21 Questions With Architect David Rockwell

Photo-Illustration: Lined. Photo: Emily Andrews

New YorkThe “21 questions” of are back with an eye on New York creatives. David Rockwell is a six-time Tony Award winner for scenography (the sets of In the Woods, now on Broadway) and the founder of Rockwell Groupthe architecture firm behind Nobu and Union Square Cafe; the shed, in collaboration with DS+R; the waiting room at Moynihan station; and pandemic relief projects bringing outdoor dining and entertainment to New York City.

Last name: David Rockwell
Age: 66
Piece: chelsea
Occupation: Architect

What’s hanging above your couch?

Two sets of bookshelves that hold a collection of many things: pictures of my kids and loved ones, a quarter-inch model of the set we made for She loves Me, one of the sake vessels we made for downtown Nobu, a model of the centerpiece the Dynamites came out of in hair spray, a miniature bicycle that I had when I was in high school in Guadalajara, and a great paper collage that my son Sam, who is 22, made when he was 5 or 6 years old. I have several pieces of art around the house that my kids made when they weren’t shy about what they were doing – and they made such beautiful art.

What was the first job you had in New York?

I worked for William Ginsberg Associates, an engineering firm that was the go-to log mill designer in 1975. I didn’t know anything about log mills, but I was interested in how things moved and connected since I was a child. At the time, I was still making Rube Goldberg gear out of boxes for my friends.

What color are you always drawn to?

I came back to blue time and time again. At the moment, my favorite blue is Urban Blue, named after Joseph Urban, who was an architect and scenographer. It’s a deep purplish blue that I recently used for the Civil Hotel Blue Room Cocktail Bar. It’s my favorite, but I’m drawn to all variations of blue.

What work of art or artefact are you most surprised to own?

I have a scale model of the original production of Company, by Boris Aronson. His work, for me, was hugely influential. (fiddler on the roof, which he designed, is the first Broadway show I have seen.) His wife, Lisa Aronson, who was his design assistant, gave it to me before he died. Set models are rare: they are flimsy, incredibly inconvenient to store, and invented to be a private communication between director and designer.

Which New Yorker would you like to date?

I would love to have dinner with Frederick Law Olmsted. Central Park is my favorite place in New York, and when I think about what makes it special, it’s because Olmsted was able to take a relatively flat plane and turn it into a series of portals and transitions that redirect you and create new experiences. But since I’m a pluralist, it would be a little dinner with director Michael Bennett, who could create quite an emotional experience from a simple change of scene, and Leonard Bernstein, whose change of tempo is so seductive. They are all masters of transitions, so there would be no awkward, awkward moments.

What’s the last thing you did with your hands?

I helped build an ensemble model of In the woods, cut and fold paper, and direct and move where things should be. It gave me the opportunity to understand the audience’s point of view and really get my hands on the design.

Is there something you have multiple versions of?

I own about 75 kaleidoscopes. I started collecting them when I was 9 years old. The non-digital inspiration of kaleidoscopes continues to fascinate me. They take recognizable things – bits of metal, opals, oil – and move them around in surprising and beautiful ways. I just got a new kaleidoscope that uses feathers. It has a translucent chamber that you blow air into with a pump that looks like a perfume bottle.

Which museum in New York do you always go to?

The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has some fantastic exhibits, but its archive of taped performances is the reason I keep coming back again and again. I can study what other directors and designers have done.

What do you always have next to your computer?

Peppermint Dentyne Ice gum and Spearmint Life Savers, which keep me from eating anything else all day. And a roll of drawing paper.

Where is the best view in town?

Bargemusic in Dumbo. The wall behind the stage is a window that faces lower Manhattan, and viewing it through this floating wooden barge feels like taking in the city. The view changes depending on the time of day and how enthralled you are with the music.

What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?

Most of my I-want-to-change-energy is consumed by the work we do. But Port Authority is a clear example of failure and could be much better. Opening up the ground floor could energize the neighborhood and make entering the city less depressing.

What is one thing you would change in your field?

If more buildings were designed from the perspective of human experience, we would live in a much more empathetic and innovative city. I would put more emphasis on the design from the inside out so you think about the program – the sequence of spaces – as well as what it is going to look like on the outside. Think Radio City Music Hall. You enter under a low marquee and move through the space of the soaring staircase. This shift in scale elevates you before heading into a space that hypnotically focuses you on the stage.

If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?

I’ve always loved those impossibly high windows at Gainsborough Studios on Central Park South. I’ve never been there, but the location and the windows make it a real artist’s studio.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?

I’m not a hoarder, but I make treasure scores. I work with Seymour Bernsteinan amazing 95 year old piano teacher, and I keep all the notations we do in music.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?

I play the piano. I’m learning “Rhapsody in Blue” right now. There’s a print room in the office that I’ve turned into a music room, and I’ll go there and play for half an hour when I need a break.

Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?

It was an unfinished space on 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth. I don’t remember the rent. I built a wooden loft with soundproof walls inside and had a small grand piano that belonged to my family. The apartment was above a Mexican restaurant that had had several small fires while I lived there.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?

I like to walk around the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. There is a sense of time standing still, with a beautiful New York skyline in the distance.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

When the South Park the guys invited me to design sets for Team America: World Policesome of my friends who were theater people said, How can you do this? What do you know about movies? My answer was: Who is a puppet film expert? Is there a trusted person? The project existed on the border of two things, and I thought it was worth delving into, like our research on playgrounds or theatre. The common understanding is that expertise should be sought; I think novelty and things you are passionate about should be sought after.

What have you given to someone that you wish you could get back?

Sushi Zen was the first restaurant I designed in New York – in 1984 I think – and it had a long silk mural that I designed and Donna Granada, costume designer at the Santa Fe Opera Festival, did. I don’t know what happened to him after the new owners took over and moved out, but it would be great to get him back.

What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and do you order regularly?

Much to my doctor’s chagrin, I like New York steak at the Striphouse. Andrew Carmellini serves a roast garlic chicken at the Greenwich Hotel which has been one of my favorite dishes for a while. Nobu’s Yellowtail Shishito Jalapeño Peppers are perhaps the most I eat when dining out. And I love the fried chicken at Melba’s.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?

I wish the phrase “true New Yorker” was there somewhere.

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