The Experience Guy: David Rockwell

Rockwell Group, New York

At a time when companies obsessively talk about the "consumer experience," architect David Rockwell is emerging as the Experience Guy. His Rockwell Group has designed an extraordinary array of projects in recent years, including W Hotels (HOT ), Montifiore Childrens' Hospital, stage sets for Broadway musicals from Hairspray to the Elvis Presley-inspired All Shook Up, the Mohegan Sun gambling casino, special lounges for kids to drink Coca-Cola, Gap (GPS ) stores, toy emporium FAO Schwarz, some 32 restaurants, the Academy Awards Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, a giant mall in New Jersey, a Canyon Ranch spa, condos in Miami, and the interior of the new JetBlue Airways (JBLU ) terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

For Rockwell, who grew up around the stage (his mother started a community theater group when he was six), every job is about "telling a story and emotionally connecting with people," as he puts it. For each project, he then goes out and talks to people who will be using the space, and constructs the narrative about their lives. He then storyboards the themes he uncovers and tests them out.

For the hospital, his teams talked to dozens of kids about what it's like to be a patient. Then Rockwell built age-specific floors, with rooms children could customize with music and colors. Since families accompany sick kids, rooms were made bigger. Artists were hired to do different playrooms. And there are large murals of what the Bronx (where the hospital is located) looked like 1 million years ago.

Rockwell always builds a bit of magic into his spaces. He uses materials and lighting to create the effect of being in a theater. To Rockwell, designing an environment means shaping an experience that lasts in the memory. Most companies would call that brilliant branding.

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