David Rockwell, Founder and President, Shawn Sullivan, Partner and Studio Leader, Greg Keffer, Partner and Studio Leader, the management team behind the Rockwell Group, talks in depth to SPACE Editor Can Faik about the amazing projects the studio has completed and this year’s 20th anniversary…
Based in New York with offices in Madrid and Shanghai, Rockwell Group is an interdisciplinary architecture and design firm that emphasises innovation and thought leadership in every project. The firm merges architecture, theatre, craftsmanship, and technology to create unique narratives for their work, including hospitality, cultural institutions, offices, transportation, residential, set design, products, exhibitions and festivals.
Tell me about your role at Rockwell Group nowadays.
David Rockwell: Our first step is a series of brainstorming sessions with the client, the project team and often with other collaborators to develop a narrative. This is followed by site analysis, drafting plans, renderings, models, and continually revisiting the client’s interests and concerns. Along with the studio leader and project team, I review the projects along each phase up to execution.
What five words would you use to describe Rockwell Group?
David Rockwell: Collaborative. Handcrafted. Immersive. Memorable. Theatrical.
How long have you been involved with hotel design?
David Rockwell: Rockwell Group designed the flagship W Hotel in New York City in 1998. It was our studio’s first hotel project and presented us an incredible opportunity to completely redefine the hotel experience from the moment you stepped through the front door to the moment you lay down in bed. The W brand was the first to create a boutique hotel that was lighter in spirit and provided more spaces for guests to gather and socialise. Since then we have designed a number of other W properties, including the recent W Suzhou and future Madrid and Nashville locations.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel design?
Greg Keffer: Narrative and storytelling are more important than ever in hospitality these days as travellers demand luxury and a residential sense of comfort in addition to a unique, immersive experience. We pour over the history of the hotel’s location – and in some cases, the history of the building itself – to weave allusions to the past into our design concepts and details. There’s growing interest among hoteliers in anchoring their hospitality projects to the local culture and context or a specific place and time to make their guests feel as if they are stepping into a different world.
How important are public spaces in hotels?
Shawn Sullivan: Public spaces have always been essential! What’s so exciting is that the demand for hotels that offer it all is at an all-time high. Since people are spending more time in hotels, we’re designing significant public spaces that meet a variety of needs and interests. Dream Hollywood is a great example of a hotel that offers multiple different experiences, from lounging at the rooftop pool during the day to a nightclub in the evening. The property features guest rooms and suites; dining and nightlife venues (TAO, Beauty & Essex, Avenue and the Highlight Room) both within and adjacent to the hotel; and a rooftop pool with views of the city skyline. It really feels like an immersive playground for the city that invites both guests and locals to stay and linger; you can just move from one venue to the next.
With so many hospitality designers in the industry, how does Rockwell Group stand out from the rest?
David Rockwell: Our studio likes to take creative risks, but very well informed ones. We work on all project types—from hotels and restaurants, to co-working environments and residential buildings, to exhibitions and Broadway show, and retail stores and products—the list goes on. By taking on new and unfamiliar challenges, we are constantly stepping out of our comfort zone to create inventive solutions for our clients, rather than using a single aesthetic or approach for each project.
Being based in New York and with a satellite office in Madrid, what hotel projects are you currently working on?
David Rockwell: We’re currently working on Nobu hotels in Barcelona and Atlanta, Moxy Chelsea, W Madrid, a resort redesign in Las Vegas, and a luxury hotel in Herzliya, Israel.
How would you define your ‘Hotel Style’?
David Rockwell: Rockwell Group is driven by ideas rather than a particular style. However, storytelling is an essential part of our process. A good hotel achieves an equilibrium and balance between comfort, service and design — in essence, by also telling a complete narrative. More and more, we find ourselves designing in historically significant properties with troves of built- in stories. We pour over that history and those anecdotes, weaving allusions to the past into our design concepts and details. Tying a hospitality project to the local culture and context, anchoring them in a specific place and time, makes guests feel as if they are stepping into a different world.
A recent example is Gran Hotel Inglés in Spain. Our Madrid team recently revived the 1853 landmark property, drawing on the glamour, elegance, and innovation of the original hotel. It was the first hotel to have a restaurant, on the first street in the city to receive electric lights, and the avant-garde and intellectuals of the time made it their gathering place. We wanted to turn it once again into a cultural landmark, weaving photo-montage and original imagery into our design of the public spaces, Art Deco-inspired gym, meeting rooms, and guestrooms. For example, a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a fireplace is a return to the hotel’s intellectual past.
What does design mean to you?
David Rockwell: I think design has to be accessible, easily understood either directly through some form of reasoning or emotionally, as something felt. Perhaps more than anything, we strive in every project to create opportunities for people to connect and share experiences. Ultimately, environments should create lasting memories. This underpins all of our work, whether it’s a hotel, airport terminal, a school, or outdoor festival.
What do you want in a hotel room?
Greg Keffer: Comfort and ease. My job takes me across the world and I’m lucky to experience so many unique places and cultures, but there is nothing more frustrating than arriving somewhere exhausted from travelling and walking into a room that doesn’t work. Simple, functional needs make a big difference, such as convenient electrical outlets to re-charge those numerous gadgets, intuitive switches that allow you to easily control lights and devices, good showers and lighting at the vanity, true blackout shades, and a comfortable bed that doesn’t make me long for the airplane seat as a better option. Too often designers forget that function should always come first!
Have you seen exceptional growth in any part of the world in hotel design?
Shawn Sullivan: At Rockwell Group, we’ve seen larger developments throughout Europe and the Middle East, and we continue to see a lot of growth in North America. At any one time, we’re working on a master plan for a resort in the Riviera Maya to a luxury hotel in the south of Spain to a reinvention of the traditional hotel experience in New York City.
What has been your favourite project to date?
David Rockwell: In terms of hospitality projects, Nobu was a breakthrough project for us. With the first Nobu restaurant in Tribeca were able to redefine the concept of luxury dining, which up until then was signified by white tablecloths. By removing the traditional, more formal notions of fine dining and creating an environment driven by narrative, craftsmanship, and materiality, I think we opened up perceptions of what luxury could be. 20 years (and many Nobu restaurants later), we designed the first-ever Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Nobu has really blossomed into a three-decade relationship that has given us the opportunity to develop a rich, complex design language for the brand.
Greg Keffer: Union Square Cafe and its offshoot Daily Provisions are some of my favourite projects. With Daily Provisions, it was surprisingly rewarding receiving Rockwell Group’s James Beard nomination too!
What’s next for Rockwell Group?
David Rockwell: Our studio is working on a range of projects from The Shed and 15 Hudson Yards in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, R17 at Manhattan’s new Seaport District’s Pier 17, and “Tootsie” on Broadway to Warner Music Group’s new headquarters in Los Angeles, a new fabric collection with Jim Thompson, and several restaurants in New York City and Las Vegas.
What would be your dream hotel project?
David Rockwell: Renovating Morris Lapidus’s Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. I love the staircase to nowhere in the lobby. It’s a brilliant sculptural move within the space.
What is the biggest thing the company has learnt over its years in the industry?
David Rockwell: Don’t be afraid to take risks. Constantly taking risks and seeking new, different and unfamiliar project types has brought us a huge range of clients and design opportunities. Furthermore, our studio is driven by a relentless curiosity and we try to really push ourselves to deliver design solutions with new thinking and fresh ideas.
Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?
David Rockwell: I would love to attend the Bayreuth Festival in Germany.
Where do you see hotel design in the future?
David Rockwell: Travellers are starting to seek out hotels that offer distinct, personalised experiences. I think we’ll start seeing the shrinking and simplification of guestrooms, allowing hotels to focus more on out-of-room guest experiences. As private space is whittled down, amenities such as restaurants, lounges, co-working environments, and spaces for lectures, workshops and classes, will become more robust.
What would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?
• Quinta da Côrte in Portugal’s Douro Valley – a beautiful hillside winery and guest house designed by Pierre Yovanovitch
• Anatara Chiang Mai – A riverside resort in the northern region of Thailand
• Taj Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, India – Living like royalty in this amazing former palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur
Shawn Sullivan: It’s hard to choose! I love all types of hotels, from the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris to The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. One of my most memorable experiences was an impromptu layover in Hangzhou where I checked into Amanfayun. Set in a bamboo grove, it’s a centuries-old village that has been transformed into an extraordinary hospitality experience.
Let’s finish with the issue of personal and work life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?
David Rockwell: I started practicing piano intensively in my office and when I’m playing I know I’m unconsciously working on many ideas…that’s why my sketch book sits behind the music score.