David Rockwell

Irene Sax / November 1998

Food Arts presents the November 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to David Rockwell, the master of what he calls "entertainment architecture" and what we know as "restaurants as theater." The cinematic glamour of Monkey Bar in New York City, the horror-movie terrors of Le Bar Bat (NYC), and the over-the-top glitz of dozens of Planet Hollywood restaurants around the world have burst from Rockwell's high-spirited draftsmanship.

Tall and good-looking, with a rock star's shoulder-length hair, Rockwell is a modern P.T. Barnum, a showman with an instinct for what he calls "The Big Wow." His pop culture sensibility led him to design a 20-foot high popcorn bin filled with basketball-sized kernels for a Sony theater concession stand. His theatrical background—his mother was a dancer/choreographer and he at one time planned to be a concert pianist—inspired the tent-like design of the Cirque du Soleil's permanent home at Walt Disney World in Orlando. And his comfort with technology will allow bars to levitate and customers to disappear at the two outposts of Copperfield Magic Underground planned for Times Square (NYC) and Orlando.

Designing dramatic spaces for public celebrations is a long and honorable architectural tradition, one that dates back at least to the builders of Rome's Colosseum and the Vatican's St. Peter's Cathedral. And while Rockwell does many smaller, quieter projects—his radiant, accessible New York City prototype for Best Cellars wine stores won him this year's citation as designer of the year from Interiors magazine—it's his flashier work that has earned him a client list that includes Disney, Coca-Cola, Sony, Radio City Music Hall, ABC, and the Bronx Zoo.

Born in 1956, the youngest of five boys, Rockwell grew up in New Jersey and Mexico, studied architecture at Syracuse University, and did postgraduate work at the Architectural Association in London. His first job in New York was with a theatrical lighting designer. (The lighting in his restaurants is famously flattering, one of the reasons for their success.) In 1983, he and Jay Haverson established Haverson/Rockwell Architects in New York City, which designed Sushi Zen, Vong, Lipstick Cafe, and Christer's, among others in the city. The partnership broke up in 1993, and the Rockwell Group was born.

Housed in the old offices of Spy magazine on Union Square, the firm now numbers more than 175, making it one of the largest in the city. And while it designs more than restaurants, many of its projects have either a food or theatrical connection. Walk through the office and you see drawings for a food court at Grand Central Station, a restoration of Radio City Music Hall, a new theater for the Academy Awards, and a rooftop entertainment center shaped like a Coca Cola bottle at Turner Field in Atlanta, home of the Atlanta Braves.

The reception area seems deliberately undesigned, a pastiche of brick walls, distressed wood doors, and shredding Victorian settees. The message to clients is clear: you tell us what you want, and we'll work together to achieve it. That's because Rockwell believes that creating a restaurant is as much of a collaboration as creating an opera, ballet, circus, or Broadway musical. "In design, as in the theater," he states, "it's the team effort that's exciting. If you don't collaborate, nothing gets done."

At early meetings with a client, Rockwell looks for a strong pont of view. For Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro in Manhattan, Rockwell went into the kitchen with François Payard at Daniel "to see what it was to be a pastry chef," then designed Art Nouveau lighting fixtures shaped like huge balloon whisks.

At Kansas City's Lidia, a new Italian venture for restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, the point of view was the woman herself. "I love Lidia's honesty and passion," Rockwell says, "She had chosen a 100-year old brick freight station that was perfect for her, so we just restored the brick and wood trusses, hung lights that looked like grappa bottles, and built a two-story slate hearth to show her warmth and solidity."

And at Steve Hanson's Ruby Foo's on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Rockwell was inspired by chef James Chew's pan-Asian menu to create a wall of artifacts such as mah jong tiles, rice bowls and scoops, teapots, dried mushrooms, silk slippers, and Chinese checker boards. Many of his designs have a touch of what some call kitsch and others call humor. At Monkey Bar, where the Martini reigns, the bar stools look like pimiento-stuffed olives.

The transient nature of the business doesn't bother Rockwell, possibly because his restaurants have been not only successful but relatively long-lived. He keeps in touch with the owners—eating in their restaurants, finding them better sources for flowers, and perhaps even designing them a take-out shop or second site.

"When they hire me," Rockwell laughs, "it's a lifetime sentence."