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David Rockwell on Comfort, 2-Hour Chairs, and Taking Risks

Canyon Ranch Miami.
Canyon Ranch Miami.

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a column in which Eater National joins with the forces of Curbed National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating.

David Rockwell is a luminary in the world of restaurant and hotel design. He draws his inspiration from theater (he often consults filmmakers and choreographers to help him work out the flow of his spaces); growing up in Mexico watching bullfights, and his mom, who was a vaudeville dancer. (No joke!) With the soon-to-open Yotel New York, Nobu Beijing, and a Nobu Hotel at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas all in the works, plus W Paris-Opera and a Le Meridien in Oran, Algeria, he has a cornucopia of projects to keep him busy. Here, we talk to him about what turns him on—restaurants versus hotels—so-called kid ‘jails’, food trucks, and that epic debate he and his industry peers constantly face: "perchers" versus two-hour chairs.

Which do you prefer designing: restaurants versus hotels?
I prefer food—cooking and dining—so restaurants are near and dear to me. My fascination with hotels stems from someone who spends a lot of time in hotels. And in many cases, I end up being overly analytical and critical about the design. In your own home, you don’t require two phone lines to your bed or spend an entire evening obsessing about the angle of the headboard or a room service tray. What motivates me is more about who the client is. I have a preference for project types and clients.

How important is comfort when you are designing restaurants?
Comfort is absolutely critical. When we were doing our first Nobu 18 years ago, with Drew Nieporent — the restaurateur behind Montrachet who brought fine dining to Lower Manhattan — and we talked about comfort a lot. Certain restaurants we have designed have 45-minute chairs. At the Whitney Museum’s new restaurant, Untitled, the chairs there are meant to be comfortable, but I would describe them more as "perchers," where you sit for 45 minutes to one hour. At Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, that is more of a two-hour chair. Comfort is both the physical and visual. It is creating an environment where you feel safe and want to explore new tastes and flavors. Light levels are also very important. The lighting needs to enable the guest to see the food the way the chef envisions it, to emphasize the room and to add just the right amount of sparkle.

Tell us about Yotel New York in Times Square.
Yotel was a huge risk. It’s a 700-room hotel on 42nd Street. The rooms are tiny (160 square feet) and are based on Yotel’s London and Amsterdam airport models, so we decided to create a huge 20,000-square-foot roof deck on the fourth floor. It will be the largest outdoor terrace in Manhattan.

Did you consider not doing it?
You have to allow yourself to take risks and take on projects that aren’t familiar and to push boundaries, and you have to stay curious. Being interested, in not just current trends but other spaces, competitors, fashion, theater, and film. Once you believe you already know the answer you are in deep trouble.

We loved the breezy feel of W Vieques [in Puerto Rico]. What inspired your designs here?
The landscape. I went a long time ago when much of the island was a military base and there was one bed and breakfast. The island is surrounded by very rough landscape and sea. We used huge pods of lavender plants and bushes to connect all of the buildings using landscape, but not in a precious way. It started with a metal gate, something you see in Vieques. It is actually a local art form—the metal gates that open up in such a beautiful way—and there is a relaxation patio that surrounds the spa. It is a great combination of luxurious and wilderness.

Talk to us a bit about Jaleo [in Las Vegas]?
We worked on Jaleo for José Andrés with our satellite office in Madrid. We were inspired by different food and craft rituals in Spain, as well as the country’s art and design scene. Chef Andrés wanted the restaurant’s furnishings, materials and artwork to be made in Spain and to highlight local artists. The main dining room features a dramatic wall installation by the Barcelona design studio Toormix based on traditional house curtains found in Spanish country homes. In the E Bar, a private dining room that seats eight to ten people, we designed a large chalkboard behind a small prep and serve bar, which has drawings created by Spanish artists selected by Chef Andrés. The chalk art changes every few months. It’s a young and vibrant restaurant that celebrates Spanish cuisine, craft and emerging artists.

We've heard Jaleo has a killer wine cellar! What's so special about it?
Yes, up to ten guests can be seated in an open wine cellar. The walls and ceiling are covered in custom a “bookshelf” wall covering and a collection of 11 paintings by contemporary artists from Spain. The pendant lamps that hang over the dining table are oversized books with original artwork on the interior surface of fixtures. We used a red glass wall to create a visual connection between the dining room and the wine cellar.

Who would you love to work with next?
There is a whole slew of interesting, emerging chefs right now. I’m interested in working at all scales. We are looking at a pop-up cookie bar concept for Dorie and Josh Greenspan. It is teeny but significant for me since we’ve been working on this for a while. One dream project is to create a great touring food fair that would be a park exposition around food that is able to move and change, with sustainable gardening and involving multiple restaurants. I think we could do a really good job with that.

Head over to Curbed National for the rest of the interview. >>>

—Julie Earle-Levine

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