New York City-based architect David Rockwell and lighting designer Paul Gregory mixed art and humor with a big colorful scoop of technology for The Diner at the 2018 Milan Furniture Fair in Italy. With a design theme that celebrated the iconic American diner, this temporary eatery became one of event’s biggest hits.
Annually staged in April, the renowned furniture fair attracts an estimated 435,000 visitors, swelling Milan’s population by 30 percent. Attendees’ schedules are packed with appointments to view the displays of 1,840 exhibitors and the opportunity to participate in any of the 1,370 events available.
Dubbed “The Diner,” this pop-up dining and entertainment experience showcased American design talents on the global stage during Milan Design Week. It visually delighted a full serving of patrons who visited the fully functional restaurant and nightclub, outfitted with four distinct spaces that expressed Rockwell’s and Gregory’s visual narrative of the classic diner’s evolution across time and the U.S. map.
While technically in operation for less than one week, the architecture, furnishings, and lighting for The Diner were planned and implemented with scrupulous attention to detail.
Longtime collaborators Rockwell and Gregory took into account that their audience of discriminating professional designers would turn practiced eyes to scrutinize the poetry-and-verse communicated by this environment. They agreed that Fair-goers would opt to stay close to the conference site when looking for an informal meal, that is, if they could find quality casual cuisine in a first-class venue.
Following suggestions from Surface Media, the project’s sponsor, Rockwell and Gregory were led to a vacant vintage arched concrete vault space beneath the rail tracks leading to the city’s main train station, Milan Centrale, which is close to many of the Fair’s major activities. With characteristic organizational abilities and highly honed design intellects, the masterful handling of the integrated theme that Rockwell and Gregory created bounced fun and fashion off the vault’s walls.
Rockwell, along with the LAB at Rockwell Group team, first considered the 46′-long counter as the critical center for The Diner. “It’s the most democratic of the spaces that characterize the traditional American diner as we have known it over the years,” Rockwell explains.
Creating a distinct, colorful visual style, Rockwell Group interpreted the attraction of individual diners to make strangers into a “community” that would be sitting elbow-to-elbow at diner counters.
“The diner is still uniquely American, maintaining its place in our cultural iconography,” Rockwell notes. “One of the things I was intrigued with from the very beginning is that diners – as a consumer market – represent travel and movement and landscape along with a unique version of ‘permanent impermanence,’” he says, pointing out that the earliest diner structures were prefab buildings sitting on surface foundations. “In Milan, however, our Diner was a temporary build-out in a permanent space,” he adds.
The Diner space is split into four distinct design aesthetics referencing styles representing different parts of the country: the Roadside Diner, the East Coast Luncheonette, the Midwest Diner, and the West Coast Diner. Gregory and his principal lighting designer, Christine Hope, created layers of light throughout the space.
Globe-shaped lights imparted visual rhythm along the bartop, while illuminating the backdrop behind an arched opening became scenery for a Western-influenced space.
Gregory and Hope devised their LED-based lighting solution as a warm, welcoming ambiance based on their projected needs of Fair attendees.
“We took into account that they would need a place to relax and recharge during their busy day, and then let loose and celebrate at night,” Hope relates. Signify (formerly known as Philips Lighting) cooperated by contributing fixtures from the Philips PureStyle, IntelliHue, Powercore products and RGBA color channel lighting systems.
A wash of colored uplight was used to accentuate the rough surfaces of the architectural shell. According to Hope, the finished space is comprised of more than 10 light layers to achieve the drama that gave the space its personality. “This was no small task considering the amount of international coordination it required in very little time,” she recounts.
At the central bar, track lighting provides subtle accent illumination along the bartenders’ work area, on the reflective bar-top surface, and on the neon signage. The space was pre-programmed to establish a business-like lunchtime level with higher levels of light and white tints to approximate daylight. In the evening, the nightclub scene emerged in The Diner’s theater-like surroundings, ushered in by integrating saturated multicolor crossfades, signaling the transition of scenes from day to evening.
Patrons could occupy the long circular central bar, join friends and colleagues at tables, or enjoy orange-upholstered Mid-Century Modern lounge chairs around a coffee table placed atop a shag rug. Not surprisingly, burgers, fries, and milkshakes were menu favorites.
Design Consultancy 2×4 created the illuminated typography, graphics, signage, and print materials for the diner, including menus.
Mounted above the elevated central metal display element are representative menu items such as “Shakes” and “Grilled Cheese” expressed in 10″-high neon in a custom-designed font named “American Optimism.”
The illustration, animation, and signage integrated seamlessly into the space to narrate the role of the diner in American culture and hospitality. From a bright pink central area, geographically inspired vignettes made the underground venue lively and dramatic. New York’s iconic luncheonette was presented as a sophisticated monochromatic space. By contrast, it was connected to the design team’s imagery of a Midwest diner featuring cotton candy-colored booths and surrounding bright accents. Guests arriving in the West Coast diner in the rear section were treated to a background of plants, found objects, sculptures, indoor-outdoor lounge furniture, and projected images of sunsets as seen on the open road.
Surface Media made The Diner a showcase of stylish All-American food purveyors. Murray’s Cheeses, a dedicated resource with New York City foodies, provided the main ingredients for the grilled cheese sandwiches.
“It was a cross-generational dining experience to match the design,” Rockwell explains. The Diner was awarded the Salon de Mobile’s Best Engagement Award for 2018.