Meet the Man Who Designs Your Travel Experiences

From airport terminals to hotels to theatrical productions, David Rockwell has shaped many facets of the travel industry with his innovative ideas.

Meet the Man Who Designs Your Travel Experiences

Can you believe that this is an airport terminal restaurant?

Courtesy of Rockwell Group

AFAR caught up with David Rockwell, founder and president of the award-winning Rockwell Group, on the heels of his recent renovations of the Ritz-Carlton, Boston and the United terminal at Newark Airport. Impossible to pigeonhole, Rockwell has designed everything from the sets for the Tony award–winning musical She Loves Me to hip hotels like the New York Edition and is a longtime collaborator of renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer, world-famous chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and actor Robert De Niro. He shares some insight into his most exciting new projects, the hotel he’d move into if he could, and the design trend he wishes would die.

You are reinvigorating the United terminal at Newark Airport for OTG Management. What does today’s traveler need in an airport?

“Most travelers are in a state of anxiety in airports: where to go, will I get to the gate in time, how long will security take? So there is a need to provide opportunities where travelers can catch their breath, relax a little, and take a break from the cacophony.”

How do your plans for Newark reflect that?

“We have created a series of unique mini-worlds for OTG Management that invite a momentary break from the controlled chaos of the airport terminal. These places are environments saturated with visual cues that contrast with the terminal interiors. Each food service is given a distinct identity to reinforce that dining is in a ‘place,’ not just in an airport.”

What’s an upcoming project you’re especially excited about?

“I’m very excited about The Shed, a multi-arts center in New York that we’re designing with Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Opening in spring 2019, The Shed will commission, produce, and present all types of visual and performing arts. We conceived the building as open infrastructure that can be permanently flexible, allowing it to be responsive to variability in scale, media, technology, and the evolving needs of artists.”

When designing hotels like the Ritz-Carlton Boston and the soon-to-open Alohilani in Honolulu, what are the most important things to keep in mind?

“Narrative and storytelling are more important than ever in hospitality these days as travelers 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 do your travels inspire your design practice?

“Travel is an amazing resource for a designer. Aside from breaking a routine and putting a person in a more receptive mood, seeing the richness of cultures around the globe is inspiration for so much work we do.”

You have projects all over the world. How often are you on the road?

“At least once a week, but when I’m working on a new Broadway production, I’m at the theater in tech rehearsals nearly every day.”

What are three things you always take in your carry-on?

“I try to travel light, even on long-haul flights, so I tend to pack items that are compact and multipurpose. I always bring black Pentel sign pens. I’ve been using Pentel pens since college and I like to sketch ideas on flights. I also carry a pack of travel essentials, including business cards, Advil, vitamins, and a phone charger, all tucked into a Ziploc or other waterproof bag. One exception to the rule is my Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones. Made of leather and steel, they are not as portable as a pair of wireless earbuds, but they make air travel a little more luxurious.”

Name one hotel anywhere in the world you wouldn’t mind moving into.

“Venice is one of my favorite cities, and the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is a magical, otherworldly place to stay. Set on the island of Giudecca in the midst of unbelievable gardens, it feels secluded and intimate yet it is minutes away by boat from central Venice.”

What destination is next on your bucket list?

“The Bayreuth Festival in Germany. The annual all-Wagner music festival—founded by Wagner himself—will probably have a permanent spot on my bucket list as it has a decade-long wait list for tickets.”

What’s a design trend you wish would die?

“Colored LED lights. LEDs can be programmed to cycle through a continuous color-changing pattern, but just because you can light a room like a rave doesn’t mean it should be done.”

>>Next: This Landmark Hotel Was Reborn After a Natural Disaster in Big Sur

Laura Itzkowitz is a freelance journalist based in Rome with a passion for covering travel, arts and culture, lifestyle, design, food, and wine.
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