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Interview: Rockwell Group

Stacy Shoemaker Rauen • May 1, 2018
Rockwell Group founder David Rockwell (center), with partners Greg Keffer (left) and Shawn Sullivan. Photography courtesy of Rockwell Group

Photos: Recent Projects

Walking into Rockwell Group’s office, which is spread over three and half floors in New York’s Union Square area, there is an immediate sense you have arrived at a place of creativity. Bookshelves lining the walls are spilling over with books, models, product samples, and images of past and current projects, while communal tables, product prototypes, mood boards, and individual desks for most of the 250-plus employees (there’s also an office in Madrid) fill the long, open space. (That doesn’t include the model shop, central library, the LAB, Rockwell’s inhouse technology-driven experience design studio, and Rockwell’s personal collection of kaleidoscopes in his office.) It’s a representation of the firm’s rich 34-year design history of crafting everything from restaurants and hotels to theaters and playgrounds for some of the industry’s brightest minds (Related, Ian Schrager, Barry Sternlicht, to name a few). And the firm isn’t slowing down anytime soon either: Rockwell Group recently moved two famed New York restaurants, Danny Meyer’s iconic Union Square Café and the original Nobu, to new locations; continues to make its mark in theaters (Rockwell has been nominated multiple times and nabbed a Tony Award in 2016 for his set design of She Loves Me); and is evolving and dreaming up new concepts for other longterm clients such as the TAO Group and Dream Hotels. That’s thanks in part to his two partners: 21-year veteran Shawn Sullivan, and—a more recent promotion—Greg Keffer, who has been with Rockwell for six years. “The work I’m most excited about is the work we’re doing now,” notes Rockwell. In a candid interview, the three of them discuss humble beginnings, taking risks, and David’s greatest gift.

On starting Rockwell Group
David Rockwell: As I think back, the rearview mirror allows you to organize things. I was always taken with the parts of cities that brought people together—I liked the chaos of public spaces. When I first started Rockwell Group, [we tried] to get any project we could. The first restaurant I did was Sushi Zen. I had this long wall made out of silk by costume designer Donna Grenada from the Santa Fe Opera. They didn’t have the money to finish the project so I not only didn’t get paid the fee for the job, but I borrowed money from a friend to pay for the wall because it was unthinkable it wouldn’t be perfect. Whatever came our way I was just interested in figuring out how to do it so there was no grand plan [for Rockwell Group]. But that’s a good thing, staying in the present. That’s been one of the continuous threads for me. You can’t get too comfortable looking at what you’ve done. You have to be driven by the idea that there’s another mountain to climb, another thing to capture, another interesting project.

On having two partners to help lead the firm
DR: We didn’t decide to have two partners. We were lucky enough to have two extraordinary people who were a part of continuing to make Rockwell Group great. It wasn’t strategic.

Greg Keffer: The great thing about Rockwell is it allows you to build your own culture. I call it state and federal. Our studios are mirrors of both of us, and David lets us grow how we want to grow, while at the same time being an amazing partner and mentor in our lives.

DR: I get my hands on everything to some extent, but what I’m more involved with is usually self-evident based on the need of the project, my personal interest, and the position of that project relative to other things we’re doing. It’s intuitive.

Shawn Sullivan: It’s completely organic. He sees everything. It’s more that we know if we’re struggling with something or we’re excited about something, we want to share it with him and get his critique. The same thing goes when we work with our teams. We want them to come up with the ideas and to feel like they have ownership over the project.

DR: We zero in on, and I zero in on, what’s the box that needs the most rattling? What is the key to unlocking [it]?

GK: It says a lot about David and his talent where he doesn’t have a long history with a project but he’ll sit down with it for five minutes and he’ll know that box to rattle. It’s not a hierarchal place either. We run the studios, but at the same time we’re not telling people what to do, we’re not drawing every drawing. The expectation is everyone is bringing something to the table.

On defining Rockwell Group
DR: When I started out, I realized quickly that being defined in a box was confining. Our first 10 years was almost all restaurants, and we still do a lot of restaurants and love restaurants. But everything else we do gives us a different point of view about them. We owe that to our clients to not look at the world in a small box, but to look at the connection. When we hire people, one of the things that determines whether they work out—and one of the surprises—is we expect people to bring their full selves here. Some people are free in doing that, and some find that to be challenging.

GK: We’re not just a hospitality firm. In my studio, we’re doing a train system in Florida [with high speed rail system Brightline, part of parent company All Aboard Florida], we’re doing a food cart invention, we’re doing hotels, we’re doing restaurants, we’re doing workplaces. We are challenging ourselves with new technologies and exploring something that may influence our next project, constantly refreshing ourselves.

SS: We want to be surprised. We want people to come up with a solution we’re not expecting. We love that. Sometimes it’s so crazy we have to make sure we build it and figure it out.

DR: For instance, when we were working on a new Broadway theater, we went to theaters around the world and looked at entrances and sequences, we talked with the choreographers. After working with [choreographer] Jerry Mitchell [on the set of Hairspray] we brought him in for the [design of the JFK] JetBlue terminal, which would have, of course, never happened if we weren’t doing theater and knew Jerry, and wouldn’t have happened if the CEO of JetBlue hadn’t articulated that one of their concerns was that 20 million people moving through a terminal seemed like it would be claustrophobic.

After that, several of our clients said they’d like a choreographer too. That made sense for [the JetBlue terminal], but in Union Square Café, for instance, what looks like an easy project is incredibly difficult, because we did research into the rituals that defined the place, not what it looked like. We find ways to push past the expected solution by continuing to ask questions.

SS: It’s the narrative of the people we hire—they’re curious. They want to solve problems in new ways. It’s funny the notion of asking questions. It seems so logical and everybody does it, but if you ask the right questions, before you put pen to paper, it will challenge whether things need to be the way they are.

DR: And to zero in on the things that you’re going to obsess about. When we did the 21st Nobu [the new location downtown for the original in New York], we were as obsessed as with the first. In fact, we were probably more obsessed. When people ask us ‘How long did it take to do the one on 195 Broadway?’ My answer is 25 years because it takes that long.

SS: When we started doing nightclubs, one of the questions we asked in the beginning was what makes the talent or the DJs want to play in a space, so we sat down with the DJs. When you ask the right questions to the right people, you’re solving the right problem. It isn’t just a cool interior, it’s a place that amplifies the way you entertain. Then you start to find the tools to connect the music to the architecture.

DR: The keyword about innovation is research. You could look at the intense research we did for [coworking space] NeueHouse or the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore [in the Bronx, New York]. We realized we should talk to not just the patients and the parents of the patients, but also the doctors to see what they need. Research is key.

On success with clients
DR: Part of it is we have these longterm relationships [with clients], and we allow them to have affairs if they want. The clients work with a range of people, and they come back to us for what they believe we’re going to offer them, which is we have the scale, the manpower, and the focus to deliver a complicated project. We have the ability to take interesting things offline and innovate and invent.

GK: With a lot of these longterm partners, we’ve grown with them. [Take] Fisher Brothers. We started a whole new sector with them, which is residential through the lens of wellness. We started at the beginning of that, and through time, have developed a close relationship and trust because we helped build that business for them.

SS: Nobu is interesting because it was a single restaurant in Tribeca, and then we had this epiphany: they already host people every night all around the world—the hard part of hospitality—and they have given people great experiences they want to come back for. It’s not an inexpensive experience, and people leave wanting more. What if they hosted people for an entire evening? What if they thought of
a hotel?

DR: Our first creative work for Nobu Hotels was a book of all the experiences you might find in a hotel filtered through Nobu. We deliver work for them that, at its best, uncovers a core part of the project they didn’t know about.

SS: Our clients are collaborators. They are good at their businesses already, and we learn so much from them, but they come to us because they want to take it to another level. Lightstone [owner] Mitchell Hochberg is a really smart client. For the Moxy [Times Square] he came to us with an idea. People will go to a New York rooftop no matter what. At the Moxy, you look at the Empire State Building. It was a lovely space and you could have just put furniture out there and succeeded, but why stop there? Why don’t we push it and create a narrative, a story, and make this one different? He was quite fearless about it and for us, having a client like that feeds on what we do anyway. We came up with this modern carnival idea of a collection of spaces [for TAO Group], and it’s a really fun [space].

DR: Things don’t happen quickly. Danny [Meyer] and I were friends 15 years before we worked together. In a world of instant gratification and Instagram culture, we believe things don’t happen that quickly.

On pushing ideas and innovation
DR: We’re constantly analyzing how people move in space, how lighting affects space, how materials affect space. We intuitively look at spaces as a sequence of spaces. When is the last time a client said they want a timeless design? To do that, you have to be willing to do something that’s timely, that’s of your time, and not just safe. If you were to speak to TAO Group, they will tell you we pushed them way outside their comfort zone on TAO Downtown [in New York]. If you have a strong enough concept, it should be able to survive every level of reality—budgets, clients, construction. For TAO Downtown, they tried to cut the video mapping by the LAB on the large Kwan Yin [female Buddha] statue many times, and the dining seats on the [grand] staircase were something they pushed back on originally, too. We were very clear [on having those items]. There were other things we were more flexible about.

On the Shed, a multi-arts center at Hudson Yards in New York, designed in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, complete with a retractable roof
DR: We’ve been working on it for 10 years. I’ve been working with Liz [Diller] since 2001 when we designed the World Trade Center’s temporary viewing platform. The relationship with the city came from [us building two] Imagination Playgrounds [portable play areas with foam and cardboard building blocks], which came from post-9/11 work for PS 234. Part of what looks strategic isn’t strategic. It’s following what’s interesting; it’s following what we’re passionate about and then linking it to a whole series of other things. If you look in the rearview mirror and see how things line up, it would make sense that we’re working on the city’s most flexible cultural institution since we are interested in mobility, flexibility, and performance. You can’t draw a line to that, you can’t say we’re going to collect these things and do that, you have to find it.

The Shed was preceded by the TED theater in 2014 that moved [it is a completely deployable and demountable 1,500-seat theater], which was preceded 10 years ago by an exhibit we did for the National Building Museum [in Washington, DC in 2006] about moveable theaters. You have to stay curious; you can’t slow down. The truth is we don’t know what artists are going to need in 10 or 15 years, and we certainly didn’t know it 10 years ago. I think of the Shed as pure potential. Whenever architects go to a theater, the most interesting space is always the stage. It’s so much more interesting than anything else because it’s all potential. That’s what the Shed is going to be, for both visual and performance arts.

On how Rockwell’s passion for theater informs his design
DR: There are certain common things between hospitality and theater. They both create communities. As a kid, I always thought restaurants created these instant communities. Living in Mexico, so many of the restaurants were outdoors, and they were patio courtyard restaurants with exposed cooking, and so my interest in theater preceded my interest in architecture. In architecture school and in my early work, I thought about theatrical analogies—not looking theatrical, but understanding there’s an audience and there are performers. In public spaces, you switch off from one to the other. Theater was a part of research for me. I was a fan of it. What pushed me and gave me the courage to jump into theater was [lighting designer and producer] Jules Fisher, a theater buddy of mine. I would critique the sets and say that didn’t make sense, and he said to me, ‘You’re so smart. Why aren’t you doing sets?’ For two or three years, I met with every director there was. Two things happened. First, I started to understand that what directors were interested in were transitions. What’s interesting about restaurants is also transitions—how you enter from the street. The other thing was they were interested in narrative—what’s the backstory? In the world of a set, you’re supporting a story, you’re not telling a story. That’s the same way we approach restaurants—it was the chef’s story we were telling.

SS: I also think that in the way you look at lighting, it isn’t just in an architectural way, it often comes from the theater. The sense of layering that we think about in our projects is inspired by that storytelling.

DR: We just finished the Helen Hayes Theater [on Broadway in New York], which I’m excited about because it’s unique. We used to define what we wanted to do by firsts, but after 30 years there aren’t that many firsts left. There’s always some first you can find in the project, and the Helen Hayes was restoring a 106-year-old theater, giving us the chance to pull together so many things to create something that honors the past but looks to the future.

On success
DR: We are building on things we’ve done before, so there’s more mastery of certain things, which allows us to go deeper. It’s a profound thing to create places where people come together and congregate. It’s what makes cities livable.

SS: This is a golden age of people coming together; it’s rarer and rarer, but it’s more meaningful when they do. A lot of people ask us how we do things. When I go back and think about it, I don’t think we asked how to do it. We just did it. Early on, we committed to it and we knew it was an interesting idea.

DR: If we were to list the 10 projects we’re doing right now or we did in the last year, I don’t think 10 or 15 years ago we could have done Union Square or Nobu to the extent we did, or TAO, or Waterline Square [a residential complex in New York] where we are doing 100,000 square feet of amenity space. That comes from a breadth of experience and willingness to invent. If you work on it, you get better at those things and you start adding on new components.

GK: And taking risks.

DR: You can’t continue to be self-referential.
You have to take chances. You can’t be safe in the projects you take on. You have to pay attention to where the open space is in the world and in the project. We’re now doing smaller projects like concrete tiles and bigger projects like a masterplan for a whole neighborhood in San Francisco. We’re doing a project like the Shed, which is 200,000 square feet, and we did the Helen Hayes theater, which is teeny. We see the logic of those polar opposites—it is what will define our success.

GK: It’s also about staying present, focusing on what you have now, and making it the best thing possible. It’s not just focusing on that [next thing] out there, because you’re never going to fulfill what you need to do.

DR: That’s a very good point. Our future is defined by what we’re doing right now and how that resonates. I feel like we’re just hitting our stride.