On the Set of You Can’t Take It With You With Designer David Rockwell

Photo: Genevieve Garruppo

The other day, designer David Rockwell walked me through the set he constructed for the new Broadway musical You Can’t Take It With You. Click here to see the tiny gnomes, vintage magazines, and other meticulously thought-out details that even those sitting in the front row may not be able to spot.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Rockwell Group, David Rockwell’s multitasking design-and-architecture office. Throughout the years, Rockwell has also become master of the Broadway-set-design universe; his 14th Broadway show, You Can’t Take It With You, opened this week. Standing in the house before curtain, he tells me: “I thought that there was something interesting about coming into the theater and acknowledging the eccentricity of this family, the Sycamores, and bringing the audience into it.”

“The two side buildings are kind of traditional multistory New York buildings from the ’30s done in gray-tone sketches, and as we move to their house, we start to pull out some of the color and some of the details. So you can even see on the outside the brackets are these quite unique brackets that we made that have birds in them,” Rockwell explains, adding that in past productions the play was interpreted as taking place in the suburbs. But, he says, “we know that they lived a few minutes from Columbia; we know it is on the Upper West Side.”

Eccentric details — like this little group of gnomes on the front porch — might be missed unless you are sitting up close.

Once the two side buildings slide away, the interior of the house turns around to face the audience. Here in the living room, it’s clear that “this is a family that doesn’t throw things out,” Rockwell says. “The interior is a place that you are going to spend two hours in, and the characters who live there and visit each have their own little place in the house.”

As Rockwell heads upstairs to the landing, he points out photographs and drawings, some of which belong to members of the cast. A photograph of the original cast from 1936 is included on the wall, as well as a photo of Moss Hart, who, along with George S. Kaufman, wrote the play. “That dusty red color was inspired by the John Soane museum,” he explains.

It was incredible to be on the stage and see the minute details — some of which the audience can’t see — like this stash of magazines and toys under the couch, which is vintage with its original fabric, Rockwell says. “It was too long, so we had to send it to a master upholsterer to be cut in half and reupholstered.” To be visible to the audience, the chair legs around the table were cut down.

“This is a case where every piece matters,” Rockwell says as we approach the door to the kitchen. “It’s that feeling in design where nothing is arbitrary; there is an underlying logic. Everything here has a meaning.”

This might be my favorite part of the set; this is all there is of the kitchen. The rest is left to your imagination.

I love this detail too. It says everything about the life inside this house. “They have lived here for a long time,” Rockwell says. “It is like this idealized family, so the home has that kind of warmth.”

And … this is where the snake lives during the play! A real one. There are also live kittens onstage during performances. But don’t worry — all animals are kept safely and happily downstairs until it’s time for their close-up!

On the Set of You Can’t Take It With You