Be it Edward Hopper or “Pulp Fiction,” generations of art and artists have delved into the concept of the American diner. From greasy spoons to menu font, everyone has an idea of what diners mean and can contain. Honoring this iconography, Rockwell Group and NYC-based design studio 2X4 have partnered to design a fully operational pop-up restaurant in Ventura Centrale at this year’s Milan Design Week. Conceived by Surface Magazine to celebrate their 25th anniversary, American design is expressed through four distinct (but well-known) diner styles echoing a road trip from east to west as you move from the front of the space to the back. The entry is a small, dark coffee and pie counter with swinging doors that seem to go to a kitchen behind, but in fact open to reveal next three regions, all connected by a central counter. The build-out is in a cave-shaped warehouse space underneath Milan’s central train station which required every last detail to be considered when converting it to the permanent-feeling diner that it is this week.
Sitting with David Rockwell in a pink booth that reflects the optimism of the mid-west he remarks, “The first thing that was critical to explore was the counter—it is the most democratic of the spaces in a diner.” And while the entire space is an extraordinary story of colors, materials and finishes, the 14-meter-long central counter is the appropriate focal point. The impressive stone span is crowned with a diner vocabulary rendered in neon using the custom font 2X4 created for this project.
Despite having a large studio and integrated design strategy and technology team with the LAB at Rockwell Group, Rockwell himself was heavily involved in the project—the firm’s first big execution at Milan Design Week. “I love projects that are so specific no decision is arbitrary,” he reflects on the project overall.”One of the things I was intrigued with from the very beginning is that diners represent travel and movement and landscape and a permanent impermanence,” Rockwell explains while pointing out that, as a result of common zoning laws, the first diners were prefab buildings sitting on foundations. This diner, a temporary build-out in a permanent space is clearly an inversion of that idea, but a poetic one that’s meticulously executed.
Many influential and acclaimed brands provided materials, furniture and decor to actualize the vision. Spanish company Cosentino‘s surfaces appear in all four sections, from their signature Silestone quartz surface crafted into the central counter to Dekton booth tables in an Opera finish. Shaw Contract delivered carpet flooring and in turn is making their Milan Design Week debut. Kohler tackled the kitchen, offering up sinks and faucets. Focus Lighting handled all of Rockwell’s theatric lighting design, using fixtures provided by Philips Lighting. Maharam contributed a range of textiles including the various fabrics covering each booth and defining the region they represent. And the space is also the debut of Rockwell Group’s new tile collection from Bisazza.
Design Within Reach might be the most important furniture partner, with more than three dozen pieces on the premises. Items were drawn from their DWR Contract division, dedicated to the hospitality. Eye-catching works include the new Lina Swivel lounge chair by Hlynur Atlason and the Fire Bench and Go Porch Swing by Loll Designs, the latter known for its use of recycled plastic.
“We had to marry all this with an operational strategy that would really work,” Rockwell points out, given that The Diner is a destination and installation, but also that it’s a fully functional restaurant serving meals and hosting events daily throughout the week. This functional integration is a component to some of Surface’s most successful ventures of late, including their Daniel Humm partnership during Art Basel Miami Beach. On site in Milan, NYC–based specialty food purveyor Murray’s Cheese rounds out the one-of-a-kind experience, including grilled cheese sandwiches made on Diner-branded griddles. Their mission, most certainly successful, was to deliver a cross-generational dining experience to match the design. And it’s a treat.
Images by Josh Rubin, additional reporting by David Graver