David Rockwell, The Diner

Veteran designer David Rockwell speaks with Design Anthology   on the sidelines of this spring’s Salone del Mobile about his pop-up diner installation, design trends and the role of research in his own practice

Design Anthology: In terms of interior design, many firms tend to specialise in one particular area but your firm seems to be very multidisciplinary and working in many sectors. Do you feel that because of that you need to be an expert in each those areas?

David Rockwell: I think what interests me and interests our studio is essentially not being defined by a box around project type. On the other hand, I believe that our design strategy and design research is very fluid. We believe in deep, deep, deep research. So if the you look at the thirty-five years of the Rockwell Group and our divergent practices, they're all connected.

I just turned sixty-one. As a designer, I now have a chance to look in the rear-view mirror to see what are the drivers, what are the things that I'm most interested in, and they're not project types. They‘re about certain ideas including design as a way to bring community together. As different as you could say an airport and a theatre project are, or a pop-up diner, there are certain common investigations. One of them is space as a way of bringing people together and connecting people. When we begin something, like the theatre, not only had I studied it, but I spent two or three years just meeting with directors, talking and sketching and realising that what they were interested in was what I was interested in. And that's how design helps tell a story.


As you mentioned, your firm has been around now for over three decades. I'm curious to know what are some of the biggest changes that you've seen, particularly in hospitality, but also just in design?

That's such an interesting question because I really believe that by the time you can point to a trend, it's already over. So you know, diners for instance, as I started to work on this I looked into the history of diners. Diners have been in and out of fashion almost every ten years, as has some of the iconography of diners. But from the beginning, diners were about a place that was open when other places were closed, and a place where you could be alone and together. So I've seen so many waves of changes in hospitality.

You know, I've been through pre-‘everything looking like Brooklyn’ and hopefully post-‘everything looking like Brooklyn’. I've been through ‘open kitchens are no good’ and then ‘everything should have an open kitchen’. I think one of the trends I'm seeing now that's a good trend is restaurants based on a point of view of hospitality and food. I don't think design is a starting point. I think design has to come out of some point of view and I'm seeing a return to that. There are a million food markets and food halls and you know of course people will realise they're all similar too, and then that will change.

Well that leads to my next question, which is what do you expect to see more of in the future, either in hospitality specifically or just design in general?

One of the things is, this is a good example of what I'm interested in, is the balance between permanence and impermanence. Theatre is alive for the two-and-a-half hours you're there seeing the show. When you're not there, it's not alive; it only lasts for that period. So this [The Diner installation] is just here for one week. I'd love this to be up longer actually, but I think we're going to see more spaces that morph from day to night because of the difficulty in getting real estate. I think this place will be used for talks and lectures in the evening. It'll be used for karaoke on Wednesday. It's a very flexible space, and I think it's going to be a place people want to be. Not just something that looks good on Instagram and in photographs. The biggest memory will be being here, hopefully.

The day-to-night thing is quite interesting. It sounds like something that will have an effect on any big city in the world and be quite important, as you said, as real estate becomes very expensive. My next question is about the LAB that you have. Can you tell us a little about why you set that up and what you hope to achieve through it? 


So I set it up I think in 2007 and it came out of a project in which a client was interested in having us develop a whole series of strategies that were outside of our core expertise. It really was there to look at the architecture projects we were doing and explore ways to use technology to keep people together, not to separate people. More and more people are separated by their technology. You can get your food at home, you don't need to leave for any reason. So the reason to come out is to, as I said, be alone and be together, or be alone together. So the LAB worked on a whole series of projects. And then there were sort of two projects where we started to find a rhythm for it, beginning with the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. When we came on board, we inherited a space that had concrete pillars like some Egyptian tomb. It had been built by someone else and abandoned before it was finished. I proposed that we look at technology as a way to put imagery up. It was all open source, so we created a lot of content but it would change over the years. The next project was the Biennale in Venice, where we did an installation around film and architecture. So the LAB has grown now to have several specialties but it is essentially R&D. I think the challenge is to not be predictable. The challenge is to keep looking for new ways to explore ideas and the LAB helps us do that.

That must be a very attractive capability for your clients, that you have the LAB and that you don't necessarily need to be an expert in any one field because you have that capacity for research.

The tech conference just finished. It was in a theatre we created in Vancouver. It’s a really interesting project that is a fifteen hundred seat pop-up theatre that sets up at the convention centre. It creates the perfect space for a one-on-one talk, then packs up in two days and sets up again a year later. That took a lot of R&D. 


Well this diner is almost theatre in a way, as well. Had you participated in Milan for Salone in this way before?

I have. I wasn't here last year but we had participated before for other things, though nothing on this scale.

So how did this come about? It's a collaboration between you and Surface magazine and then there's a material partner as well — is that right?

There’s a whole bunch of us. What happened was Surface called us and said, ‘We'd like to talk to you guys about doing an installation’. So they said, ‘How would you like to design a diner in Milan?’. And I was immediately compelled and started to research the concept and thought it may be one of the great last symbols of American optimism in design — the history of the diner is fascinating! Plus if I was to create a big installation, the idea that it'd be a place where people could hang out and not just look at was sort of irresistible. So we just dove in head-on. And then we were like whitewashing the fence, like in Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain where he's whitewashing the fence and had to get everyone to help out — we got a lot of other partners who wanted to participate, including Design within Reach.

Speaking of optimism in design in America, is there optimism there at the moment in the design industry? What is the atmosphere like?

I think design is one of the ultimate optimistic professions because you're making things. There's a lot of complicated, challenging conditions in the US now, as there are around the world. Particularly in the US, I think there's a kind of sourness about the country being unified. But diners are a place that appeals to young kids, older people, singles, so I saw it as a chance to go deep into some of the symbols, like the counter. There's a reason why there's a culture called 'counter culture'. It allows you to be a part of the central element that almost organises the space. So there certainly was optimism in getting people to participate in this project. And we got to look back at the counter and the diner's role in popular culture.

Yeah, there's a very strong nostalgic element to it as well, which is quite charming. How long did the entire process take? When did you start working on this?

I don't know the answer to that — it’s one big blur! I don't know. But you know this was custom, custom chemetal. So there are these continuous elements, like the counter, and then there're these different environments. And if we stand here we're going from monochromatic East Coast luncheonette and then this feels more like the Midwest, with brighter colours. And the food, this grilled cheese, we brought the best cheese guy from New York. Murray's Cheese. You really have to try.

I've been hearing good things about the grilled cheese.

It's amazing!

Are diners in the US really that different if you travel from state to state?

Not necessarily. I wanted to emphasise the idea of movement and differentiation.

So the experience changes as you travel through space?

Right. The counter is very solid and on top of it, I've always loved internally lit globes, so we've got these white globes and our shop made these tattoos of the continents. So this is the looser space, where you can see this little stage in the centre, looser furniture, different kinds of booths, the banquette. So when you sit here, you can see there’s this unifying element but there're all of these individual places around, and I do think that people are going to find this to be of use. You can have a meeting, a bite to eat. There's one other subtle design feature, but it's significant, that if you follow this line, there's a clear horizon that continues. So people feel very nestled because of the horizon and the scale. And all of it’s back-lit, so people look great.

As told to / Suzy Annetta