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House Beautiful
Designer Visions
November 2012
A Monologue in One ActSetting: The interior of an apartment in a 1906 red-brick warehouse on the western edge of Manhattan. David Rockwell walks into the living room and sits down in a vintage chair. He’s wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt, and black shoes with royal blue socks. He crosses his legs, casually tucks his glasses into the neck of his shirt, and starts talking. My interest in design began with theater. My mom, who was a vaudeville dancer before I was born, started a community theater on the Jersey Shore. That, to my mind, was glorious—the idea that people could come into an unfinished space, as we did here, and create magic. Before I started to design this apartment, I thought back to one of my college projects. We had to design a town house, and I invented a backstory because it just didn’t make sense to me not to know who the town house was for. I didn’t feel capable of designing a place out of thin air. That was really the miracle of theater for me—design and storytelling coming together. I’ve always loved looking up at buildings in New York and seeing all the windows and imagining all the different stories happening inside of every one. The story we invented here is about a young couple. He’s American, she’s Dutch, and they’ve been living in Amsterdam. He’s come here to be the media director of the new downtown Whitney museum. She’s just gone into business for herself as a fashion designer. Her specialty is denim. The notion is that they picked this apartment because they’re very casual about the way they entertain. The living room and kitchen are open to each other. They serve food on the island. The rolling table can be moved around. The little tables can become hors d’oeuvres trays, the desk a table for two if they want to have an intimate sit-down dinner. [Rockwell pauses, brushes his hair off his forehead, sweeps his eyes around the living room.] There’s a great old Bauhaus exercise that architecture students used to do. They were given an object, and they had to write a history of what that object meant. Every object in this room tells its own story. We began with big gestures. First came the Oushak carpet. It seemed to be in keeping with what the couple would want—it has a sense of history but feels fresh and modern. A lot of things, like the pillows, they would have brought with them. A story has to have layers, so this is a very layered design. If you look at the room carefully, it’s quite composed, although we didn’t try to match anything. That’s one of the things I find most unnatural, the idea of matching this, matching that. Apartments aren’t made all at once. We tried to make it feel like it happened over a period of time, mixing readily accessible things with some extraordinary finds. I know a theater director who says, ‘Don’t put a hat on a hat.’ In that spirit, we didn’t put leather on a chesterfield sofa. We covered it in a wild 1950s-style orange mohair. It really makes it feel like the most eccentric, perfect thing. I’m not interested in arbitrary right and wrong design. I used to have an associate who once said to me, ‘That’s not a good chair.’ I said, ‘Really? Do you have the whole list of what’s good? Give it to me and I’ll circulate it.’ [Rockwell looks at the rug, then the sofas.] The pattern in the room works in layers. There’s pattern on the floor, then there’s a neutral band of upholstery, then there’s another pattern on the pillows. So it’s always pattern, not pattern. Pattern. Not pattern. The reason the chairs work against the carpet: not pattern, pattern. If I were to take this pillow and put it on the carpet, it would be too competitive. Pattern can emphasize where you want people to look. The vertical pattern of the curtains draws your attention to the height of the room. The curtain rod sits within the architecture. I hate rods hanging in space. It feels too decorated…