For nearly three decades, architect and designer David Rockwell has helmed the Rockwell Group, a "cross-disciplinary" firm that has designed everything from private homes to the famous Nobu restaurants to designer showhouses to the sets for the Academy Awards, but is a particular favorite of hoteliers like the Starwood Group and Morgans. Growing up the son of a vaudeville performer, Rockwell developed a love for theater that shines through in his often dramatic designs—like the recently opened Chandelier Bar (above), part of the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas—but this background also informs his process, which focuses on "storytelling" and giving guests a "shared experience." In this interview, Rockwell discusses "obsessing about details" and transforming a project's biggest challenges into its greatest triumphs.
Your career seems to be focused on designing hotels, restaurants, and other public spaces. Was that a conscious decision?
The firm is 29 years old, we began with residential and hospitality both, really circumstantial. I was working for someone else. I was offered the chance to do a ground-up house freelance and also a restaurant that came about because of my interest in lighting, one of the things I was very interested in as an architecture student, and subsequent to that working for a year for a theatrical lighting designer. Those were the two first things that I did on my own, and then used those as an opportunity to create my own firm. I think since then what I've discovered about hotels and restaurants that so interests me is that they're about things that engage us. One of the things is how design creates community and there's a kind-of amazing mash up that happens in a hotel. It's a combination of many different things, public space—which ties into our interest in how hotels can be very much a part of their community and looking at cities from the inside out.
When you visit a city now, travelers may not say "I'm visiting New York," they may say, "I'm visiting the Greenwich" or "I'm visiting the Wythe." I think hotels have taken on more of a destination, which I think is a reemergence of what hotels had been historically, social hubs. But they're also a chance to design very fine-tuned, detail-oriented, residential-scale spaces—in the hotel room—where you're spending a day or two, as a guest, focused on every single detail. So it's a chance to get all of those pieces right. I think it's a combination of storytelling that engages us and creating places that are a shared experience. It's the same reason I'm interested in theater, I think hotels restaurants and theaters are all shared experiences.
Does the fact that hotel guests have only a brief experience with the design cause you to take more risks? Or do you try to appeal to a wider, mainstream audience than you might for a private residence?
I don't know. I'm not really the compare and contrast type of person, in terms of wired to see how those opportunities are different. I think they're both, right? First of all it's a chance to collaborate. When we're working on a restaurant, we're collaborating with the chef and the owner and the operator. We're doing a new hotel in Maui for Hyatt, in Waialeia, called Andaz Maui (above). It's our largest resort. It's an incredible site, so part of our narrative comes from the site, but we're also doing a restaurant there for Morimoto where he is what we're basing the story on. We do do some residential, and when we do that we try to extract a script, a point of view, all of the idiosyncrasies that will lead away from generic. Because that's something that doesn't really interest the firm: generic design.
So I think where you're drawing your inspiration comes from different places, whether it's the owner of a hotel or the chef, in the case of a restaurant. One analogy between restaurants and theater is that they don't last forever. We're seeing more and more pop up restaurants. We're seeing hotels that will transform from day to night. The ephemerality of something can increase the intensity of a person's connection to it. I don't know about taking more risks, because there's a lot of money riding on making the right decisions. There're many problems to solve: What does the hotel feel like when you just come in? what if you're one of the first people in a restaurant intended for 150? Simple basic things like how are there no bad seats? How do you accommodate changeable seating? How do you design a restaurant so that the food gets to the table as quickly and as beautifully as possible? Is the chair designed for 45 minutes or a two-hour meal?
And there's a really interesting thing going on in hotels right now, placing more emphasis on ? the fact that we can get a product that is produced around the world identically, at the same time, is making people crave handcrafted and idiosyncratic and local. The local aspect isn't just in the food, but in the design as well, and that's something that is very exciting to us to embed into our work. With Beacon, an 1850s incredible old building on top of a waterfall and about 85% of the bed and breakfasts and the restaurants in the area were built within a ten minute walk of the place, because it is such a hub.
When you have a larger hotelier, like Starwood, and they're trying brand something like Aloft, do you like that because you can spread your design sensibility around the world? Or do you prefer a one-off, something like the Ames, for Morgans?
They're very different challenges, and we like both, but I wouldn't say that what we like about Aloft is that we're spreading our design all around. I think sometimes the architect and the hotel company have slightly different stories in their head about what it is. The story that attracted us to Aloft was a luxury product that we conceived of as kind of a motel model and reinventing the budget hotel.
My fantasy about Aloft is that in each location it grows some local component, but you can create a design—for instance, a room strategy that includes only one piece of millwork, and that's the headboard—that allows the price point of the hotel to be substantially below what that product would normally be. Those are design challenges that are unique to creating something that will have multiple locations. For Aloft we created a full-scale prototype in Westchester with Starwood, of the whole lobby, to try to come up with a way that ? if you're going to take something and build it for less per key than a luxury product, you're not going to take that out of just the finishes, you're going to take that out of square feet, the number of rooms or the size of the place. So the lobby in that case is the hub of the hotel, morning noon and evening. It allowed us to create a bar that rotates to become a counter during the day and a bar at night and lounge seating that's also a place you can work. What we strive for a mix of work, so we don't feel like we know the answer to the problem before we begin. Doing one-offs like Ames for Morgans, which was a fantastic building in a very interesting location, and doing things like Aloft, or Nobu, where we've done many many restaurants and now their first hotel. And in that case, as opposed to them being the same, we're trying to evolve a vocabulary and a point of view that is as unique as their food and service.
For the Nobu Hotel, did you draw from the earlier designs for the restaurants at all? What were the key elements that you felt made it a Nobu hotel?
Well, we'd been talking to the Nobu Group about the notion of them growing a hotel component for a while and there were a few key ways into the problem. One was that it seemed like Nobu was really an innovator in inhabiting the space of Western comfort and Eastern rigor. If you look at 19 years ago, when Nobu opened, there were no other three-star restaurants without tablecloths. So it was a kind of ? so although the designs can be kind of elaborate, the tabletop is scorched ash, nothing else is on the table, and its a kind of ? you're putting yourself, food-wise, in the hands of someone else and you're going to try new things ? South American taste and sushi mastery. That combination of Eastern rigor and Western comfort and using natural building components that reflect the quality of the ingredients [in the food]. So that led to the backlit alabaster. The scorched ash is continued.
It is not so much using design elements from the restaurant—and in fact the restaurant in Nobu Hotel at Caesar's Palace, is a slightly different Nobu, just as all of them are different. The most interesting thing about the Nobu Hotel concept in Caesars Palace was we felt like in the high-end hotel market, having a personality, having a relationship as you do with a sushi chef, would be an interesting differentiator compared to the traditional sense of a luxury hotel. Since we're in Caesars Palace, which is the epitome of Baroque, Frank Sinatra, gogo Las Vegas, the very simple lobby, which is layered handmade wood blocks with a jewel-like black granite check-in desk, where you check in over tablets, that contrast of putting the simple thing in the middle of the baroque over-the-top space is what's so fantastic. It's fun to go there and find this simple, unexpected, natural rawness.
It also contrasts, in other ways, with the Cosmopolitan, another major Vegas project of yours. Can you tell us about what the goals were there, compared to Nobu?
Cosmopolitan was about creating and evolving a visual language for a brand that didn't exist. It was about creating a new idea. By the time we got on board, the concrete slabs were already up, it had changed ownership, the bank took back the project and brought in another developer to help guide it. We were brought in to give it a point of view, originally, and we started, piece by piece, thinking about a couple of things. With every project, we try to find the key problem to solve. How can design elevate the opportunity there? At Nobu Hotel, it was how to extend the ideas of Nobu's food, in a very simple way. At Cosmopolitan, it is, by nature, a very vertical thing. I don't know how many acres it is, but its something like six acres compared to sixty-two acres at City Center. It's a very compressed site, with planning necessitating retail and restaurants on the second and third levels.
I always felt like the fantasy of Las Vegas was better than the reality. The fantasy is that its a city that reinvents itself every two years and the reality is that there are railings along the streets, it's hard to cross streets, there's really not that much change that's going on [architecturally]. The change is going on in the clubs and the inner spaces, so we felt like the lobby—which was the first space we started to design—the concrete columns were there but there was an opportunity to create a digital landscape. There are about 400 monitors behind two-way mirrors on the columns (above), and that is ever changing. We have a small technology lab and we created the hardware and the content and also the software that allows other artists to create pieces that animate that lobby. It's an open-source software that allows the lobby to be constantly evolving and changing. With the chocolate brown terrazzo floor and mirrored ceiling, it feels like these things are floating. The check-in experience, to the left, are individual, crafted, red felt check-in desks. So the experience of movement is very fluid and the experience of checking in does not involve one of those long marble counters.
The owners felt like you could create a hotel in Las Vegas that was different than anything else there by having a high-level of comfort and luxury, but making it fun and engaging. In Las Vegas, it seems like there's the high-end luxury and then there's fun, but they don't usually exist in the same property. The Chandelier Bar grew out of realizing that going up, moving up through the hotel, had to be seductive and fun. If you have a property with a second and third level, and Las Vegas is primarily about moving horizontally through these big football-field-sized casinos, to get the escalator ride up to feel like you were being brought up into this ethereal experience would not only be visually great but would also solve the problem of getting people up to those upper levels. That's when we proposed blowing that hole through the second and third floors to create that opening [for the Chandelier Bar]. And the bar, a club on three levels, also has a projection system that changes colors from day to night.
Do you start with a grand vision? Or do you work out from a few key elements?
I think every designer works both ways, ultimately, but I think it's about where you start. In the projects that we've talked about, they are totally different, so there's not one particular house style. We try to find, what is the driving narrative experience? We do the same thing in an airport or a children's hospital ? but there's also what you bring to it. We bring, to all of our projects, an interest in technology that brings people together in real time. So for Cosmopolitan, we couldn't have the idea to say "oh, let's animate that" if we didn't have the three or four years of developing the expertise to do what we did on those columns. So we have a technology lab, we have a materials lab ? we're always pushing the boundaries on materials. The felt check-in desks were something that we'd been experimenting with for a year or two. Nobu 57th Street (above) has terrazzo walls with embedded bamboo that were about a two-year research and development process. So I think design is about obsessing about details, but all of that interest and research has to precede getting a project and asking: What do we bring to this particular project? What would be a thrilling experience for the guest?
With these labs, you're solving two- or three-year problems that don't relate to a certain project?
Yes, they're ongoing research topics and obsessions.
When you're on a project, do you find that your priorities conflict sometimes with the client? Where does that line get drawn?
You have to start by trying to understand their problems and challenges and, as an architect, you want to avoid having a real wall or line between what you want and what they want. When it's a company, when its Starwood, then there are many people in the conversation. When it's a chef or a restaurateur then its one person. But its always about finding a common goal, after doing the research. The original W, the first one on 39th and Lexington, when we were developing that with [Starwood founder and CEO] Barry Sternlicht, our first presentation to him was this idea of a hotel that through material usage was sort of a public space that related to the neighborhood. He came in with a ton of research, and I think clients should be encouraged to bring what they want to the table. You look at it, you talk about it, and you end up, hopefully, with something that incorporates everything they wanted but not in a literal or direct way and has some sort of surprise. One of the things design can do is in visual terms create something that many words can't. I know that maybe sounds a little obtuse.
Is there an example of a time when there was some skepticism about something that the clients ended up coming around to, when it was complete?
Let's take Ames for instance. The building is a white limestone, beautiful building, and the Woodward, the restaurant off the entrance, was put to the side, with its own entrance, with the ground floor quite small, leading up to a bigger second floor. We wanted to do that to give the lobby enough of a space to really feel like an appropriate entrance for the hotel. The challenge was would the restaurant work with the second floor. We did a lot of research on the Ames building, and actually the family that founded it is a major family in the Boston area in agricultural tooling, and we shopped with the owner of the restaurant and presented the hotel group with all of these farming tools that we found and commissioned local artists to create 100 pieces of installation that form the stair from the first level to the second level. So we put the highest degree of design innovation into the piece that gets you from the lower level to the upper level. It did two things, it solved the problem of their skepticism about making the second floor work, but it also reinforced the building as being a unique thing and that our contemporary design related to that history.
Another example based on a project we're doing now would be the W Paris-Opéra (above), that we completed last year. It's right across from the opera house and it's a V-shaped building, like a miniature version of the Flatiron Building. That was a case where the core takes up a lot of that room, in the narrow building. So the client was concerned about whether the public spaces would work as a ring around that core. We actually felt like that was one of the advantages, because no matter where you were, on the outside or the inside, you could see that core. We actually turned the core of the hotel into an undulating wall of reflective black glass, so it reflects the city around, but it is also embedded with lights that become more vibrant and glow brighter as it gets later into the evening. So that's a case where the challenge and what they were concerned about became the main asset of the hotel.
· Rockwell Group [official site]
· David Rockwell on Playgrounds, Pop-Ups, and the Value of Stairs [Curbed National]
· Inside This Year's Hearst Designer Visions Showhouse [Curbed National]
· All Hotels Week 2013 posts [Curbed National]