The Rockwell files

David Rockwell may not be a familiar name in UK interior design circles, but we can now sample his penchant for entertainment design and obsessive attention to detail on London’s King’s Road. The New York-based Rockwell Group’s first UK project opened before Christmas, the Café Milan restaurant and retail outlet, with two more restaurants to follow this year.

In the US and elsewhere his projects are not limited to the restaurant world, and it is this mix of work that makes him worth watching.

Rockwell has designed for Cirque du Soleil, Grand Central Station, sports stadiums, The Bronx Zoo, interiors for two Disney cruise ships, New York City restaurants Monkey Bar and Vong, hotels, the World Trade Center

Plaza – also in New York – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, residential communities, TV sets, and he is still hungry for new experiences.

“I believe you want to challenge yourself creatively with projects that you are excited about,” says the head of the 175-strong Rockwell Group. He has achieved this by determinedly varying the project types, and mixing up the gargantuan alongside the bijou. Next Door Nobu opened in New York’s Tribeca last October – a 185m2 casual version of the original more formal Nobu restaurant, as the group starts work on phase two of the 46 500m2 Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. “I’m fascinated by both ends of the spectrum,” says Rockwell. “With smaller projects you can obsess about every detail, while the bigger ones give you the chance to play on a much bigger scale.”

He has also maintained a level of excite ment by being discerning. Despite the group’s prolific output, Rockwell will only take on work he feels some empathy with. “We are turning down close to as much work as we are taking,” he says.

The consultancy does not shy away from the grand architectural gesture and when your clients include Sony, Disney, hotel conglomerate Sun International, McDonald’s, TV station NBC and Coca-Cola, this is par for the course. For example, its latest hotel is the 650-room W New York for client Starwood Capital, which opened late last year. It is ironic that an early UK job which matched the scale of such clients, Battersea Power Station, was never built.

But, while the large-scale projects undoubtedly look American, the smaller ones do not exude the same cultural stereotypes. Café Milan on London’s King’s Road is one of the smaller venues. UK restaurateur Paul Corrett, who operates Showtime Restaurants, plans to follow this site with two more this year in Islington and Covent Garden, also designed by the Rockwell Group. While the King’s Road interior takes its cues from Italy, it does not have the feeling of a “themed” environment or one that is trying to recreate an experience. Rockwell is keen to avoid being known by a house style and does this by focusing on the collaboration with each client. It is the clients who don’t have a clear vision that are likely to get turned down.

He contrasts the London approach to restaurant design with that of New York. “In the past three to five years there has been a new energy in London, and an inclination to do big blockbuster restaurants. In New York the focus has been on idiosyncratic, personal restaurants. The trend is towards a focus on craftsmanship – giving a place the human touch.”

The multidisciplinary consultancy is structured to cope with this cross-section of projects. Set up in 1984 by Rockwell and partner Jay Haverson, who he later bought out, the staff comprises 80 to 90 architects, 30 to 35 administrative staff, with designers, painters, writers, lighting designers, artists and a “very strong” model-making unit making up the rest. Each of the eight studios or creative teams is headed by a senior associate. The teams are between ten and 35-strong and may combine to work on certain projects, such as the Mohegan Sun Casino.

Although Rockwell, now in his early-40s, is invariably involved with initial conceptualisation, studio heads liaise with the client from the start. Rockwell then takes on a critiquing role. But as the studio heads take on more responsibility, Rockwell’s travelling time between clients is reduced – one part of the job of which he is not enamoured. On arriving in London for the completion of Café Milan, he went via The Hempel hotel to refresh himself with an oxygen fix.

Rockwell feels intuitively that 175 is a good size for the company – it has expanded on to two floors of the New York City building. He has explored opening a second office in Los Angeles, Asia or even London, but worries that the creative process would lose out. ©

Much of the group’s US press coverage bandies around the phrase “entertainment architecture” to describe the mixed-use venues for which the group is famous – Sony’s Entertainment Centre in San Francisco, an entertainment complex in South Korea, 42nd Street Entertainment Building in New York and Fox Hills Mall in California.

Rockwell dismisses the expression as a marketing term: “It’s more to do with who the patrons of the architecture are.” However, his own publicity stresses the importance of examining “the theatrical aspect of individuals proceeding through space… by focusing on the vital roles lighting, decoration and special effects play in every set”. This approach can be seen at Café Milan, which coaxes passers-by into the retail area by a window display of baked goods, from where they can reach the lounge, bars or restaurant. The emphasis is on surface finishes – one wall has hand-rubbed plaster and the banquette fabrics are inspired by Italian menswear – to create the right atmosphere.

As for future challenges, Rockwell expects to be working on several stadiums – he is designing proposals for a Los Angeles football stadium – theatres and set designs.

He dreads “falling into the trap of repeating myself”, and strives to find new challenges. Having just completed his first train station project, the Grand Central Station dining concourse opening this summer, he is now “talking to a few people about airports”. His dream used to be to design for a zoo. Now that has been fulfilled with a project at The Bronx Zoo, no doubt an airport job is not far off.

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