Nov 29, 2008

Personality - David Rockwell: Broadway to Brand

Reena Jana

David Rockwell, the award-winning architect and Broadway set designer who made his name creating minimalist interiors for sushi restaurant chain Nobu, has moved into an unlikely corporate role: brand consultant. Big companies such as JetBlue (JBLU), Coca-Cola (KO), Starwood Hotels (HOT), and Gap (GPS) are hiring his 240-person architecture firm, which consults on everything from store decor to software engineering, to help them come up with ways to broaden their customer appeal in retail and other high-profile environments.

At Coke's Atlanta headquarters, for example, Rockwell built a lab that features facsimiles of big box and fast-food chains where Coke executives can try out new displays and products. The goal? To better showcase products at Wal-Mart (WMT), McDonald's (MCD), and elsewhere. "David is very creative," says Richard Smythe, JetBlue's vice-president for redevelopment. "He knows how to understand a brand and how to communicate that brand in ways that go beyond the conventional."

Rockwell, 52, went beyond the conventional in fashioning a high-traffic section of JetBlue's Terminal 5 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The carrier invested about $2.5 million—10 times the typical cost of a public airport lounge—in his vision for the terminal's waiting area, which opened in October to positive reviews. The airline went along after Rockwell convinced executives that he could make JetBlue memorable by creating a dramatic space with such touches as a grandstand seating area along with the usual tables and chairs.

When Chicago-born Rockwell decided to study architecture at Syracuse University, he never set out to be a corporate image shaper. His passion was the theater. Little wonder. He had spent much of his childhood in seaside New Jersey watching his ex-vaudevillian mother direct local stage productions. Rockwell used his architectural training to design sets for Hairspray and Legally Blonde; he's currently producing a Broadway musical based on magician Harry Houdini's life.

Stagecraft segued to interior design work. He gave Nobu its simple, no-tablecloth look when the high-end Japanese restaurant opened in New York in 1994. When Starwood launched its W hotels a decade ago it tapped Rockwell, who came up with a lobby and guest rooms that were sleekly minimalist—designs that came to define the W brand. Starwood brought him back to develop its Aloft chain of hip budget hotels, which opened this year.

Twenty-four years after founding Rockwell Group, he still experiments with dramatic ideas, whether on Broadway or in the boardroom. "Being curious feeds me," he says, showing off his firm's newly renovated offices in Manhattan. "I like taking risks, but in a smart way." He expanded the space to accommodate a staff that has tripled in the last five years. As he makes his way around the office, CEO Rockwell greets nearly every employee—and a big black dog that runs freely through the space—with a cheery "Hi!" like a popular kid roaming the high school hallway.

Rockwell has sometimes missed the mark. He tried to differentiate Gap's (GPS) Forth & Towne chain, geared toward women 35 and older, with a floor plan that included fitting rooms placed in a circle instead of straight lines. Gap trumpeted his concept in test marketing its newest unit. But last year the retailer killed the chain after 18 months because of poor sales at its 25 pilot stores. Still, Gap remains a Rockwell client, though neither will say what he is working on. Rockwell says the failure hasn't altered his approach.

The deepening economic crisis threatens to curb corporate spending, but the designer says his business so far is unaffected. Revenue is up 200% since 2003, from roughly $15 million to more than $45 million. Demand for his firm's insight on shaping brand identities has grown to the point that Rockwell formed a 10-person branding-strategy division in the last year. He also added an in-house software and engineering lab where employees can invent displays, such as a video projection that reacts to the movements of passersby, for both theater productions and shops.

Currently he's remaking the Viking Range outdoor grill, due out next year. His radical changes, which include doing away with the protective smoke hood, inspired Viking to rethink its marketing campaign, says Fred Carl Jr., CEO of the Greenwood (Miss.) company. "We just asked him to design a grill that was part of a new product line," says Carl. "But then great ideas emerged, and I thought, heck, we could build our promotional work around David's design."

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