David Rockwell: “I believe in the value of allowing projects to take a long time”

As the designer publishes his latest book, Drama, we talk to him about his childhood in the theatre, storytelling and the power of being “an outsider”.

“Designers are more aware of storytelling and narrative than ever before, because the public has become so much more aware of the designed and built world around them,” says David Rockwell.

This hasn’t always been the case however, as the architect and designer says in his latest book, Drama. As a student at the School of Architecture at Syracuse University, he recalls being penalised for developing a narrative behind one of his projects. “Narrative wasn’t something many architects were interested in” back then, he writes.

It’s not like that now though, he says. A combination of the public’s attention towards good design, and an explosion in accessible design-related vocabulary has made it so. But he says Rockwell Group has always had “a very unique way of designing that invites and involves listening to a story”, be it a hotel, set or school.

Photo credit: Robert Clyde Grima

“Working in the theatre feels very much like home to me”

Rockwell’s portfolio boasts a variety of different projects – most recently the Oscar’s set design and Moxy South Beach Hotel in Florida. But he says working in theatre is his favourite space, and this is the basis on which Drama is built.

The designer grew up in a theatre family: his mother was a vaudeville dancer and choreographer, and all four of his brothers were stagehands. “Working in the theatre feels very much like home to me because of my childhood,” he says.

The set designed for She Loves Me on Broadway in particular was “very special” to him, he says, because the team was able to incorporate so many of the lessons taught in Drama. “The centrepiece of the set was a jewel box perfumery that opened and pivoted to reveal and extraordinary interior,” he explains. “It was a transformational threshold that had an evolution over the course of the show, just like the characters.”

Though he feels an affinity with the theatre, however, he says there’s still value in being an “outsider”. “If I’m nervous, I fall back on the power of the ensemble’s perspective,” he says, but not being part of an ensemble also gives way to its fair share of ideas too.

Photo credit: Robert Clyde Grima

“People whose out-of-the-box thinking and passion I admire greatly”

While he is happy to talk about projects past in the book, Rockwell firmly states Drama is not a monograph. “It’s really a guide to our ideas, why they’re important to our creative process and what impact they can have,” he says.

Rockwell, alongside contributing author and designer Bruce Mau, set out a number of lessons in Drama. These are separated into six different topics, which range from audience and ensemble to world building and journeys. This was Mau’s idea, according to Rockwell. He says although Mau is best known for his graphic design work, it is “his ability to take very complex things and give them a coherent, repeatable order”, that made him so valuable to Drama.

The six ideas are then ordered alongside a series of interviews between Rockwell and other creative minds.

“These are people whose out-of-the-box thinking and passion I admire greatly,” he says. Included in the book are Anna Deavere Smith, a “visionary playwright and actress”, and chef and humanitarian José Andrés. Rockwell explains Smith uses the crucial tool of empathy – one of the main points in the book – to connect with people’s emotions. Meanwhile Andrés “designs for people” in a “totally inspiring way”.

It has taken a long time to get the book together, Rockwell says, but he’s a believer in the “value of allowing projects to take a long time to develop if they need to,” he says.

Photo credit: Robert Clyde Grima

“Not being afraid to fail”

The inclusion of people without a design background helps highlight how important “cross-disciplinary creativity and creation” is, Rockwell says.

It’s a rule he follows in all of his work and one which helps him avoid making the same kind of work all the time. “When you are recognised for designing specific project types, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply repeating yourself,” he says. Using different strains of imagination helps too.

“Being imaginative means taking creative risks and not being afraid to fail when doing so,” he adds. “Designing a building, environment or object that is new or unfamiliar to us presents great opportunities to be experimental and taking risks often yields innovative design solutions.”

Photo credit: Robert Clyde Grima

“A way to engage more intimately with an audience”

Throughout Drama, Rockwell makes it clear that the audience is the driver of design. “When I built my first Broadway theatre set for The Rocky Horror Show, it was an opportunity to create a new kind of world,” he writes. It was a “way to engage more intimately with an audience,” he adds.

And this isn’t just the case for theatre – he says audiences should be at the centre of all projects. “Buildings, spaces, all things become more meaningful when they are designed around people,” he explains.

The ongoing pandemic has only served as evidence for this. “Architecture and theatre are both defined by the people that inhabit and animate them,” he says. “This has been illustrated all too well by the COVID-19 pandemic – without an “audience” enlivening its streets, its museums, its restaurants, a city is only an empty frame.”

Drama is published by Phaidon and is out now. To buy or learn more, head to the publisher’s website.

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