for a year and in Barcelona doing research. Barcelona was hugely influential to me, not just Gaudi’s buildings, but The Palau de La Musica Catalina was an eye opener for me. Joseph Urban was a hero of mine, someone who embraced theater and architecture and did it brilliantly—he did amazing restaurant/club spaces. Boris Aronson was unquestionably the greatest scenic designer of the 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright was also a source of incredible inspiration. My mom was an inspiration of mine, with the interiors of theater and dining. I remember my first day in New York City. I went to see a Broadway show and went to Schrafft’s. Both experiences are seared into my being.
You’ve also designed one of the most amazing playground projects for kids in New York [Imagination Playground]. Do you factor in kids in your work?
I think the one way hotels attempt to nod towards kids is to have a kids club. We were just in Virgin Gorda, which had a kids club. But my kids called it "kids' jail." Kids don’t want to be isolated. They love being part of the action. They need big open spaces, terraces, and comfortable furniture that kids can climb on—all really important! We just did a concept for Starwood called Aloft; it is kind of an elevated motel in an expensive place, but still good design. The area we have for families and kids is an indoor/outdoor social gathering place with an outdoor fireplace.
What trends in restaurant design are you are loving right now?
Pop-up restaurants began as a concept for restaurateurs with the idea that not every restaurant is going to last forever. Then trucks literally became the vehicle to deliver food. I’m very intrigued by that. Transformation is an interesting idea. We just did a project for Jamie Oliver in the form of a portable cooking school. We are finishing a restaurant for Danny Meyer that is truly demountable; that is, it is totally packable and portable. [It's called] Untitled, at the Whitney Museum, and features simple, white-oak tables and room dividers, seating with red felt upholstery and custom metal lamps to create a comfortable and industrial-chic environment. We designed the restaurant so that the furnishings and fixtures can be easily removed quickly to transform the restaurant for museum events.