David Rockwell – IIDA Keynote Speaker @ Neocon 2016

David Rockwell – IIDA Keynote Speaker @ Neocon 2016

rockwell keynote talk neocon 2016.jpg

2016 Tony Award ( scenic design category ) winner and Architect David Rockwell welcomed visitors to the Chicago workplace furniture show where he and furniture manufacturer Knoll set the stage for this weeks’ immersive workplace with Rockwell Unscripted.

He was the 1998 American Designer of the Year, and his firm won many Interior Design Awards over the past few years. Rockwell’s prolific career has included interiors for numerous hotels and restaurants, as well as theatre sets.

Speaking to a full house of designers, manufacturers and industry professionals about bringing theater and play to the workplace, he described ……. ” the design imperatives of the evolving workplace, where traditional boundaries between residential and contract settings blur, companies thrive by attracting and retaining top talent, well being is a primary consideration, and the design of total environments outshines any one particular work element.”

Our interest is in getting people to look at their work environments as a stage on which movable furniture can be arranged in endless configurations. You can craft the scene around what it is you’re doing that day,” said David Rockwell.

david rockwell tony award 2

David Rockwell, founder and president of Rockwell Group, delivered the NeoCon Keynote Talk ( in conjunction with the International Interior Design Association ) just two days after receiving his first Tony Award.

He has done 20 Broadway Theatre set designs and had been nominated five previous times – notable amongst these are —

He won in the ” Best Scenic Design of a Musical ” category for his design of the set for She Loves Me.

My love of the theater is much about the collaborative creative process. It takes a small army of people to make a show work so seamlessly. And when everyone contributes equally, you feel that the production really works.

At Rockwell Group, I love putting together designers from different disciplines with different backgrounds and skills to solve problems in unexpected ways. I believe better solutions erupt when creative forces come from wildly divergent sources.



David Discussed the making of his Monograph –  What if ?

2014 marked the 30th year anniversary as a company and it felt like the perfect time to look closely at all that we’ve done, and where we’re headed next.

The process of making a book is one of discovery and reflection.

david rockwell-what-if-book

The book explores our sense of play, our sense of curiosity, and I want to emphasize curiosity because I think that is the single most important element when someone joins Rockwell Group, we want designers who don’t know the answer before they begin.” ……. David Rockwell

what if inside


david rockwell book signing

Post Talk – book signing by David Rockwell


In his Neocon Keynote Speaker talk David Rockwell presented and explored six ideas he claimed are at the forefront for any designer throughout their career : –

choreography and


shinola new york

shinola new york

Rockwell emphasized the superior impact of handcrafted products (materiality) through his work with bike and wristwatch retailer Shinola.

As well as the effectiveness of eclectic influence (mash-up) with projects such as NeueHouse and New York’s Vandal restaurant.

” As hotels and restaurants are becoming social hubs for both tourists and locals, hospitality design is becoming more experience-driven. We’re conceiving more distinctive, idiosyncratic destinations that reflect their surroundings to create unique experiences for guests. “

Vandal-Bowery rockwell group

Vandal Bowery

Our studio sees every project as a completely new opportunity and challenge, so my starting point involves deep research to understand the client’s backstory and creative ambitions. Our objective is to always create a unique narrative for each project that is based on the client’s story and the surrounding environment. We’ve also been fortunate to work on several adaptive reuse projects in recent years, including NeueHouse Hollywood in the former CBS Radio Building, Hotel Bel-Air, and New York Edition in the original Met Life Tower.”

rockwell neuehouse new york (2)

neuehouse new york (2)

If you remove hard barriers among meeting, creating, and eating and look at them as a fluid set of conditions, it’s enlivening. There are things at NeueHouse New York that are memorable and very subtle. One is the idea of “ day-parting.” The chandeliers are all on physical manual counterweights and they lower at 5:30pm every day. There’s a ritual of going from day to night, and the place transforms. There are tables and pieces where you can put your computer and work on the bleachers at the center of the space. At night, it becomes a place for performance.

ted rockwell render

Ted Vancouver stage design

“We’re excited to be able to apply our underlying interest in theater and transformation to new and different projects.We’ve addressed these concepts on a relatively large scale with the portable, 1,300-seat theater that we designed for the TED Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, 2 years ago.” …… David Rockwell

ted rockwell 3

In addition to his most recent design for the musical She Loves Me, David Rockwell also addressed the work involved in his creation of the set for the Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots in his discussion of collaborating with directors and understanding stagecraft.

kinky boots broadway

kinky boots broadway


He discussed his set designs for the 2008 and 2009 Academy Awards exemplified how architecture informs choreography and creates a sense community.

The annual Academy Awards have become one of the greatest shared rituals of our time. Rockwell Group re-imagined the stage on which the ceremony takes place, creating an immersive experience to engage an international television audience of more than 37 million people each year.

academy awards 2010

Only four steps separate the audience and presenters. Seating from Rockwell Group’s 2001 Kodak Theater design was removed and replaced with a proscenium stage to bring the audience closer – allowing at-home viewers to see celebrity reactions.

82nd academy awards 2010 rockwell

82nd academy awards 2010

81st academy awards 2009 rockwell

81st academy awards 2009

Rockwell also spoke to the firm’s work on public space, playgrounds and parks.

The importance of transformation was embodied in Rockwell’s Imagination Playgrounds, where design function becomes largely user-driven.

That component has the most direct overlap with our work designing playgrounds. There was something about child-centered play that had been engineered out of playgrounds, and we found there was something incredibly freeing about making your own way to play. The fact that there are multiple pieces that can fit together in different configurations is the most direct nod to play.

rockwell play group

The firm’s research with Gensler on its Jet Blue Terminal led, for instance, to a particular sensitivity to how people choreograph their own space, and how design can support and aid that spontaneous sense of owned experience, rather than hinder it.

rockwell jetblue

rockwell jetblue


david rockwell keynote tak neocon 2016

David discussed Theater, Hospitality and Collaboration with Knoll and presented the ideas that formed the Rockwell Unscripted design brief.

David Rockwell said …… ” The best clients are a lot like great theater directors. They know what they want, but they don’t describe what it looks like. There’s a lot of open space and a lot of dialog.”

It’s in this mindset that he collaborated with Knoll on a new office collection “Rockwell Unscripted

Rockwell Group applied its sense of drama to workplace design with NeueHouse, a New York co-working space with the feel of a private club. They were working on NeueHouse Hollywood, which opened last year, when Knoll approached the firm about designing a new line of office furnishings.

When first approached by Knoll, Rockwell was posed with the task of envisioning a furniture collection for the 21st century office, and was encouraged to draw inspiration from his varied experience to steer the undertaking.

I was intrigued and at the same time I was challenged because over my career and my studio’s career we’ve tried to look at experience that comes from design, and the idea of creating an iconic object for this pantheon of designers was very intriguing,” David Rockwell told the audience.

Knoll has a long history of tapping the minds of great architects: Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Frank Gehry, and David Adjaye have all worked with the furniture maker.

They are great collaborators because they don’t prescribe a solution. The brief was wide open, although they knew they didn’t want an office system, and they knew they didn’t want us to design an iconic chair. Knoll has already checked those boxes. ”  …..  David Rockwell

Rather, Rockwell Group could offer its expertise in rethinking the office itself, much like Florence Knoll – one of the company’s founders – did in the 1950s with the Knoll Planning Unit, a unit within company devoted to corporate interiors.

david rockwell at knoll 1

Trying to identify a trend is dangerous—as soon as you’ve said what it is, it has already morphed and changed—but I do think the world of perpetual startup is not going away. So we challenged ourselves to take a look at big footprints and ask how would this group of products create a really thriving, interesting pop-up office space that would feel like it belongs there permanently, but part of permanence is that it will always change. Flexibility and utility are the anchors of the collection. There is a sense that you could mix or match and get very different outcomes. But it also has a unified language. That’s one of the things that we really wanted.

In the workplace, you create things, and then you share them with people. There is a huge element of performance in that.”

It came down to pitting together hospitality, performance, and collaboration—three cornerstones of our work

Companies need spaces that encourage creativity and the cross pollination of ideas more than ever before. Hospitality-influenced elements, such as an open, flexible lobby like space or niches where employees can lounge or socialize, encourage serendipitous encounters and aha moments “. ….  David Rockwell


rockwell unscripted setting


Rooted in David Rockwell’s innovative approach to hospitality environments and public space, and inspired by his award-winning design for theater and entertainment, Rockwell Unscripted is a comprehensive collection of furniture elements that adapt to the spontaneous choreography of the work day.

Play is about permission to ideate,” he said, “and we thought that was the glue that would hold people together, the most common denominator. We’re defining a landscape that uses those moments to encourage community and connection.” ……. David Rockwell on Rockwell Unscripted

Transformation also defines the Rockwell Unscripted collection for Knoll, which demonstrates high functionality, flexibility, and portability. The versatility of the series accommodates the convergence of social, professional, and private spaces.

The Rockwell Unscripted display in the Knoll NeoCon showroom highlights an experience-based approach to workplace planning.

Like the collection itself, the showroom takes cues from theatre, hospitality and start-up culture and introduces Immersive Planning to the company’s r/evolution workplace planning platform.

Spanning six categories and including more than 30 products, Rockwell Unscripted is the most expansive collection from Knoll to date—a suite of elements from drink rails to powered, creative walls that can be readily deployed, reconfigured and adjusted over all time scales, whether that be a growth year or an hour in the work day.


Unscripted is anything but unplanned.

rockwelll unscripted aerial

It’s about planning for spontaneity so people are empowered to forge and participate in their own networks, and evidence shows that this ultimately contributes to a better work culture and more productive, more interesting work.

Unscripted features a comprehensive, eclectic array of freestanding, architecturally grounded and movable elements that can be used to create a variety of experiences for teams, small groups and individuals. Creative walls and steps evoke the energy of performance, while lounge elements conjure the atmosphere of a hotel lobby. Tables become a stage for work, conversation and celebration. Modular and mobile storage elements evoke the casual feeling of a workshop.

Unscripted includes sawhorse-inspired tables, deconstructed bleacher seating that can slink around corners, lounge chairs, and even a beverage cart ( a fixture at both NeueHouse projects )

It manages to be far-reaching and allow for multiple, changing combinations of elements, while retaining a strong identity.

rockwelll unscripted aerial 2

” The collection’s guiding analogy—to set the workplace stage and then let the actors start the show—reflects a powerful shift in work culture that Knoll and Rockwell Group are observing across a variety of industries ”  ………….. David Rockwell

Rockwell Unscripted was designed to support that shift and allow people to thrive.

The collection is very much open to what people will do with it. It’s truly an invitation for workplace designers and their clients to personalize their own space.” ……. Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s director of design

david rockwell and benjamin pardo at knoll

Our research shows that workplace planning paradigms are evolving well beyond an activity-based approach to embrace a range of social and creative experiences,” said Alana Stevens, Knoll senior vice president, chief marketing officer.

Based on its latest research, Knoll has identified Immersive Planning, a workplace planning model that puts people’s experiences at the center. Comfortable furnishings and fluid boundaries characterize this group-based workplace, where the actions of the people themselves define the space.

The result: an environment that enables a variety of experiences that can transform at a moment’s notice and evolve with use.

It’s a comprehensive collection of set elements that adapt to the spontaneous choreography of a work environment. The collection relies on a theatrical analogy to explain how one’s space can be easily reorganized around three or four different activities, from individual work to team meetings, over the course of the day ”  …….. David

David Rockwell continued to present Rockwell Unscripted throughout the day in the Knoll NeoCon showroom, welcoming visitors through a series of experience-based planning displays that underscore the collection’s intentional mutability and sense of an empowered, inspiring workspace.

david rockwell at knoll 2


” People need to go to the workplace less and less to do work. You’re able to work on your phone anywhere you are. Therefore, the workplace is now a place where you’re having conversations and connecting with people. It’s where you want to be because there is something you’re going to get out of that collective that you’re not going to get on your own. That quality of the workplace at the moment is what’s driving a lot of this collection.”  …………  David Rockwell

” In the workplace, you create things, and then you share them with people. There is a huge element of performance in that. We asked ourselves how an environment can allow someone to both create and present. One of the things that we started with was how to incorporate whiteboards, and we designed a partition that allows multiple surfaces [hanging from overhead tracks] slide past one another so you can quickly go from meeting to presenting. That’s overtly connected to our theatre work. ” …..  David Rockwell



The combination of individual and social is directly relevant in hospitality. One of the things about a restaurant or a hotel that I find is important to explore is that if you’re going to a place and you’re the first group to step into the lobby or a restaurant, how does that feel?

Where are you going to want to sit if no one else is there? And the sense of welcome in a lobby, once that first group is there, does that leave room for other groups? You’re creating an environment where the collective experience is as important as the individual experience.

david rockwell at knoll neocon

We looked at choreography in public spaces, and then we looked at everything to do with how you might work and personalize a place that changes over time. So, if you’re not defined by an office or a cubicle, where do you put your things ? How do your things move ? What things do you want to have with you? How can these pieces of furniture be reconfigured during the day for different times of day ?

We started defining those experiences, and then put them into the DNA of a whole bunch of things in the collection. Every piece that we looked at, we looked at in the context of an overall landscape.

What was most relevant for us and for Knoll was creating a sense of serendipity. There is the work that you’re doing individually and the work you do as a group, but then there is what happens in between all that. We’re defining a landscape that uses those moments to encourage community and connection.



About David Rockwell

david rockwell with sets

David Rockwell, FAIA, is the founder and President of Rockwell Group, an interdisciplinary architecture and design firm that emphasizes innovation and thought leadership in every project.

Based in New York with offices in Madrid and Shanghai, Rockwell Group merges architecture, theater, craftsmanship, and technology to create unique narratives for their work, including hospitality, cultural institutions, offices, transportation, residential, set design, products, exhibitions and festivals.

david rockwell

Projects include Nobu restaurants and hotels worldwide; The New York EDITION; NeueHouse (New York, Los Angeles and London); W Hotels worldwide; Virgin Hotels Chicago; TED Theater (Vancouver, BC); Travelle at the Langham (Chicago); Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho Hotel; 15 Hudson Yards and Culture Shed in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro; set designs for On Your Feet, Kinky Boots and Hairspray; and product collections for Stellar Works, The Rug Company, Jim Thompson and Shaw Hospitality Group.

Honors and recognition include the AIA New York Chapter President’s Award, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, and the Presidential Design Award.




About Knoll

knoll logo

Knoll is a constellation of design-driven brands and people, working together with our clients to create inspired modern interiors.

Our internationally recognized portfolio includes furniture, textiles, leathers, accessories, and architectural and acoustical elements brands.

Knoll’s brands -Knoll Office, Knoll Studio, Knoll Textiles, Knoll Extra, SpinneyBeck, Filz Felt, Edelman Leather, and Holly Hunt – reflect Knoll’s commitment to modern design that meets the diverse requirements of high performance workplaces and luxury interiors.

A recipient of the National Design Award for Corporate and Institutional Achievement from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Knoll is aligned with the U.S. Green Building Council and the Canadian Green Building Council and can help organizations achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) workplace certification.

Knoll is the founding sponsor of the World Monuments Fund Modernism at Risk program.




Extract from FastCo Design

Written by Dianna Buddis

13th June 2016


The Changing Conditions Of Offices Today

rockwell 1

“If more and more people can do work at home, the question is, why do they go to work?”

As Rockwell Group found in its research process, the real estate market is putting new pressure on office design. Property is expensive, there’s less overall square footage allocated per employee, and there’s an increasingly diverse building stock that companies are leasing for work spaces.

For example, former manufacturing sites are being converted into offices en masse throughout the Midwest – a trend Knoll saw after researching the past three years worth of building types for which its furniture was either purchased or considered.

In short, offices are less and less likely to be located in office buildings.

At the same time, work itself is changing—and so is the furniture they need to make it happen. For example, fewer people need cabinet after cabinet for paper files. Not only are our workspaces changing—so are our jobs.

In this extraordinarily diverse landscape of emerging work, office design is rapidly transforming.

The office furniture business is the most volatile, it’s the most cyclical, and it’s also gone through a fair amount of secular change in terms of how people are working,” Andrew Cogan, Knoll’s CEO, says. “The changing mixture of how much space companies allocate individual and private areas versus group and collaborative areas has changed and shifted dramatically. It seemed to us that we had an opportunity under our brand to pivot into a more diverse and balanced portfolio.”

One of the other changes Knoll noticed was that its office furniture sales were coming from an increasingly diverse group of companies – like media, entertainment, finance, legal, and tech, among others – and no one segment dominated its business like it used to.

A client-facing banking institution has a different image they’re trying to project than someone trying to attract and retain a different generation of workers on the West Coast,Andrew Cogan says. “And more and more of our financial-services companies want to brand their environments as young, hip, and creative.

Knoll also saw a shift in how employees view their relationship to an office.

“Younger people consider their office the entire office, particularly on the West coast,” Benjamin Pardo says. “One of the things that always belonged to an employee was ‘my chair.’ It was ‘their chair’ they adjusted to make it their own.

If you talk to someone who’s 20 years younger, they don’t have obsession over that. The possession of an object has gone away and it’s about the ownership of the overall space.”

To Rockwell, one of the biggest shifts was about why people even come into an office in the first place.

If more and more people can do work at home, the question is, why do they go to work?” David says. “One of the reasons you go to an office is you can work together, or you can work individually, and we’re trying to accommodate that.”


Escape From The Open Plan

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Over the last few decades, open-plan offices became popular as a way to foster a team-oriented, collaborative environment and banish cubicles, an emblem of corporate hell.

However, a recent backlash has emerged—fueled by noise, distraction, and privacy concerns.

Cubicles created this overall 66-inch-high monotony in the architectural space—that was Dilbertville,” Benjamin Pardo says. ” Then we went from Dilbertville to a level of planning that said, ‘keep it low so we can see everyone.’ That brings a whole new set of problems: I see everybody’s crap, I can’t hear a damn thing, and when I’m circulating through a space, I’m confused as to where I’m going. The solution becomes about using an interior architectural framework to create smaller rooms that become destinations but are still flexible.

For example, modular screens allow offices to place semi-private “rooms” into the workspace. Movable screens help absorb sound and also divvy up the space. Tall storage shelves and tables also offer flexibility to build distinct zones within an office. The typical open office is a sea of designs and computers. With this system, there are more diverse furniture heights, which gives an office more “landmarks” within its floor plan without the permanence or expense of building out full walls.

In its existing range, Knoll had plenty of workstations, file cabinets, ergonomic chairs, and sit-stand desks.

While those won’t go away—traditional offices still need them—it was lacking furniture that addressed all of those other, still-emerging needs.


The Office As A Stage

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For Rockwell, one of the “aha” moments came after his fourth or fifth meeting.

Knoll continued to say, ‘Don’t show designs yet, talk about approach, theory, philosophy, and relevance to other worlds,” Rockwell says, which got him thinking about how he approached other disciplines, set design in particular.  ” The set is creating the context for a story to be told.”

I found the overlap was in a theatrical application. A set’s job is to tell a story but if the set is telling the story in the same way the actors are, it’s sort of like putting a hat on a hat—they’re both doing the same work. The set is creating the context for a story to be told. As opposed to creating an iconic piece, we could create a landscape that was iconic in its possibility.

One of the most direct links between theater design and the Unscripted collections is that the pieces are flexible and can be used in a handful of ways depending on an office’s needs. For example, a wood “bleacher” seat could be used on its own or grouped together to create a dining-style booth—it’s stage dressing for the workplace.

To organize the collection, Rockwell Group created six diverse product categories: Seating, which includes club chairs, lounge chairs, poufs, stools, benches, and swivel chairs; Storage, in the form of lockers, mobile carts, credenzas, and consoles; bleacher-style furniture called “Steps”; Tables includes long library-style pieces equipped with power, drink rails, sawhorse tables, and wire-base occasional tables; “Borders” is composed of modular screens and walls that help delineate semi-private space.

Designers can pick and choose from a medley of products that makes sense for an office’s individual culture as it evolves over the course of the day—much like set designers carefully choose pieces that can be quickly rearranged between scenes on stage.


A Recipe For Lively, Local Spaces


Rockwell Group also has extensive expertise in designing hospitality spaces, and the design team found an unlikely synergy between the office design and hotel design.

The general idea is that any space is most efficient and lively when continuously in use.”

In the last decade, the rising cost of real estate and shrinking profit margins sparked hoteliers to shift the allocation of space from individual rooms to common areas.

Rockwell has helped usher in that trend of continually activating these spaces, like lobbies, restaurants, and communal spaces, by borrowing the idea of the 24-hour neighborhood from city planning.

Rather than design dedicated dining areas that would be closed for a portion of the day, they conceived of areas that were flexible and could morph throughout the day. Instead of a separate business center, the architects equipped lobbies with furniture where someone could just as easily work as they could lounge.

The general idea is that any space is most efficient and lively when it’s continuously in use.

Rockwell began to realize that offices could benefit from the same philosophy.

The products have silhouettes and finishes that could be equally be at home in a office, residence, or hotel.

For example, the tables feature a beveled edge that’s more akin to dining table, but also have a robust wood surface that can withstand wear and tear. Drink rails—tall, thin tables—offer a place for casual, impromptu meetings. Recognizing that people are more likely to store gym bags than files at the office, Rockwell Group designed lockers. And noting that employees move around in a space, they created mobile carts that are easy to transport. Bleacher seating—a popular feature at the New York location of the co-working space Neuehouse, which Rockwell Group also designed—could be used for almost anything.

The old dichotomy of work—that it happens either individually at a desk or collectively in a meeting room—no long exists, and the collection responds to that changing paradigm.

The idea that we’re collaborating in a ‘kum-ba-yah’ session in a meeting room isn’t really what’s happening,Rockwell says

We have to create spaces that work for an individual, to find that ‘local’ space, whether that’s on a sofa or in a wing chair or finding a portion of a table where people are also doing quiet work,” Benjamin Pardo says.

He also noted that being stationary—whether it’s sitting or standing in a single space—isn’t healthy behavior. ……. “ I think that’s a really important thing. The furniture gets you out of your chair and makes you move through the space.


The Only Constant: Change

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The Unscripted collection is meant to be flexible enough to grow with a company and work like a kit of parts in that they can be easily reconfigured if an office relocates.

This variety in the size and scale of the furniture also means that it can be adapted to fit virtually any type of space, no matter how the interior columns are positioned.

When Knoll thought about the furniture, it also kept in mind that companies often like to customize things with unique textiles so the upholstered pieces are designed so fabric can be redone relatively easily (meaning simple forms and limited tufting) and look good regardless of the pattern size.

The world and the workplace continues to change at a rapid pace and what we try and do is stay in touch with how those needs are evolving,” Andrew Cogan says.

The adaptability of the collection and its ability to work in a slew of different spaces is also a way to help Knoll ensure that it will be a go-to resource for designers as they create solutions for the evolving workplace.

There’s a lot of transformational stuff taking place in office design,” Benjamin Pardo says. ” If I were to tell you exactly where it’s going, you could tell me I was completely full of it because I don’t necessarily know. I could give the best informed information in terms of where I think it’s going, but I don’t know that it’s going there. What I want is an opportunity to be an influencer in terms of where it’s going, have the support pieces associated with that, but be flexible enough that a client can lead us down a path that’s most appropriate for them.”

All told, the Unscripted collection is a lot like a great character actor: a person who has the skill and versatility to embody many different personalities, shines at just the right times in a story line, but rarely upstages the lead.

Knoll and Rockwell Group designed a series of pieces that will fulfill a company’s needs and can turn on a dime if—and most likely when—those demands are rewritten

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