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Going with the Flow: David Rockwell Talks Tech, Travel, Theatre Design, and Treadmills

David Rockwell has parlayed a knack for creating “immersive environments” into a discipline-shattering firm that can move seamlessly from designing luxury hotels and the set for the Academy Awards to reinventing playgrounds and dreaming up some damn fine rugs. We asked writer Nancy Lazarus to immerse herself in all things Rockwell when the man himself took the stage last week as a keynoter at Internet Week New York.


Treading the boards, on treadmills. The “abstracted collage of a factory” created by Rockwell Group for the musical adaptation of the 2005 British film Kinky Boots.

David Rockwell gave a whirlwind tour of selected design projects during a session at Internet Week in New York. The Rockwell Group founder offered insight into how his firm’s interactive design LAB operates as they solve design dilemmas for clients in the worlds of hospitality, travel, and theatre. He also previewed pending assignments.

Rockwell observed that as his career progressed, technology has taken center stage. “The technology lab is embedded in my firm, and my work now with the lab is the most exciting. It engages technology to connect people more in real-time.” From the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas to the JetBlue terminal at New York’s JFK airport to the set design for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, Rockwell has incorporated technology and choreography-focused designs. Below are his comments on selected projects.

On the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas:
“The promise of Las Vegas is of a place that reinvents itself, but in reality that’s not true, since visitors can’t move freely,” said Rockwell. “The hotel lobby was fourteen feet high and had massive Egyptian-style columns. Our designers worked to dematerialize the walls in an open-source way so people would have a different experience each time they entered. The casino, unlike others in Vegas, was vertical, so we blew a forty-square-foot hole through the podium.”

Rockwell Group used an “environmental choreography system and created a hall of images in the hotel lobby, to allow more personal interaction.” The effect has been “somewhat hypnotic”, though the hotel would prefer visitors to linger in the casino, he noted.

On JetBlue Terminal 5 at JFK:
“Why are airports so confusing, and why are the gates so far away?” That’s what Rockwell (and most airline passengers) would like to understand. He said JetBlue was concerned about heavy foot traffic, and they “wanted only useful design elements.” Rockwell’s solution was a design “that’s assertively New York, with signage that’s intuitive.” The firm also devised an “information yoke with forty-three LED screens and a central focus that harkens back to Saarinen. In the back are bleacher-style platforms creating circular movement, where travelers can sit. After passing through security, they can hang out and see their gates.”

On Kinky Boots:
Rockwell said his getting involved in theatre design was a long process of meeting with theatre directors. Now, after designing the sets of several plays, he sees the “danger is that technology can make the theatre seem too mechanical. Some things need to be real,” he added.

For Kinky Boots, he’d already done five shows with the play’s director, and his objective was to animate the old shoe factory while retaining a sense of craftsmanship. Among the main props were five treadmills, which Rockwell said “took nine months of R&D, since they’re battery-powered, two speeds, and actor-driven.” The end result of his design effort is that “every part of the set does something.”

On the drawing board:
Among Rockwell Group’s current projects is a flexible work space in Chelsea with “deployable conference rooms and a recording studio where the look changes day to night.” Another project is a “traveling demountable theatre.” The firm is also at work on a “citywide festival tour to coincide with the upcoming Super Bowl” in the New York metro area. Moving forward, he said “what we’re looking at next really excites me.”

Nancy Lazarus’s last contribution to UnBeige explored Wanda Barcelona’s “Fantastico” installation. Learn more about her at www.NL3Media.com.

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