Cover The main stage of the 93rd Oscars ceremony Photo: Spencer Lowell for Rockwell Group

“The challenges of the pandemic have given us a new perspective on adaptable spaces and made it possible to break some old rules to reimagine underutilised spaces,” explains the American architect David Rockwell. Here, he shares with us what it was like designing the Oscars 2021 set during the pandemic, as well as recent designers and collections that have inspired him lately

Architect David Rockwell approaches design and architecture much as he would theatre: with fervour, resilience, and deft flexibility to changes. Having grown up as a child of the musical theatre—his mother worked as a vaudeville dancer and choreographer—the award-winning American architect and designer has also found a way to make his own unique mark.

The Tony Award-winning design powerhouse and Broadway mainstay is the creative mind behind the set designs of some of the greatest theater hits such as Legally Blonde, Hairspray, and The Rocky Horror Show. It is unsurprising then, that Rockwell’s design principles are known to be drawn from aspects of performance and theatre.

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His decades of experience can be seen from his extensive portfolio that ranges between set designs and the residential, commercial, and hospitality sectors. The founder and president of Rockwell Group, his eponymous cross-disciplinary practice, crafts a unique narrative for each project by using a sleek combination of technology and artisanal crafts.

“Our studio doesn’t have a signature style and we’re reluctant to follow trends,” says Rockwell. “Rather than adhering to a specific aesthetic guideline, we approach each project from a fresh conceptual perspective.”

And just as how the show must go on in the theater industry, Rockwell is equally resilient when it comes to the pandemic. Throughout the dreary and uncertain days of lockdown when most things came to a standstill, the sharp architect adapted swiftly and worked tirelessly to explore design opportunities that can help address the problems caused by the current pandemic.

“The challenges of the pandemic have given us a new perspective on adaptable spaces and made it possible to break some old rules to reimagine underutilised spaces,” Rockwell explains. 

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The challenges of the pandemic have given us a new perspective on adaptable spaces and made it possible to break some old rules to reimagine underutilized spaces
American architect and designer David Rockwell

Through the Rockwell Group, the architect designed a pro-bono outdoor dining solution for the restaurant industry in New York City. Titled DineOut NYC, the adaptable and modular outdoor dining system addressed the aspects of setting up a dining space in places such as parking lots and sidewalks, whilst providing solutions for sanitation requirements and restaurant equipment.

“We knew early on that restaurants had to make adjustments in terms of service and design until Covid-19 was managed from a public health standpoint,” says Rockwell. “So, we worked with New York City transportation officials, individual restaurants, and neighbourhood block associations to build safe, comfortable, and enjoyable outdoor dining pavilions on sidewalks and streets.”

 

This initiative acted as a springboard for Rockwell to design other similar spaces that could create shared experiences while maintaining social distancing. “From DineOut, we began to think about how we could spur live performance in the city and conceived OpenStage—temporary outdoor performance spaces where neighbourhood arts organizations could produce shows until indoor theatres are fully operational again.”

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Armed with this indispensable knowledge, the design powerhouse was also tapped to design the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this year. With an elegant art deco-inspired set, the ceremony was Rockwell’s third Oscars set design for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, following his set designs for the 81st and 82nd editions at the Rockwell Group-designed Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. 

“​​The 93rd Oscars shifted the paradigm for what an award show could look and feel like,” says Rockwell, on designing the Oscars ceremony. “We transformed the historic Los Angeles Union Station—an active train station—into an intimate amphitheatre that captured the understated elegance of the Academy’s very first Oscars ceremonies.”

Here, he shares more about working during the pandemic and the design icons he looks up to. The tastemaker also selects furniture collections and designers whose works have caught his eye recently. 

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How do you keep your home organised while working from home?

David Rockwell (DR) I have a clear “office” zone in my apartment with custom cabinetry, which helps me contain clutter, both mentally and physically! In my office at Rockwell Group’s Manhattan studio, I have custom bookshelves. These serve as my own personal research library and as a space for memorabilia and inspirational objects, but they keep everything organized.

In our projects, we try to design flexible, transformable spaces that can serve multiple purposes at different times. Making spaces adaptable to all of the ways we fill our days—work, play, dining, rest—helps with organization and function.

Where do you seek design inspiration from?

DR Our goal is to always seek out and explore new and unfamiliar typologies. We stay at our most inspired and most engaged by being as multidisciplinary as possible.  New York City is also constantly energising to me, from the theatre district to its parks. I’ve always been inspired by the ways that our co-existence in such close proximity to each other demands compromise and collaboration. This proximity is also where some of our most magical moments emerge.

What are some notable designs you’ve worked on lately? 

DR It’s difficult to choose just one. Earlier this year we completed a waiting room at the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York. There, we designed curved walnut wood seating and custom light fixtures to add a sense of hospitality and empathy for travellers going through the busiest transit facility in the Western Hemisphere. This fall, we are looking forward to the completion of the Civilian Hotel in Manhattan’s Theatre District, the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, and the New York location of Jose Andres’ restaurant Zaytinya.

What has been the most memorable point in your career thus far?

DR I can’t say that there’s been any one moment that stands out, because I’m constantly excited and engaged in whatever we are working on next. But I am consistently gratified to be able to work in the theatre world—we recently created the sets for two outdoor, post-pandemic performances (The Seven Deadly Sins in New York City, which took place in empty storefronts; and Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination: Nine Solo Plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, a collaboration with Lorraine Glover).

 Between designing for the theatre and designing for hospitality, education, and healthcare, there's a feedback loop that I find endlessly rewarding and exciting.

Who are the design icons that have had the most impact on you and why?

DR As an adolescent living in Guadalajara, Mexico, I was drawn to the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán and he’s remained a great source of inspiration. Seeing his residence in Tacubaya in person is always a thrill. All of his work brilliantly captures the vibrant colours, the beautiful quality of light, and the vitality of Mexico’s public spaces.

I also admire Austrian-American architect Joseph Urban because he didn't divide up disciplines. He understood there are many forms of environments in which to experience life and that some of the most powerful are ephemeral or impermanent.

What’s one piece of advice you have for an aspiring designer?

DR I encourage every designer to take creative risks and to not be afraid to fail when doing so.

Which furniture collections have caught your eye recently?

1 / 5

Mathieu Lehanneur Familyscape sofas

DR I really admire Mathieu Lehanneur’s Familyscape sofas because of how sculptural they are, and because they don’t dictate a particular way to sit (or snooze)! 

2 / 5

Pulpo Pina tables by Sebastian Herkner

DR Sebastian Herkner’s new Pina Table collection fuses glass and metal in a really unique way, and changes our assumptions about the “fragility” of glass because glass is used for the base. 

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3 / 5

Bruno Moinard Éditions Dinant table

DR French architect and artist Bruno Moinard’s entire furniture collection shows incredible attention to detail and craftsmanship.

4 / 5

'Seeing Glass' Offround Hue mirror by Sabine Marcelis

DR Sabine Marcelis is a Dutch designer who uses unusual materials like resin for her furniture pieces. Her beautiful mirrors are art as much as they are functional.

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5 / 5

Paola Lenti Elba chair by David Rockwell

DR Speaking of colour, I’m eyeing our own Elba Chair, which we designed for Italian brand Paola Lenti (a master of colour), for my outdoor terrace. It’s a stackable pull-up chair with a frame made of powder-coated stainless steel tubing and matching rivets.