Has the Jolly Green Giant been designing New York City restaurants lately? Downtown at chic Nobu, the bar chairs seem to be made from oversize chopsticks. In teeming Times Square, at the Official All Star Cafe, the banquettes are fielder’s mitts that seat eight. And in the tony East 50s, Monkey Bar sports stools that think they’re colossal olives.
David Rockwell is tall, but not that tall. He is, however, the biggest thing in restaurant design — ”entertainment architecture,” he calls it, or, more accurately, architecture as entertainment — due to the Rockwell Group’s burgeoning list of fantasy creations: not just the aforementioned success stories but also New York’s three-star Vong, more than 30 Planet Hollywoods around the world, upcoming Sony flagship theater complexes in Detroit and San Francisco, the restoration of the Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse for co-owner Robert De Niro, a permanent home for Cirque du Soleil in Orlando, and a web of Marvel Comics-themed restaurants that’s still hush-hush.
What do these highbrow and no-brow projects have in common? ”A very distinct point of view that comes from a passion,” says the 39-year-old architect, who grew up in New Jersey and Mexico, the youngest of five boys. ”The idea is theater, and theater has emotional impact.”
In the delicate Japanese woodland that is Nobu, this means a dramatic wall of black river pebbles that’s one stone thick. On Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island, where the Planet Hollywood building duplicates its own starstruck globe logo shape, this means having an L.A. city bus from Speed burst through a wall.
”There’s excitement in acknowledging both poles,” says Rockwell, who feels that ”being in Vegas for more than a day is very upsetting,” and can understand that some may find all the showmanship in his more exuberant efforts a little much. ”They’re meant to overwhelm, they’re meant to awe. You spend two hours and move on.” Just like at the movies.