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Taking the American diner on the road

An exhibition at Milan Design Week explored the global relevance of an American icon

The Diner, designed by David Rockwell, paid homage to the icon of American food culture—and explored its influence outside the U.S.
Michele de Candia

Guests to Milan Design Week craving a piece of apple pie, a milkshake, or perhaps a grilled-cheese sandwich were in luck this year, thanks to a unique interactive installation: The Diner—a full-service pop-up restaurant brought to life by architect David Rockwell, Surface magazine, and design consultancy 2x4.

The ode to the icon of American dining was held in a vaulted, half-barrel-shaped space beneath a former train station, and was decorated to evoke a journey across the U.S., from East Coast luncheonettes to Midwest diners to the roadside greasy spoons of the West Coast.

Giving a tour of the space, Rockwell said he wanted to create an installation that one wouldn’t simply look at, but, rather, that one would be in. The concept seemed to hit home, as the Diner was awarded the Milan Design Award for Best Engagement among 1,500 Fuorisalone exhibits.

“The notion of a diner opened up a whole bunch of interesting ideas,” said Rockwell, who was approached by the Surface magazine team with the concept. “I thought not to look at it nostalgically, but as the cornerstone of what is a seminal American expression of optimism,” he said.

Throughout their evolution from handheld carts and horse-drawn carriages to the classic eateries featured in movies like Pulp Fiction, diners often remained open after hours and welcomed everyone, explained the architect.

“I started to realize that they, much like other spaces I’m interested in, turn strangers into community.” The counter, he said, was critical to creating a what he called a “democratic space in the middle of the room.”

Creating this sense of community is reminiscent of his first restaurant project in the mid-1980s, for Manhattan restaurant Sushi Zen. Seeing an opportunity to similarly create a community, as he describes it, Rockwell created a lightning bolt-shaped counter with the aim of bringing people together.

Entering Oz

Michele de Candia

Rockwell Group is currently involved in a wide array of projects in New York City, from The Shed cultural complex, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro in Manhattan’s fast-rising Hudson Yards neighborhood, to a production design for an upcoming Tom Stoppard play at Lincoln Center this fall. With over 30 sets to his credit, Rockwell’s love of theater is apparent in The Diner.

For Rockwell, hotels, restaurants, and the theater have a lot in common. Opening the door from the Diner’s black-and-white reception to its vivid, color-splashed interior was a “theatrically conceived” idea, said Rockwell. He likens it to the moment Dorothy opens the door to Oz, seeing the world in Technicolor for the first time.

“One of the most powerful aspects of the theater is that when the curtain lifts up, for two and a half hours you’re invited into a new set of rules,” Rockwell said. “I use the theater analogy because you enter a world that only exists when you’re there” he pointed out. “I think that’s really true about hospitality spaces.”

Rockwell said it took him a long time to figure out which of the connections between theater and architecture he was most interested in exploring. One such element, he mentioned, is choreography: In the Diner, visitors move through the evolving space—from New York luncheonette in the front to West Coast diner in the back—as a camera dolly would. And, as on the stage, lighting is crucial: At the Diner, visitors are attractively backlit almost anywhere they stand, Rockwell explained.

While some of us never expected to find ourselves enjoying a grilled cheese sandwich at 11 p.m. in Italy, one of the world’s culinary capitals, it was for Rockwell another dream realized: “I wanted to do a place that was all grilled cheese with [gourmet food purveyor Murray’s Cheese],” Rockwell explained.

The focus on American design—thanks to furnishings provided by Design Within Reach—was also an important element. At the moment, Rockwell argued, American design isn’t as globally celebrated as it once was; he mentioned, almost nostalgically, Jony Ive’s celebrated, and influential, designs for Apple.

Although plans for its re-installment are still underway, the Diner was meant to be disassembled and taken on tour. It may be coming to a roadside near you.