FOR 15 YEARS, NewYork’s upscale East Side restaurant Rosa Mexicano has seduced diners with famed table-prepared guacamole and “nuclear-powered” pomegranate margaritas. When the opportunity arose in for its owner, Josefina Howard, to open a second location on Manhattan’s West Side, she approached the Rockwell Group, the architectural team behind some of NewYork’s most fashionable eateries–including Nobu, Vong, and Ruby Foo’s. The design firm’s principal, David Rockwell, who had lived in Mexico for seven years, recognized a chance to translate his close-range observations of Mexican culture into a vibrant contemporary restaurant.
The main drawback was the narrow 6,000-square-foot site, which, despite its location opposite the tourist-magnet Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, had seen little success under previous owners. Part of the problem was a duplex layout: a staircase hidden at the rear of the restaurant led to the upper floor, effectively dividing the space in two and preventing a unified, festive mood.
Rockwell first knocked a hole in the center of the upper floor and built a grand central staircase–alongside a double-height blue-tile wall with a surface of constantly trickling water-that swept down to the ground-floor entrance. The restaurant “had to be striking from Lincoln Center, and I wanted people who came in to be somewhat amazed,” says Rockwell. The 30-foot-high waterwall and the dramatic staircase, he hoped, would entice passersby from the street. He also proposed a design that was a “collision” of traditional and modern Mexican elements, bringing together the clean lines and vibrant colors of architects such as Luis Barragan and the folk-art styles found in Mexican street markets.
After gaining Howard’s approval, Rockwell began acquiring and commissioning art. The highlight is a work by Guido Grunenselder and Francesca Zwicker comprising 200 diving plaster figures pinned to the waterwall, a reference to Acapulco cliff divers who regularly plunge 100 feet into a rocky tidal channel. Around the interior walls are corn-husk-and-rose–themed mosaics by Michael Palladino (each made from 63 photographs on wax-coated tiles) and wallboxes of hammered metal tiles by Brad Oldham (containing images of pomegranates, beans, and pineapples), among other commissioned pieces.
Throughout, the restaurant is accented with vivid slabs of color and handcrafted details. In the ground-level bar and cafe area, a poured concrete floor of earth-colored squares gives way to backlit wall panels of rose petals embedded in translucent resin. In the ground-floor dining area, booths upholstered in striped fabrics are separated from the waterwall by perforated metal screens. Upstairs, to maintain low noise levels, the design team specified window fabrics and a carpet, both with brightly colored stripes.
Although the owner had requested that Rockwell tie the restaurant’s design to its festively decorated East Side counterpart, the architect felt that aping the 15-year-old original’s beguiling but more haphazard interior would have seemed self-conscious. His only concession is in the shrine-like niches in the upstairs walls, which are bathed in vivid colors and glowing light reminiscent of the cross-town precursor. Despite its distinctiveness from the original home, the new Rosa Mexicano seems to have no problems attracting customers: five months into operation, the restaurant, according to management, operates consistently at full capacity.
Peter Hall is a Brooklyn–based freelance writer. His feature on London’s Millennium Dome appeared in the September 2000 Interiors.
MELER WILSON I Rosa Mexicano maitre d’
What do you like best about the space? The waterwall.
Which part of the design makes your job easier? Actually, the color aspect of it, it’s very bright. It lightens your day as soon as you walk in the door.
What would you change about this space if you could? There’s nothing I’d change. I think it’s a perfectly designed restaurant.
Well, how does it compare to other restaurants you’ve worked in? Everything is at your fingertips. Although it’s a two-story restaurant, it’s very easy to operate. If you’re upstairs you can view thew hole room from the maitre d’ stand. There’s not really a bad table in the house. Sometimes when I come in, I sit in a table to get a view of what the customers see.
What sort of reaction do you get from customers? “The waterwall is incredible!” Stuff like that. A lot of people like the cliff divers. A lot of people ask, “Who’s the architect? Is it David Rockwell?”