If you enjoyed an alfresco meal in New York City sometime over the past year, you likely have David Rockwell to thank for the experience. Last spring, he and his design firm, Rockwell Group, created DineOut NYC, a template for a modular outdoor dining system that they offered as an open-source document to any restaurateur to use, free of charge. “We started with a thought piece that we presented to the city to try to help them visualize the idea of opening restaurants outside,” says Rockwell, the founder and president of the firm.
That idea became a reality when the DineOut NYC project’s first six modular installations were put in, following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement last May of the Open Streets initiative, which allowed city restaurants to expand their outdoor dining space into the streets. Amid lockdowns and restrictions on indoor dining, Open Streets and DineOut NYC offered a lifeline to restaurants like Melba’s in Harlem, one of the first places to take advantage of the template. (Since it’s offered for free, Rockwell doesn’t know how many restaurants have used the system, but it’s safe to say it’s a lot.) Rockwell Group also created community installations in neighborhoods all over the city, starting with Chinatown. “It was incredibly moving and powerful for us to be welcomed into that community, which was the first hit [by the COVID-related economic downturn] because of rumors and prejudice and concern,” he says.
Now, the streets have effectively become the city’s living room. “New Yorkers are seeing how public space can be used for groups and individuals, expanded and contracted as needed,” Rockwell says. “I think that’s part of what cities are going to be like, post-pandemic, as well. Taking full advantage of the streets and literally breaking out of the box is something that will be inspirational to restaurants, but it may also inspire gyms and library kiosks and theatrical performances, and lead to more civic engagement and investment in the city’s future.”
Creating welcoming spaces is nothing new for Rockwell, an avid traveler who spent time in Guadalajara, Mexico, as a teenager, and whose award-winning firm, founded in 1984, has more than 250 employees, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Madrid. The company has designed hotels (including multiple Moxy locations and the Andaz Maui at Wailea), restaurants (RPM Seafood in Chicago), and other eye-catching public spaces (The Shed arts center at Hudson Yards and the Amtrak–Long Island Rail Road waiting room at the new Moynihan Train Hall, both in Manhattan). There’s a theatrical feeling to each of these projects, and with good reason: As a child in New Jersey, Rockwell was often cast in community repertory productions by his mother, a dancer and choreographer.
Rockwell’s passion for theater has continued into adulthood. He has created sets for Broadway plays, earning six Tony Award nominations for set design (he won in 2016 for She Loves Me), and this month he publishes a book, Drama (Phaidon), which explores the relationship between theater and architecture. The pandemic, he notes, changed how he expressed that relationship in the book. “I was wrestling with, well, is a book about the importance of public space and theater like the Old Testament?” he says. “And I realized, no, it was important to look at ideas that are part of our studio and figure out how we can be helpful.”
As it turns out, many of Rockwell’s existing principles were ready-made for pandemic-era living. The Moxy Miami South Beach, which opened recently, didn’t require any major modifications to be COVID-ready—it just leaned into things that Rockwell believes are going to be important for hotels in this next phase: contactless check-in, flexible spaces with modular furniture designed to be easily reconfigured, grab-and-go dining options. “I felt all along that architects were trained to solve problems,” Rockwell says. “It’s going to be interesting to apply that problem-solving to how to create adaptable, flexible spaces that don’t lose a sense of hospitality.”