NYC Design Month: David Rockwell & Sandra de Ovando Share How to Tell Your Story Through Design

This month marks Design Month here in New York City, and in honor of this celebration, we reflect back to the insights and trends we garnered from the Architectural Digest Design Show in March, where an array of artists and designers gathered for a four-day event, focusing on all things architecture and design.

The widely attended annual event – in which more than 400 brands, ranging from those of emerging artisans to international studios, showcase art, furniture, textiles and lighting – also presents the opportunity for industry professionals to gain insight on a variety of topics through a series of talks, where the discussion ranges from market predictions to tips on how to incorporate spirituality into design.

This past March, the curated speakers included celebrated architect and designer, David Rockwell, founder and president of the Rockwell Group, and Sandra de Ovando, founder of Ovando Design and Production, who, during one of the event’s talks, shared how they use their chosen design aesthetic to tell stories.

Rockwell was heavily inspired by his time working at a local community theatre during his childhood, which translated into a fascination with the idea of permanent vs. impermanent spaces. His ultimate goal then became to create “moments,” where the different types of audiences who saw his myriad of designs could all somehow feel connected to the space, whether temporary or definite.

Speaking to his evolution within the Broadway space, Rockwell, who was the recipient of the 2016 Tony Awards® for “Best Scenic Design of a Musical” for his work on She Loves Me, described the importance of creating a synergy between the audience and the props.

“We wanted the set to dance with the music,” he said, recalling the individual moments he attempted to create with each musical number.

Furthermore, Rockwell described his set as a visual examination of the inner and outer lives of the characters. To him, this was another way to tell their stories through design.

Comparing this to his work in the restaurant field, Rockwell described the various locations he designed for Nobu, one of the world’s most recognized Japanese restaurants.

“Similar to how a theater audience picks up on [if the set] matches the characters, at a restaurant, [customers will pick up on] if the chef’s food matches the architecture [leading them to immerse themselves in not only the food, but the restaurant itself],” he said.

Tasked with designing Nobu Downtown 25 years after the famed restaurant first opened its doors in California, Rockwell sought to continue the chef’s original concept of Japanese minimalism. This is seen in the space’s wooden ceiling patterns and minimal décor. Rockwell expanded this concept, working with the eatery to open Nobu 57 in 2005. The 57th Street location touts a custom bamboo wall, which took over a year of research and development before coming to fruition. As the franchise expanded, Nobu again tapped Rockwell for their latest restaurant, Nobu 195. Slated to open later this year, Rockwell found inspiration in kirigami, a variation of origami that includes cutting of the paper rather than solely folding, and created a giant brushstroke sculpture inspired by calligraphy.

In addition to conveying the stories of Broadway actors and chefs, Rockwell also spoke to his work with Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA’s) Dining by Design, the organization’s annual fundraiser for HIV/AIDS. Co-located with the Architectural Digest Design Show at Pier 92, Rockwell joined forces with Ovando to create a modern interpretation of a potting shed. Rockwell lead the architectural component, while Ovando provided the colorful florals and created a custom diffused scent.

“DIFFA is a challenge to create a different type of design,” said Rockwell.

A longtime supporter of DIFFA, Rockwell has collaborated with Ovando on past designs both inside and outside of the organization.

Ovando, who started her namesake floral and production company 14 years ago, began with a clear and simple vision—to create beautiful moments and spaces. Heavily inspired by her travels and her hometown of Mexico City, Ovando curates simple, yet colorful, sophisticated arrangements and designs.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” she said, citing Steve Jobs. “But it takes great effort to make [events and floral arrangements] look this simple.”

Partnering with Dior for an event at the Guggenheim, Ovando created a space where everything from the florals to the napkins and drapes on the chairs was the same Pantone color of Rose Quartz pink. Simple, yet sophisticated and requiring immaculate attention to detail to successfully pull off.

Ovando also shared her likeness for including an element of surprise in each design.

“I like to consider all of the senses,” she said, explaining how interaction with each sense is a way to make the overall story stronger.

Like Rockwell, Ovando spoke about her theatrical inspiration, particularity when creating her store window displays. The like-mindedness of the two has also resulted in a variety of collaborations allowing Ovando to translate her brand in different ways. In addition to the DIFFA events, Ovando and Rockwell have partnered for the creation of the new hip tapas restaurant Vandal, as well as Ovando’s latest Madison Avenue flagship, slated to open next month.

“When you come in the door, you feel like something is going to happen,” she said, describing the black backdrop, horse hair walls and overall “Champagne Flower Bar” inspiration. “All materials invite you to touch and hold up to [see closer]. With David, we created a space that tells the story of a store that makes beautiful displays.”

In addition to speaking about their inspirations, method of storytelling and various collaborations, the two design powerhouses offered their design advice. Their #1 tip—never have a preconceived notion of what the final space will look like, as this will slow the creative process. Instead, start with research, not design, and you will be able to find the emotion the end user should feel.

The expert advice shared by Rockwell and Ovando at this year’s Architectural Digest Design Show proved timeless, and that design, when done right, has an overflowing omnipresence in our everyday lives.

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