7 Ways Rockwell Group Finds Creative Success
"Learn to embrace failure," "avoid hierarchies," and other lessons behind the firm's best work.
Richard Jaris, David Rockwell, and TJ Greenway review the scenic design of the upcoming Broadway musical Side Show. Rockwell Group has since designed more than 30 productions. The theater team is part of Studio P, one of six studios within the firm’s New York office.
Photography by Georgie Wood
How does the magic happen at Rockwell Group? “Pixie dust,” quips Marc Hacker, the firm’s in-house “Thinker.” All jokes aside, there is some truth here. From the animated Quan Yin statue in TAO Downtown to the shifting set of Kinky Boots, to the child-directed free play of the Imagination Playground, a distinct sense of magic imbues every one of these projects. All of them are driven not so much by a look, or even a sensibility, but by the endlessly curious creative process that shaped them. “I know this sounds trite, but it’s not about what’s true now,” says founder and president David Rockwell. “It’s about asking, ‘what if?’” What if an architect could be as experimental as a chef? What if the stage set became a character? What if your environment could transform with every step?
In the Rockwell Group world, asking “What if?”—also the title of a new book being released by Metropolis Books in December to commemorate the firm’s 30th anniversary—has led to an embrace of design at all scales. “On a given day, we could be working on an exhibition, a park, a master plan, an airport interior, a children’s hospital, and a night-club,” Rockwell says. “That confluence of things is probably what makes us most unique.” The process behind these projects —the Rockwell way—is really a set of permissions to roam and explore.
1. Learn to Embrace Failure
“Failure is awful,” Rockwell says. “But it’s definitely part of the process.” He recalls the firm’s initiative to build an arts incubator in downtown Manhattan post-9/11. “We talked about, instead of waiting ten or fifteen years for a cultural center, creating a short-term plan that was about visual and performing arts,” he says. “We got the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to find us a site. We made models. We raised a lot of money.” And then neighborhood politics kicked in.
“The site was adjacent to a housing complex and although it was a great community, they didn’t want an incubator next door. The city recommended we find a lobbyist.” As they sat through endless town meetings, the designers found themselves beating their heads against the wall. “It was incredibly sobering,” Rockwell says. “But it just wasn’t meant to be.”
And yet, out of that experience came the genesis for a new idea. “What I learned during that whole process was that I should have given the city a playground,” Rockwell says. “At one point Marc asked me what that playground would look like, and I started to sketch and think.” His dream for the arts incubator didn’t die, so much as it evolved into something else. In 2010, the first Imagination Playground was born at Burling Slip, a playground near the South Street Seaport.
Shawn Sullivan and Stephen Croke review the floor plan of an upcoming project.
2. Technology Is Your Friend
In 2003, Coca-Cola commissioned Rockwell Group to create a design innovation studio. Christened Studio Red, the unit became an in-house research and development team. The unit has since evolved beyond Coca-Cola into the 30-member Rockwell LAB, which is dedicated to creative problem solving. Their mandate isn’t just what if, but why not. “We figure out how to make technology work for us,” says Adi Marom, the interaction designer of the LAB. “We don’t limit ourselves. When we have cool ideas, we run with them.”
In 2012, Shawn Sullivan’s Studio C within Rockwell Group was tasked with designing the new TAO Downtown. The client wanted a reinvention of the original uptown location and Sullivan and his team decided to use video projection to create a 16-foot Quan Yin statue that seamlessly transforms before guests. They turned to the LAB to provide the technology.
“We created at least ten different pieces of video projection content,” says Melissa Hoffman, principal of the LAB. “They range from birds flying across the statue to petals falling down and blowing away.” It was a series of grand, theatrical gestures, but ones that didn’t come with easy, off-the-shelf solutions. The LAB wrote a custom software application that tied the video-projection mapping, architectural lighting, and DJ software into a single system, which allowed the entire space to be programmed and choreographed. “It was one of my favorite projects,” Hoffman says, “because we literally didn’t know if we could pull it off.”
JT Bachman, Erin Gouveia, Adi Marom, Quin Kennedy, Danny Taft, and Meghna Pathak hold a client-meeting recap and brainstorming session in the LAB, while simultaneously celebrating Kennedy’s birthday. “The creative process never ends here,” says principal and LAB studio leader Melissa Hoffman. “I never thought I’d be here, but now I can’t think of anywhere else I would go.”
3. Avoid Hierarchies
If there’s anything approaching a rule at Rockwell Group, it’s this one, which is not so much a rule as an ethos: “The best idea at the table wins,” says Michael Fischer, who has been at Rockwell for two decades. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a junior or a senior. The best time is when you’re developing the concept. It’s a playground of ideas.”
“I’ve been here about one-tenth of the time as Michael,” says JT Bachman. But the veteran and the newbie worked side by side on the TED Theater in Vancouver, a temporary, reusable 1,200-seat venue made of timber, designed in a little over a year with the installation taking about a week. “While my role was more as project manager,” Fischer says, “JT was the one who built and developed the Rhino model. Some of it was from my direction, given my theater experience, but in other ways it was from JT’s initiative. We’d meet to review the model, and I’d go, ‘Wow, where did that come from? That’s really cool. Let’s run with that.’”
Amanda Zaitchik, Shunyi Wu, and Barry Richards of Studio P review Imagination Playground learning initiatives.
4. Build a Diverse Team
Rockwell Group, which has about 200 employees, is a cross-disciplinary hothouse. Hoffman spent years as a television producer; Fischer was a theater consultant before arriving at the firm and working on a vast range of projects, from a series of Planet Hollywoods to the Film Society of Lincoln Center; Yulia Frumkin, who has worked on hospitality projects that include Mohegan Sun and Aria Hotel & Casino, comes from a fine arts background; and Shunyi Wu studied printmaking, ceramics, and theater arts, and has now worked on everything from product design to Imagination Playgrounds. “We see people all the time with glorious portfolios and great capabilities, but I try to find in that work what their real driver is,” Rockwell says. “What are they curious about?”
Even those who studied architecture have significantly expanded their creative reach. Many years ago, principal Barry Richards, an architect and the leader of Studio P, designed products for Michael Graves. Moving to Rockwell Group provided an opportunity to keep creating products—he’s designed rugs for Shaw Hospitality Group and The Rug Company—but also to work on productions, events, hospitality, and public spaces, to name just a few. “It’s called Studio P because it covers everything from products to playgrounds to productions,” Richards says. “We also do museum work, events, restaurants—a little bit of everything.”
Studio P recently completed the interior space of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta with human rights activist Jill Savitt and theater director, writer, and producer George Wolfe—whom Rockwell Group has worked with on a number of plays, including Lucky Guy and Free Man of Color. But Wolfe didn’t bring the Rockwell Group on board just because of its museum and exhibition experience. “George is used to telling stories,” Richards says. “He wanted the exhibition design to help drive the narrative. Even before the design, we spent a lot of time discussing what the story points were.”
Garrett Antin and Abbey Kesten of Studio G in discussion. “I think people who come here are intrigued,” says Rockwell. “They get immersed in a declarative process that is less slotted than other places. There’s a chance for their ideas to matter.”
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Your Client
Rockwell’s what-if approach often takes the form of friendly provocation. “We challenge the clients and they challenge us,” says Richard Chandler, architectural designer of the firm’s Studio G. “Then we challenge them back. It’s that tension that creates something very interesting.” Often this back and forth does more than simply clarify an existing idea; it expands the meaning and purpose of the entire project.
NeueHouse, a work space collective in New York City that will soon be expanding to other cities, began with a modest, undefined program. “When they came to us, they didn’t have complete clarity of the end goal,” says Greg Keffer, Studio G’s principal. “It was a tract of discovery for both of us.” Eventually NeueHouse grew into a much bigger idea than temporary work spaces. It’s a thriving cultural hub with programs, lectures, and exhibitions. That initial push/pull improved the end product for the client and that other important group in need of challenging and wooing: the end user.
A similar dynamic is at work in set design. Rockwell and his team know that it’s not just the director, and the director’s small army of collaborators, that the set must serve, but the audience and the play itself. “A lot of the challenge is working out what we can do differently while still keeping the integrity of the show,” says TJ Greenway, who is currently working on You Can’t Take It With You with Richard Jaris. “Sometimes the play is very iconic and you have to battle people’s views of what it is.”
“You Can’t Take It With You is a perfect example,” Jaris adds. “It’s a one-set show from the 1930s that is usually done with a classic box-set interior.” Instead they’ve decided to surprise the audience by replacing the show drop with a rotating three-dimensional exterior of a house. “The expectations of the audience are already being challenged even as they enter the theater,” Jaris says. “It’s hopefully a delightful departure for them.”
Studio C, led by partner Sullivan; going over design plans; principal and Studio G leader Greg Keffer with Richard Chandler in an internal meeting. “The Rockwell way of working is questioning; it’s curiosity, it’s never assuming the obvious, and always searching for solutions that maybe aren’t apparent,” says Keffer. “At the end of the day, David wants to be surprised, so every studio always pushes itself to think differently.”
6. Storytelling Rules
“From the very beginning, we always create a story on who the client is and what the space should feel like,” says Susan Nugraha about her work on the TAO Downtown team. “We told this story about a speakeasy. The restaurant is at cellar level, which is natural to the narrative.” Led by Sullivan, the Studio C team created a long series of arch portals made from reclaimed wood, which allow arriving guests to catch glimpses of the space before being rewarded with the final reveal: a football-field-size dining room with the giant transforming Quan Yin statue at the end. Designing a social space, as well as a sit-down restaurant, the studio worked with the client to create an interior that—like speakeasies of the past— encourages guests to mingle. “You can get up in between courses and talk to someone who just came in, or just go look at the Buddha,” Sullivan says. “We worked with the TAO partners to take something social and make it even more so in ways that will surprise people.”
Rockwell Group’s extensive body of work over the past 30 years is celebrated in the December release of What If…? (Metropolis Books, 2014)
7. Stay Curious
Since the beginning, Rockwell’s own inquisitiveness has led the way. He had no expertise in set design, but as the son of a former dancer and choreographer—his mother once ran a community theater—he had a lifelong passion for the theater. He spent years meeting with directors before working on his first play, and his keen cultural awareness led to work in pop-up architecture. It was his passion for creating a better world for his children that provided the spark for the Imagination Playground. “We invented the playground project,” Rockwell says. “There wasn’t a client; we were the client. In many cases we haven’t waited for someone to knock on the door. We’ve gone out and solved the problem.”
By year’s end, there will be 3,000 mobile Imagination Playgrounds. And now he’s ready to tackle stadiums—something he describes as a playground for adults—and parks. “We study parks, we talk about them, and I’ve given choreographed tours of them, but we have yet to design one. We’ve come close, and we’re a finalist for one right now.” Rockwell pauses before adding, “Passions and curiosities aren’t always in search of an immediate outcome. Ultimately, it’s about observing situations—whether it’s process, an object, or a place—and having a belief that it can be better.”