Shawn Sullivan wants to keep folks talking about spaces his company designs, even if that means hockey fans taking in the luxury areas of a rebuilt arena.

Sullivan is one of three partners at the New York-based Rockwell Group, one of the world’s more innovative hospitality design firms and a reason the KeyArena project’s price tag keeps climbing. Oak View Group boss Tim Leiweke; his brother, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke; and other senior officials spearheading the rebuild have raved about splurging additional private money to get Rockwell involved in its first arena effort to take luxury amenities and suites to a new level.

A rendering of the exterior of the renovated KeyArena, including the new concourse sponsored by Alaska Airlines.
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And for Sullivan, a Lake Forest Park product who joined Rockwell in 1997, that meant incorporating Northwest flavor in subtle and more-obvious ways to keep patrons buzzing over time.

“We’re hoping and we really believe that this collection as a whole isn’t just checking a bunch of boxes,” said Sullivan, who first left Seattle to study architecture at Yale University. “When you come and move around after some events, you’ll see a space. And then, when you come back a month later, you see another space and it will always feel like a really rich assortment of Seattle-inspired spaces. And you’ll really recognize the diversity amongst all of them. None of them are similar in any way, and we think that’s great.”

With the KeyArena project’s price tag approaching $1 billion in private funding, getting luxury areas done well was crucial for a hockey team that recently sold out its high-end club season tickets — asking for ambitious commitments of three to seven years — on the promise of a unique customer experience. And Sullivan said his company strived for uniqueness in the seven spaces it designed, be it a centerpiece Space Needle Club offering glass-ceiling views of the iconic structure, or even the light fixtures hanging in what he calls a “see and be seen” bistro-like Metropolitan Club.

“Those lanterns you see hanging — they’ve obviously turned into a contemporary piece — but those are actually inspired by a camp lantern aesthetic,” Sullivan said. “Like a Coleman or something that’s kind of done in these glass shades with metal details.”

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For those seeking grander odes to the region, the Space Needle Club is tough to top.

“It really does kind of capture the Needle’s essential characteristics,” Sullivan said. “It’s in the upper levels of the building and it’s under an area that has a skylight that peeks right up at the Needle. I mean, it just had to be so thoughtfully located and planned that just by cranking your head slightly you get this perfect alignment in the skylight. In most of these buildings, you never think you’re going to look outside.”

Sullivan seemed even more proud of the Symetra Club, what he calls a “cool craft beer hall” featuring local breweries. The mid-level-situated club features “an extraordinary view of the (rink) bowl” and was geared to appeal to a diverse crowd.

“It’s really celebratory in being robust, diverse and kind of fun like a beer hall in Seattle would be,” he said. “It’s representational of a lot of purveyors and designed in a way that feels like the Northwest. It’s more of a loft than a hospitality space.”

On the eating side, the Mount Baker Club in the arena’s upper level will be a “pop-up food hall sort of space” where up to 1,300 fans can sample local wares.

“We really believe it has a kind of casual, everyday Seattle vibe to it,” Sullivan said. “Lots of timber framing, almost like if you looked up at the ceiling of Pike Place Market — the ceiling and the architecture — you kind of feel the essential character of those buildings. And it has a real halls-and-stalls kind of inspiration in its character. It’s not like kiosks and built-in things. It really tries to feel a little more unstructured in its approach.”

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Further down at ice level, a Tunnel Club has a specially lit glass wall that becomes see-through as players enter and leave the dressing room.

“You get to be at locker-room and greenroom level,” Sullivan said. “You get to kind of mingle in a controlled way with the acts and the sports players.”

Not too far away, an ultraluxury President’s Club has a barrel-vaulted “grotto” ceiling, with a high-end cocktail bar and emerald-colored leather and velvet finishings.

“My grandmother used to love to go to the Hunt Club and all of these different Seattle spaces,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s a casualness to even Seattle’s VIP class, where things are still never truly rarefied.”

Even the more general Sideline Suites — corporate boxes — ringing the arena’s bowl have what Sullivan calls a local flavor to make them feel more accessible.

“The way we did the counters in the kitchen, we really want it to feel residential,” he said. “In somebody’s house, you’d actually hang around the kitchen island during a party, and that’s where you socialize. It wouldn’t just be set up to be a counter against the wall. … We really want it to feel like somebody’s intimate apartment.”

For three decades, Rockwell has designed everything from cruise-ship interiors, to premium hotels and Broadway show sets and worked on stadium suites with Tim Leiweke when he ran Anschutz Entertainment Group. But Sullivan welcomed the “architectural challenges” of incorporating the company’s first arena work under an existing KeyArena roof.

“People come to us to really kind of rethink some of these spaces,” Sullivan said. “And we’ve learned a lot. It’s really exciting to be able to do what we’ve learned over the past 30 years as a firm and collaborate with Tim and his team in Seattle.”