The new, buzzworthy Untitled work at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art isn’t a painting or sculpture—it’s a café. Designed by Rockwell Group, the café wins an Interiors Award not only for its thoughtful integration with Marcel Breuer’s midcentury-modern museum building, but also for its ability to transmute into a variety of spaces to suit the museum’s ever-changing needs, whether it’s as an event venue, lecture hall, or exhibition space.
“The space came with a set of challenges,” says Shawn Sullivan, Rockwell’s lead designer on the project. Chief among them, he notes, was the fact that at only 1,500 square feet, the cellar-level space was undersized for modern-day requirements and had to serve multiple functions. “We needed to create a space where everything in it could come and go at a moment’s notice.” The museum building is also a landmark, he says, “so we didn’t want a solution that had too much contrast to what was already there.”
As a result, unlike the fanciful design that characterizes some of Rockwell Group’s stage, theater, and hospitality projects, the interiors of this space are restrained to a limited palette of colors and materials, allowing the restaurant to look fresh and new, yet at the same time as if it has always been there. The design team tapped its experience in creating pop-up restaurants to subtly play on the narrative of the classic New York City diner—a concept that restaurant impresario and client Danny Meyer requested—and its expertise in designing ever transforming and evolving stage sets to craft a space that could meet various programming needs and the desired aesthetic.
A central component of the design is a white oak and Corian counter lit from beneath, where diners are seated facing a wall coated in black chalkboard paint with menu items, doodles, or other writings handwritten on it. “The idea was to create a modern reinterpretation of the New York diner, where specials are written on chalkboards and updated every day,” says Sullivan. White leather and chrome stools at the counter offer another fresh take on the diner theme. These elements also seamlessly integrate with the austere white walls and natural materials that define the original museum interiors.
A mix of custom furnishings in the main dining area adds an industrial-chic touch to this Upper East Side institution, but also addresses the flexibility and multipurpose requirements. Upholstered in gray and red wool felt—which recalls a popular textile from the era in which the Breuer building was constructed—the banquettes and chairs neatly stack, as do the white oak tabletops, whose brushed stainless steel bases fold flat. Even the three-foot- high oak pony walls that outline the dining area can be detached from the floor, enabling the entire room to be quickly containerized and hauled away on two or three pallets, leaving behind little more than Breuer’s original stone floors and concrete walls. The counter is the only new permanent element but it, too, can be hidden from view behind panels that pull out to form a display wall when the space needs to serve as a gallery.
Leaving no stone unturned, the designers considered the theatrical in lighting the café. As an homage and inverse to Breuer’s original mercury mirrored lamps, new lighting is “less object-like, with light sources topped with escutcheon plates that create a circular glow on the ceiling,” says Sullivan. “The fixtures can be adjusted to illuminate art as well as the space, but were also inspired by the originals.”
Breuer would be pleased with Rockwell’s modern, Untitled intervention in his landmark.
: Rockwell Group.
Interior design project team
: David Rockwell; Shawn Sullivan; Jiwon Yoo; Jens Holm; Alexandra Castro.
: Isometrix (lighting).
: Design Within Reach; Evanson Best; Quality & Company.
: Delform Studios.
: Hudec Woodworking.