David Rockwell: Design That Delights

Architectural showman creates emotional connections between spaces and the people who use them.

June 1, 2007

You’ve said that every space contains a secret narrative. How do you discover it when your work encompasses such disparate projects as the interior of Jet Blue’s new terminal at JFK International Airport; an urban playground where children can play more imaginatively with sand, water, and loose components like shovels; and the Broadway set for “Legally Blonde”?

ROCKWELL: You look for the DNA of your clients with their help. I spend a lot of time understanding a place and its people. I research a restaurant’s location and interview the chef and manager. A point of view starts to emerge. For Riverhouse, a condo building on lower Manhattan’s waterfront due in late 2007, I worked with the developer to enhance the relationship between the building and its outer environment. For example, we studied the natural flow of water to design circulation paths, or traffic flow, in the lobby.

Where does your creative vision stem from?

ROCKWELL: From my interest in how spaces can bring people together and create emotional connections. That probably stems from my interest in theater from the age of 11 when I was growing up in New Jersey, then from our family’s move to the explosive, theatrical world of Guadalajara, Mexico. In Guadalajara, every public space was teeming with activity, which created a visual exuberance. Later when I studied architecture in college, I would observe the movement and interaction of people in Times Square.

How can brokers create spaces to connect to customers?

ROCKWELL: Because today’s consumers are so sophisticated, having good design isn’t enough. Architects, developers, and brokers need to do something different. In designing Riverhouse, we’re creating custom doorknobs that resemble walnut sculptures. When home owners touch them, they’ll have a wonderful tactile experience.

Sometimes the sites where connections occur can be enormous, such as the places where marches on Washington have occurred. You write about that in your book Spectacle (Phaidon, 2006). Where did the idea for the book come from?

ROCKWELL: It grew out of research our firm has been doing on theater without walls. I wanted to look through a designer’s lens at events to see what makes them thrilling. What’s most significant in our work is the notion of celebration.For the Jet Blue terminal, we’re working to create a space that’s intuitive and builds on a sense of natural choreography, so you know where you're going. In fact, we brought in Broadway choreographer and director Jerry Mitchell because we think dance is so important. When we create an intuitive space in which you naturally move in the direction you're supposed to move, you have an opportunity to connect to and celebrate the city you’re entering.

How critical is the design of the space where we work to our creativity and drive?

ROCKWELL: here’s an emotional connection that resonates because of it. Our office is a big studio where we have pieces of our projects all around; it’s a laboratory for ideas.

Which architect’s or designer’s work do you most admire?

ROCKWELL: There are so many, especially a lot of young architects in New York who exemplify the idea that a project should be a holistic experience. It’s not just how the project looks but how it behaves, what it communicates.

For more on Rockwell, founder and CEO of the Rockwell Group in New York, visitwww.rockwellgroup.com..

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).