The Real Deal New York

The Closing: David Rockwell

The famed architect on listening to “foul hip-hop,” designing for celebrity chefs like Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and growing up in Guadalajara
By Kathryn Brenzel | October 01, 2018 10:00AM

David Rockwell (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

David Rockwell is perhaps best known for his collaborations with celebrity chefs and restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, whose restaurants he’s designed around the globe. But the architect’s Manhattan-based firm, which also has offices in Shanghai and Madrid, has designed 650 restaurants, hotels, condos, stage sets and even playgrounds worldwide. About 150 of those projects are in New York. He has two dozen Broadway sets to his name, including those for blockbuster shows like “Hairspray” and “Kinky Boots,” and is currently working on “Tootsie” in Chicago. The firm also twice designed the sets for the Academy Awards, and Rockwell was the first architect to receive both a Tony and an Emmy (for set design). His eponymous firm — which he launched in 1984 and which now has 250 employees — is currently partnering with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the Shed and Related Companies’ 15 Hudson Yards. It also recently designed the amenity spaces at 111 Murray Street, the luxe condo project developed by the Witkoff Group, Fisher Brothers and Vector Group.

WATCH: Architect David Rockwell on teaming up with celebrity chefs
like Nobu and Danny Meyer, growing up in Mexico and a love of “foul hip-hop”

DOB: July 21, 1952
Hometown: Chicago
Lives in: Tribeca
Family: Married with daughter and son

What were you like as a kid? I was the youngest of five brothers. We moved around a lot. We moved from Chicago very early, I think I was 4; then to the Jersey Shore and then to Mexico. I spent a lot of time making things. In Deal, New Jersey, we had this old dilapidated space over the garage where I made all sorts of Rube Goldberg contraptions, like the game “Mouse Trap.” I don’t think I was aware of it back then, but building and making things was how I connected and communicated with the world.

Your father died in a plane crash when you were 2, and your mother died when you were 15. How did those losses impact you? One of the things I took from that is that nothing is forever. It was devastating. I’m now in a profession that’s about creating places for permanence.

Why did you move to Guadalajara, Mexico? When I was 12, my [stepdad] sold our house in New Jersey, and we packed up the station wagon and moved to Guadalajara. [He] had sold his business and had been interested in exploring. 

What was it like there? There were things that were disorienting, like the amount of oxygen. I learned to play soccer right away. I learned to speak Spanish almost immediately, although the school I went to, half the class was in English. It was like stepping into a foreign planet. Deal was sea level. Guadalajara was in the mountains. It turns out I’m one of those people who enjoy exploring new planets.

How did you meet your wife? On a blind date. Our first date was at Coffee Shop on 16th Street. It led to the next date, which led to the next date, which led to getting married. It was an instant connection.

How did you get into architecture, and what was your first project? I got into architecture little by little. I went to Syracuse University for its architecture program. My first project on my own was Sushi Zen, which until not too long ago was on 46th Street.

What was that like? The budget was $300,000 or $400,000, which is half the cost of the equipment budget for a restaurant we might design [now]. The budget was so small that I had to convince an opera costume designer friend of mine to work with me on a fabric mural I designed. The silk mural was edge-lit with neon, and the client ran out of money and couldn’t pay for the neon. So not only was I in danger of not getting my fee, but I had borrowed money.

What role did theater play in your life? My mom was a vaudeville dancer. By the time I was born, she had long since stopped dancing professionally. But she was always involved in some version of dance and theater. In New Jersey, she helped found a community theater. We did a production of “Hello, Dolly!” I was one of the waiters. You can pick me out from the lineup because I was the one with the bad posture.

Growing up, you also had an interest in piano. Do you still play? In Mexico, there were one or two years where I studied semi-seriously. Then I went to college and couldn’t find the time. But about two years ago, I decided I wanted to recommit. So I looked around, met a bunch of people and found a teacher named Seymour Bernstein. Total master, like studying with Yoda.

Do you listen to music while you’re working? If so, what’s the strangest thing on your playlists? I do. I have lots of different playlists, so it depends what I’m working on. There are projects that require breaking out the blues. There’s also a lot of embarrassing things. There’s also some very foul hip-hop that I’ve acquired from my son as a sort of cultural exchange — I send him Nina Simone, and he sends me hip-hop. But I’ve gotten to understand it and like it. 

What’s it like working with Nobu Matsuhisa? Nobu is a little like a brother. We complete each other’s sentences. It’s a relationship of total trust and total respect and admiration. I think he is truly a genius.

How did you meet him? I met Nobu when I was working on an event for Wheels at the South Street Seaport. As the designer of the event, I got to taste all the food. I had heard that Nobu Matsuhisa was coming to New York, and I knew [restaurateur] Drew Nieporent a bit. Then [after the event] I called Nobu and Drew and said I’d like to design your restaurant in New York. You have to be proactive, too.

What’s a memorable moment from working with Danny Meyer? For Union Square Cafe, we made a model of every single table. It was really microsurgery. We suggested taking the original bar and cutting it down and putting it upstairs as a second bar next to four booths. Booths were really not part of Union Square Cafe originally. [Meyer] questioned them. … Danny knew if I was that passionate about it, there had to be a reason. Now, whenever I go to Union Square Cafe, he knows I’m going to be in one of those booths sort of overlooking the restaurant. It turned out being something worth fighting for.

What kind of boss are you? I would say driven and committed to curiosity. I like to be around really smart people who have ideas that challenge my ideas. I want to be around people who are not about agreeing but are about generating their own ideas.

How did you end up working with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the Shed at Hudson Yards? We had done several projects with the firm. And we talked about going after the Shed together. I think we sort of committed — or began sketching together — in Venice at the 2008 Biennale of Architecture. There’s some disagreement whether it was over wine or Bellinis.

What trends in architecture and design do you find annoying? The fact that one [LED] light can change to any color doesn’t mean it has to. So I think there was a little insane color going on. That seems to be settling down. And I think the desire to have all of the world look like Brooklyn has waned a bit, which is good.

What’re your most extravagant purchases? I’m not an acquirer. I suppose a baby grand piano.

What’s your biggest vice? I eat a lot of popsicles. Does that count as a vice? Maybe eight popsicles a night. I eat too much red meat. That’s another vice, if we’re getting really confessional. 

Edited and condensed for clarity.