How a Childhood in Mexico Inspired David Rockwell to Be a Set Designer | Playbill

My Life in the Theatre How a Childhood in Mexico Inspired David Rockwell to Be a Set Designer

The Tony-winning designer of She Loves Me and Kinky Boots shares the secrets behind some of his most memorable sets.

Set designers are the architects of dreams. Armed with paper, pencil, and paint, they transform the intentions of the playwright and interpretations of the director into a vital and vibrant playground.

When David Rockwell—the Tony-winning designer behind Hairspray, Legally Blonde, and Kinky Boots—fell in love with the theatre, it was with that playground.

“My life changed when I saw Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway with Herschel Bernardi,” Rockwell shares, referring to the 1981 revival of the Bock and Harnick classic. “The 1,300 people in that theatre became a community around that piece, and I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of.”

The son of a vaudevillian mother, Rockwell traveled throughout his childhood, taking in everything from the ramshackle community productions on the Jersey Shore to the vivid life within Guadalajara, Mexico’s many plazas. Through it all, he couldn’t help but be entranced by how space informed story.

“I found that what I loved about community theatre existed in public spaces there,” Rockwell explains, referring to his adolescence in Mexico. “The bull ring, the Mariachi square, and the marketplace were kinds of urban theatre.” Initially pursuing his dual passions of theatre and architecture, Rockwell’s career first took off in hospitality architecture, with his artistic itch scratched by subtly sketching in his seat while at various shows.

These covert sketches soon caught the theatre community's attention.  Rockwell made his Broadway debut transforming Circle in the Square into the passion palace of The Rocky Horror Show in 2000. 

With his trademark eye for depth and texture, it didn’t take long for Rockwell to become one of the most recognizable names in modern theatrical design, walking the fine line between the decadently detailed (On the Twentieth Century, You Can’t Take it With You, She Loves Me) and conceptually compelling playing spaces (Falsettos, A Beautiful Noise, Doubt). He credits his incredible team with helping him bring the designs from model to made.

"I think what's most inspiring about being a set designer is the sense of collaboration. For any moment that the audience takes with them, there were more than 20 different people who created that moment," Rockwell details, referring to the wide array of designers, assistant designers, technical workers, and attendants who work diligently backstage to form the world of a show. 

David Rockwell photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

Rockwell's theatrical design isn’t limited to Broadway. He's also racked up Emmys for his production design of the 2010 and 2021 Academy Awards ceremonies, making him the only architect to have won top honors at both the Tonys and the Emmys. In fact, Rockwell’s success on stage is only eclipsed by his continued domination in the hospitality sphere; Rockwell is one of the youngest designers to ever be inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame, where he was proudly proclaimed an icon of modern design.

In spite of his meteoric rise, Rockwell still zeroes in on the story his spaces can tell.

“I am always thinking about that walk-in moment, when the audience sees the world for the first time,” Rockwell shares. “When the curtain rises and the music starts, it’s my job to immerse them into the world, so the outside world can recede. Every limitation is a new lesson. Each show is a new life.”

To see Rockwell's divinely detailed set models—including from She Loves Me, Kinky Boots, and the current revival of Doubt—flip through the gallery below.

Photos: Set Models from the Rockwell Group's Theatre Studio

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