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Architect David Rockwell pulls curtain back on designing for the stage

The Tony Award-winning New York architect and designer talks to Curbed

The David Rockwell-designed, Tony Award-winning set for the revival of the 1963 musical She Loves Me
Photo by Paul Warchol

Sure: Statement-piece museums and show-stopping transit hubs may get most of the shine when it comes to celebrating architects’ skill and ingenuity. But designing for the stage has an ineffable, transportive magic, too.

On the latest episode of the Curbed podcast, the Appeal, we sat down with New York architect David Rockwell, whose practice, Rockwell Group, has designed several sets—and clinched several awards—for a handful of stellar Broadway shows. Most recently, Rockwell won his first Tony Award (after garnering his sixth nomination) for the Art Nouveau sets he created for She Loves Me, a revival of the 1963 musical set in 1930s Budapest.

Rockwell also talked about everything else he and his firm are up to, including its work in the world of high-end hospitality (they recently teamed up with Ian Schrager on a New York EDITION hotel), and more.

Take a listen to the episode, and read the interview in full, below.

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Asad Syrkett: I'm Asad Syrkett.

Zoe Rosenberg: I'm Zoe Rosenberg.

Asad: You're listening to The Appeal, The Curbed Podcast. People hear the word architecture and they think of a very specific set of conditions, they think of massive transit hubs and beautiful swooping cultural institutions, but today we're going to be talking to an architect who works at a different scale too.

Zoe: We're going to be talking with a Tony Award winning architect.

Asad: Yes, let that phrase wash over you.

Zoe: That is David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group.

Asad: David's work for the stage has garnered him a total six nominations with a win for last year's She Loves Me. We're going to be talking to him about that work and what it's like to design for stage.

Zoe: We'd be remiss if we didn't talk with David about his work in other contexts, everything from hotels to lighting to furniture.

Asad: Stick around.

Zoe: We like to start every episode with the same question. That is, when you're at a cocktail party how do you describe what you do?

David Rockwell: That's a hard question. I say I'm a designer and then let it flow from there.

Asad: Do you think that people associate the word design with architecture immediately or interiors?

David: I find when I start out with the word architect, which is really how we define our studio, that then some of the other things we do don't make as much sense as if I start out with designer. Architecture is I think the filter that we look at the world through. I think in terms of point of view it informs everything we do, but I start out with designer because it can lead to many conversations.

Asad: It's an all encompassing word.

David: Yeah.

Asad: You don't have to hem yourself in. You mentioned this but we know that the firm is working across categories, working in hospitality and working with cultural institutions but we wanted to really talk to you today about your work in set design, which is a really fascinating I think subset of what people think of when they think of place making and the kinds of work that architects do. How did the theater and set design become something that you were interested in and something that you ended up working in in your professional life?

David: I guess the best way to begin that answer is, my interest in theater probably preceded my interest in architecture, mainly due to my family. When we lived on the Jersey Shore my mom had been a dancer. I'm the youngest of five boys so by the time it came around to me she was mostly not dancing, but in this little sleepy suburb of New Jersey where we lived, I was born in Chicago then we moved in New Jersey, there was a community theater and I found that this private sleepy suburb turned into a big acting out community around theater so I started to hang around. I was amazed by the ability to be transformed and to tell stories through music and design. Later that evolved into an interest in architecture when we moved to Mexico when I was 12. That was like going from this sleepy suburb to a big performance art place. Guadalajara was filled with market places and bull rings and festivals.

Asad: Why Mexico? I'm super curious why your family left New Jersey for Mexico.

David: It was one of my brothers and I, my three older brothers had left home and gone to college. My dad sold his business and had been thinking about where to live. We got in a station wagon and went from Deal, New Jersey to Guadalajara, Mexico with no idea in the world. It's one of those things-

Asad: In the station wagon, you drove?

David: We drove.

Asad: That's incredible.

David: It's was very I Love Lucy the whole thing.

Asad: That's great.

David: What was fascinating is I think my interest in newness and my interest in ripping up the rules and trying new things was really based on that experience in many ways, ending up in a city where no one spoke English. We didn't quite understand the ramifications of it but it was a phenomenal experience.

Asad: Sounds really formative. I can't imagine being a kid and being in such a new environment and that not having an effect on you in some profound way.

David: In a place that's so deeply visual, when you think of just the quality of light in Guadalajara, is a quality I can still conjure up.

Zoe: You've done quite a lot of work now in set design. You've won Drama Desk Awards for She Loves Me and you've been nominated for Legally Blonde, Hairspray, All Shook Up and Rocky Horror Picture Show. I'm really curious, what are some of the challenges that present themselves when designing for the stage? I think maybe people in the audience are only explicitly concerned with their view and that being good from wherever they may be sitting, but I'd imagine that some other challenges present themselves when you are deciding for the stage.

David: I think the first thing about designing for the stage is it is telling a story. It's what interest me about architecture frankly, is extracting a point of view in a narrative that's specific to the project. In theater you're dealing with a very different toolbox, you're dealing with temporal structures, you're dealing with automation, you're dealing with high integration of lighting, but where they're similar is more interesting to me than when they're different. Where they're similar is the importance of design in creating a place for that emotional connection.

In a restaurant there's what everything looks like but what really is preceding that in terms of design is a layout that dictates what it feels like when you enter a room, how the spaces are connected, what's the relationship of the food to the dining. In theater there's a whole set of other issues you're dealing with that I've always found fascinating. I've immersed myself in understanding that and I think in some ways the theater work makes our architecture better. I believe the work as an architect makes our work in theater more interesting and more varied. The biggest different is in theater the transformations that happen happen live in front of an audience and it's never the same. It is always a one-off experience, it's never quite the same. To me that's thrilling and endlessly fascinating.

Zoe: Yeah, I'm always fascinated when the lights go down for maybe three, four seconds and then they come up on a totally new scene. It's like magic really.

David: You're also dealing with the level of craftsmanship frankly in automation. We're dealing now with buildings that move and dealing with robotics in architecture. Theater has always been such an interesting testing ground for technology. The level of craft is really inspirational. It's been a dream come true to be able to revisit my earliest interest in theater. It was never part of my plan. The truth is I took a year off of school from architecture school, I worked for a Broadway lighting designer in 1928 as an assistant. Everyone was mean, everyone hated each other. I loved the person I worked with but I came out of that thinking, "Okay, I've had that experience."

I went back to architecture school with the commitment that that's what I was interested in, developing architecture with the point of view of theater, and then many years later as I started to think about it and actually write about it and think about the relationship of architecture and theater, you mentioned the curtain comes up and there's a new set, I think the analogy is in architecture when you walk through a pair of doors, when you enter Radio City Music Hall and you enter that lower vestibule, that choreographed process is as theatrical as any directed piece of theater, but it's built environment. In theater you get to have that happen live in front of an audience, or not if it doesn't work. The first performance of Hairspray, which was my second Broadway show in Seattle, the curtain came up and she came out to sing Good Morning Baltimore and the house didn't turn.

Asad: Baltimore wasn't there.

David: No Baltimore.

Zoe: Oh no.

Asad: What happened?

David: I looked for a muscle relaxant, I couldn't find one. The curtain came down and the stage manager said, "We'll be back in three of four minutes." Of course I assumed everyone in the theater was looking at me saying, "Why didn't your house turn around?" When the curtain came back up the audience was insane with enthusiasm about embracing Tracy Turnblad.

Asad: That's something that's really ... You mentioned the word magic Zoe and I think something about the theater that always gets me in relations to the sets themselves is that immediate sense of interaction with the people that are experiencing the space. Obviously the way in which someone as an audience member is experiencing the space is very different if you're physically walking through a space, but you get or you can get in some instances immediate feedback and gratification and enthusiasm and applause that you probably don't get as an architect if you're working on a traditional museum or something. That might happen on opening day but then from that point you're not really getting the same immediate feedback.

David: There's a kind of real time collaboration between choreographer, lighting, design, stage, direction that I find extraordinary.

Asad: Let's talk about that, because I'm actually really curious how you manage all of those disparate elements of the very holistic design process that designing for the stage entails.

David: Any project of any kind in our studio beings with research and trying to define the narrative. In the case of a piece of theater the narrative is on the page. The designer's job, as a friend of mine who's a director once said, is you don't want to put a hat on a hat. Your job is not to literally tell the same story, your job is to support the telling of the story. An example that's relevant is Falsettos, which is a production that opened last week. Falsettos was a piece I was familiar with, directed by James Lapine, an amazing author, an amazing director. He studied graphic design. Bill Finn had written the music.

It deals with a group of people in New York, late '70s, early '80s. It was two one-acts put together. As I sat with the director and talked about it what was most interesting is how this group of seven people on stage kept reconfiguring the landscape of their life, marriages, separations, re-connections. We decided to tell that story through abstraction. Every piece of the show is on stage in a kind of cube as the piece begins and then unfold that and rearrange that. That is taking the kind of DNA of the piece and synthesizing it down to very few variables, but that came after many months of trying other things.

Zoe: I know that Falsettos got an endorsement by one of my most beloved celebrity is Ina Garten.

Asad: It got the Ina stamp of approval.

Zoe: It did, it got the Ina stamp of approval.

David: Fantastic, I love hearing that.

Zoe: In addition to doing all this design for the stage you've done work in the hospitality space. You did the New York Edition Hotel, which is the former MetLife Tower.

David: Amazing building.

Zoe: You know, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this but I haven't been yet. I would love to go.

Asad: I have been and I will say, and I'm not just saying this because you are present, it is great. When you have a chance to go definitely do. I went for an event and it was fabulous.

David: It's one of those buildings I've got say I've looked at for so many years New Yorker coveted from the outside, so when we were invited to work on the design that was amazing.

Zoe: In addition to doing these designs on hotel spaces, you've done some night clubs, you did the Omnia in Las Vegas.

David: Yeah.

Zoe: You started on this earlier but what are some of the similarities between designing for these hospitality spaces and for the stage?

David: I think the thing that links them, and we put out a book, I wrote a book called What If last year that was a look at our work and some ways an analysis of the last ten years of work. It's easy when you're looking in the rear view mirror to find what connect that, but one of the things that I think we're most interested as a studio in is designing spaces where people connect in real time. I think as there's more and more interest in virtual community and you think about the ability to be connected at all times, I think the single thing that propels the work in hospitality, the work in theater, the work in airports, the work in hospitals, is creating places for those kind of connections.

Asad: Something that I find really fascinating is how much AirBnB and other internet based companies have really affected the hospitality industry and how I think customers' tastes maybe even on the super luxury end, although that's not my personal experience as a traveler, customers' tastes are starting to skew more homey and familiar rather than traditional hotel design. When they go to travel they expect something that feels like a home that they can live out of for a predetermined length of time, however long they're on vacation. The experience of going to the Edition for me and for the event that I went to, it's kind of a balance of that. It's like this wonderful luxury space that also feels like a place you could kick back. Balancing luxury and accessibility is very difficult to do.

David: I totally agree.

Asad: What would you attribute ... Where there some design moves that you made that you think you would attribute to fostering that vibe in the space?

David: I think the whole notion of luxury is so shifting. You think about dining for instance, where luxury used to be a two hour, three hour meal, now luxury is getting and hour and a half back to do other things. In a hotel everything is under a microscope. When you think about how much time you spend in a hotel room analyzing whether or not you can dim the lights from the end table, whether every channel is available, whether hot water is instantly available, there's a level of demand. In addition to all those logistical demands I think hotels are the most wonderful kind of fantasy. You go to a city and you get to pick what that fantasy is going to be for that night. You get to in some ways define a certain part of yourself based on where you stay.

I think luxury used to be more consistent, there were things that were associated with luxury. With the Edition one of the things we thought about is, what would a modern contemporary version of the Dakota be like? If you took that sense of New York tradition, rich molding, vaulted ceilings, but translated that into a contemporary vocabulary. That was one of the points of view. There were also some amazing spaces, the restaurant which may be where you had your event, those were all landmark spaces that when we got in there to start working on it looked like a set from Barton Fink, bad shag carpet. It needed to be restored and then lit and beautifully opened up.

Asad: The effort and attention definitely came across. I was there for an hour but it was a great hour.

David: Great hour.

Asad: Thank you.

Zoe: I might have great hour.

Asad: Exactly.

Zoe: Another project that you're working on at the moment is The Shed at Hudson Yards, which is this unprecedented kind of building. For those listening in who are not familiar with the design it's a retractable performance space that is being described by your firm as quote, "Radically flexible design for a performance structure." I'm wondering, is this a model for building that you can see being adapted elsewhere, or is this something that's particular to Hudson Yards, which is just a fantastic fantasy project?

David: The Shed is a partnership with Diller Scofidio Renfro that began in late 2008. It's a project we've been on with them from the very beginning. It's a new cultural institution off of the High Line that is really conceived around the idea of supporting artists, visual and performing artists. That's been the driver from the very beginning, is flexibility that truly is operable, as opposed to flexibility that's so flexible that no one does anything with it. It's been a totally fascinating experience with a great team.

In terms of it being a model, I think in some ways it picks up on existing models of less hardware and more software, more adaptable spaces that can do many different things. As a structure it's built on the premise of being able to shift and move from visual to performing arts in really intriguing ways. It's an amazing project to be on board. Hudson Yards is a whole and The Shed is a separate project that sits within Hudson Yards but is also accessed from Northern Chelsea on 30th Street, so it's kind of the extension of the city grid. It's amazing to see the transformation of the west side of Manhattan, from the Whitney all the way up to 42nd street. I think we're seeing a shift in the center of gravity of the city.

Zoe: It's really incredible.

Asad: It's an entirely new neighborhood. I don't think that this kind of urban ... I hesitate to even call it urban renewal because it's really like a wholesale rethinking of what this urban space will be in the future. I don't think we've seen something like this in New York ever.

David: It's also built on a space that didn't exist before, over the rail yards. I think the High Line has ... I remember walking on the High Line when the friends of the High Line were just organizing in the very earliest days. It seemed like an un-achievable dream that that would now be as successful it is.

Asad: The most tourist thronged place in New York City other than Time Square.

Zoe: Yeah, I don't think anyone realized how successful it would be. I believe I just saw the statistic that 5 million visit a year. That's quite a lot.

Asad: Considering that it's an outdoor space and a lot of those months in the year are going to be freezing.

David: It goes back to one of the ideas that I think's so powerful in theater, and that's choreography. Being able to move at a different elevation from the city. Movement is so seductive, when we began work on the Jet Blue terminal at JFK, Jet Blue was concerned about the 20, I think it's 20 million people, that would move to the terminal at one time per the year. I said, "Why don't we think about choreography and movement?" We actually brought in a choreographer to think about pattern and movement because as much as they were concerned about it, isn’t one of the thing that's thrilling about the city, is coexisting with all these the other people and understanding movement pattern. I think the High Line is this pure movement pattern that is amazingly seductive.

Asad: I love that analogy, that is great.

Zoe: Yeah.

Asad: I want to ask you what two projects you're working on right now that you're excited about and that you can talk about because I'm sure there are things that you can't tell us? You're also welcome to spill the beans about anything right now.

Zoe: Please.

David: Hopefully we're going to keep the beans in the bag. We're working on a renovation of the Helen Hayes Theater, which is one I believe 50 Broadway theater, it's the smallest theater. I can't say too much about it other than it's for a second stage, which is this great contemporary not for profit. It's been an extraordinary journey going back to the roots of the Helen Hayes Theater which was a little theater in 1912., tracking what it could become. I also have to say working with landmarks which many people perceive as a kind of challenge, they've been unbelievably great at helping and supporting re-imagining what that would be.

The renovation of the Helen Hayes Theater, The Shed we already talked about. We're in the process of finishing Union Square Café, which is moving from 16th Street after 25 years, or 30 years I think. We're also in the process of taking Nobu, which was our first project with the Nobu Group in 94, and moving that to 195 Broadway. It's a chance to think about what made those places so great and then translate those to a new audience. In fact those all think with the Helen Hayes Theater in some ways those are giving rebirth to spaces. Those are very much on my mind at the moment.

Asad: Exciting.

Zoe: We like to something that we call a thunder round. We call it that because it is a little slower than a lightning round but it's the same concept.

David: It's a lightning round for architects.

Asad: Yes, exac-

David: We didn't say it.

Asad: Look at that branding magic, now we have a tagline for it. Thank you David.

David: My pleasure.

Zoe: Can you name a stage or film director with whom you'd like to work on sets.

David: Julie Taymor.

Asad: That's a good one. The Lion King was such a formative musical experience for me as a kid.

David: It's unbelievable.

Asad: Watching that, it was opening, it was turning on Technicolor after black and white. It was really just-

David: A great combination of high tech and low tech.

Asad: If you could design the sets for anything, from the Olympics opening ceremony to a music video, what would it be?

David: Oh my God.

Asad: Super easy question.

David: I have trouble with bringing it down to one. Probably, I really have to say I've been fascinated with Olympic opening ceremonies but after China I think the door has to be shut for a while because they nailed that door shut, it was so incredible.

Asad: Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

David: I did do the movie Team America with the South Park guys, that was unbelievable. I would like to do a new play that takes place in a pop up theater in a park in New York, that is theater in the round.

Asad: Very specific set of constraints.

Zoe: Yeah.

Asad: I like that.

David: You know, I didn't say what the play was, but a new play that could be done in a pop up theater.

Asad: I'm going to slow this lighting round down a little bit by asking ...

David: We're going to fast?

Asad: No, by asking why outside? What is it about working for the stage in a park setting that is so intriguing?

David: If you were to say, what are my favorite spaces in the city, it's probably parks. I think they're the thing that make cities most livable. They're like the mixing chambers of the city. I think theaters, as wonderful as they are, are hermetically sealed conditions. I like the idea of branching that out. I've seen, the Delacorte theater I think is one of the miracles of New York.

Asad: Absolutely.

David: Raccoons and all that run across the stage. I think that would be an interesting project that would connect my interest in architecture, my interest in temporal structures and story telling.

Asad: We know that you travel quite a bit for work but what is your favorite hotel that you didn't design?

David: One would clearly be the Cipriani in Venice, just because it's so surreal and the setting is so incredible. It's so interesting, so much of my travel is defined by if it's business travel, not just what the hotel looks like but how invisible the service is. It goes to what luxury is becoming, it's becoming not obvious service. There's hotels I like going to just because they're easy to get in and out of. The Langham in Chicago in a Mies van der Rohe building, the old IBM building, is an amazing place to stay.

Asad: Good useful travel tips for us. I hope I get to stay at the Cipriani.

Zoe: One day.

Asad: We'll make it happen.

David: The first time I stayed there I stayed in a room the size of a mop closet, and it was still unbelievable.

Asad: You're in Venice after all.

David: Off season the mop closet was fine.

Asad: I'll go book it after this. Thank you so much. It was great to chat with you.

Zoe: Yeah, thank you very much.

David: Thank you, a real pleasure.

Asad: You just listened to another episode of The Curbed Appeal.

Zoe: If you liked what you heard head on over to iTunes and subscribe.

Asad: Yes, and you can also find us in the podcast section of the Spotify app. If you want to know more about David's work you can head over to rockwellgroup.com and you can always get updates from us @TheCurbedAppeal on Twitter.

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