David Rockwell brings you to the theater

Following the recent reopening of the neo-Georgian architectural gem that is the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway and the success of pop-restaurant The Diner during Milan Design Week, David Rockwell - the founder and president of the Rockwell Group - has heaped praise on the importance of temporary installations, theatre and performance in general. In Rockwell's eyes, performance represents a proving ground for experimentation - not just on the stage itself but also in hospitality and cultural spaces

Hayes Theater design by David Rockwell - Photo © Paul Warchol

The Diner at the Milan Design Week and The Helen Hayes Theatre in Broadway, two ways to design ‘theatrical’ environments. Where do they differ?
The Hayes Theater
and The Diner offer two very different programs. We renovated the 100-year-old theater — the smallest on Broadway — to create a modern, approachable design vocabulary that references the Hayes’s heritage as well as Second Stage’s goals to bring contemporary works of theater to life by living American playwrights. The Diner, by contrast, is a pop-up restaurant concept that celebrates a quintessentially American design icon (the diner), and brings people together for shared experiences. It also highlighted contemporary design of the highest quality through partnerships with manufacturers and furniture brands. While they are different, both spaces share an immersive, enveloping quality that transports visitors. Both places also cultivate shared experiences around art and culture, something we at Rockwell Group feel is increasingly important.

The Helen Hayes Theater | Built on Broadway in 1912, the theatre – located at 240 West 44th Street – was originally known as The Little Theatre (for obvious reasons). The building was designed in the neo-Georgian style by Ingalls and Hoffman for the entrepreneur Winthrop Ames, who wanted to create a space for intimate, cosy venue. After changing hands – and names – a number of times, the current Helen Hayes Theater was bought in 2015 by Second Stage Theater, who asked the Rockewell Group to completely renovate the interior of the theatre to bring it in line with modern-day standards, with new bathrooms and dressing rooms, stage equipment, a lift, insulating glass, electrics and air conditioning. Special treatment was given to the walls of the auditorium, where pixelated digital projections recreate the design of a Francois Boucher rococo tapestry – part of the original decorations – on a blue ombre background – Photo © Paul Warchol
Hayes Theater – Photo © Paul Warchol
Hayes Theater – Photo © Paul Warchol

What kind of values do ‘temporary’ design has? Either for events like The Diner or for stage sets?
Part of the power of theater is that it’s temporary, and experienced in the moment, and a particular performance cannot be repeated. Temporary works have tremendous power to create lasting memories. Additionally, set design and temporary events have become a place where huge experimentation and trial and error could take place without being frozen to legacy. Performance is brilliant grounds for risk taking.

What’s your relationship with theatre/drama like? What are the connections between theatre related design and architecture?
The theater was one of my first loves as a child — my mother ran a community theater in New Jersey and the first show I saw on Broadway was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the first time that I became aware that environments could actually be controlled, manipulated, and ultimately designed. Then I was hooked. I have used elements of theater in all of my architecture work and vice versa. I take tools and ideas from my architecture tool box and bring those to theater, and of course in architecture I’m going the other way around. Designing for the stage requires a lot of invention and creation of effect in highly constrained stage space. This experience can be advantageous when creating spaces and scenography for restaurants or hotels.

Hayes Theater – Photo © Paul Warchol
Hayes Theater – Photo © Paul Warchol
Hayes Theater – Photo © Paul Warchol

What do you think of the last Milan Design Week?
It’s incredible! What I love about Milan Design Week is that it is the design industry’s version of the World’s Fair. There is such a sense of wonder and discovery that spills over into the city, which has its own rich history of design. The grand scale combined with the feeling of excitement and energy there attracts people from around the world. It’s also very inclusive in the sense that established, emerging and student designers are well represented at the various events.

The Diner | Created by Rockwell Group and LAB at Rockwell Group to mark 25 years of Surface magazine, the installation at Ventura Centrale represented a contemporary take on the archetypal American diner. visitors were able to eat in four different rooms: the Airstream entrance served up coffee and homemade cake, while there was also a luncheonette, a quintessential Midwest diner and a West Coast-style lounge area – Photo © Michele de Candia
The Diner – Photo © Michele de Candia
The Diner – Photo © Michele de Candia

And what about the one in New York these days? Does your studio take part with an event?
Yes, Rockwell Group participates in NYCxDESIGN, including events like ICFF, Wanted and Brooklyn Designs, every spring. You can typically catch one of our studio leaders or senior designers on a panel or talk. Last year, we collaborated with interior design students on the concept and design of Wanted’s exhibition space and our LAB at Rockwell Group designed the entrance to Collective. This year, Gessi is showing the full line of our Inciso collection, a selection of bath fixtures and accessories suitable for a variety of home and hospitality environments. Launched in April during Milan’s Salone del Mobile, Inciso channels the honesty of traditional craftsmanship with clean modern forms consistent with the tradition of Gessi. We’re excited to show the entire collection to the American market.

Inciso for Gessi | The first collection from an American designer, Inciso is a comprehensive range of matching bathroom fittings and accessories available in black, nickel and bronze finishes and surface treatments (Photo: bronze finishing)
Inciso per Gessi (Photo: nickel finishing)