Tony-nominee David Rockwell reveals his first love

AP News
Posted: May 24, 2013 8:23 AM
Tony-nominee David Rockwell reveals his first love

NEW YORK (AP) — One clue to understanding how David Rockwell's mind works is by finding out what he collects. It turns out to be kaleidoscopes.

The award-winning architect and theatrical designer has amassed about 50 of the cylinders, some of which rest on a mantel in his comfy Manhattan office. A few are whimsical, some are sleek and one lights up.

"I think they're a great analogy of things that are surprising," says Rockwell. "It takes things that we're familiar with and jumbles them in new ways."

Rockwell has pretty much been doing exactly that for decades, turning his 150-person firm into one of the most sought-after design labs in New York, one cool jumble at a time.

In an era of specialty, Rockwell seems to build just about everything — airport terminals, hospitals, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. No wonder that next month he might win a Tony Award.

Rockwell is nominated for best scenic designer for "Kinky Boots" and "Lucky Guy." Fitting for someone who appreciates the shifting, breathtaking images of a kaleidoscope, one show is a big razzle-dazzle musical with drag queens; the other is a drama about a real man in an office.

"The thing that is most important to me as a creative person is to stay curious and to not repeat myself," says Rockwell. "There's an element of surprise and astonishment and delight that we try to embed in our work."


Building stuff became a salvation for Rockwell after an early life marked by tragedy — his father died when he was 3 — and new beginnings — he and his four brothers moved several times.

His mother was a former dancer and choreographer who at one point ran a community theater in Deal, N.J. The young Rockwell made boxes and doors — Rube Goldberg-type devices — and helped backstage, recalling he once painted the set for a production of "The King and I" starring the local dentist.

"Making things was the way I learned to communicate with people," he says.

The first Broadway show he attended was "Fiddler on the Roof," and the songs, the crowd, the movement and the spectacle left a lasting impression. "It was a kind of explosion of thinking for me," he says. "Theater is my first love in the world of design."

He and his family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was 12, and there he learned to appreciate color and lighting. He got his architectural training at Syracuse University and the Architectural Association in London.

"What I wanted to explore was not just the buildings but the inner lives — the things that connect buildings, the performance that happens in and around buildings," he says.

His first solo project was a restaurant on 46th Street called Sushi Zen, which recently closed after a 26-year run. One wall was supposed to be a silk mural woven by the costume designer from the Santa Fe Opera — but the owners balked after running out of cash.

"Not only didn't I get paid, I had to borrow money to have them complete this one wall," he says with a laugh. As for the wall itself: "There was theater right in the first piece of architecture that I did."


The drafting tables at the Rockwell Group's loftlike space overlooking Union Square have produced a dazzling mix of work for the past 29 years, from the sleek JetBlue terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport to portable playgrounds composed of biodegradable blue foam blocks that can be found as far away as Haiti.

His offices include a material library, model shop and a technology lab, where workers invent things like a 15-foot-wide interactive computer aquarium for a children's hospital on Long Island.

"David still has an incredible sense of play and adventure and discovery," says stage director George C. Wolfe. The two have collaborated on "Lucky Guy," ''A Free Man of Color," ''The Normal Heart" and the design of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. "If there's a sense of play and there's a sense of creativity, then everything is possible."

Rockwell, 57, first dipped his toe into theatrical design about 15 years ago when he began talking to directors and designers about what they needed. One of his first pitches was for the musical "Seussical." He didn't get the job. But his stunning vision — a model still sits in his offices — was seen by many influential people on Broadway.

His first show was "The Rocky Horror Show" in 2000, and the credits started piling up: "Hairspray," ''Legally Blonde," ''The Normal Heart" and "Elf" among them.

The idea for each show's set design comes differently to Rockwell and his theatrical team. For "Kinky Boots," he was stuck trying to make a decaying shoe factory turn into a magical place to dance.

One day, he had a breakthrough while walking along the High Line, an urban park built on an old freight line. He saw a wall of backlit aged glass and glimpsed a way to combine his theatrical needs.

Everything in the final set does something — even the factory conveyor belts, which turn into treadmills for dancers. Just making those required six months of research and development.


Little touches with plenty of thought behind them are nothing new to Rockwell: It took his team a year to develop the black terrazzo and bamboo used to decorate the restaurant Nobu Fifty Seven.

"I think those kinds of details, while no one can appreciate directly the R&D, they sense that there's a nonarbitrariness to it," he says. "There's a reason why it's there."

For "Lucky Guy," Norah Ephron's portrait of a gutsy New York City newspaper columnist, Rockwell started with research, looking for archive photos of newsrooms in 1985 and 1995, when the play's two acts are set.

He noticed that most newsrooms had a low, smoke-stained ceiling and cluttered desks. Rockwell began sketching and made sure all the props — such as phones and early computers — on the desks were anchored in their time frames.

He says designing for a restaurant or a stage play is similar in that it begins with an attempt to tease out a narrative, whether it's a 90-page script or the personal history of a chef.

"What's thrilling for us is to immerse ourselves into a story, whether it's a play or a museum or a restaurant," he says. "Where they overlap is for me that they're both storytelling, they're about emotional impact."

His architecture affects his sets and vice versa. When he was designing JetBlue's $800 million terminal, Rockwell convinced the airline to consult with Tony-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

Mitchell, Rockwell insisted, would help ease the flow of people by tapping into his knowledge of movement. Rockwell saw results both in the structure and in later meetings with clients.

"What's most interesting is after we did that and that was public, how many of my other clients said, 'Can we have a choreographer, too?'" he laughs.




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