Last year was the year that business lost its nerve. Innovation? Imagination? Who could afford them? But David Rockwell, the design visionary behind some of New York’s hottest restaurants, the Academy Awards theater, and even the sets for the Broadway smash Hairspray, keeps taking chances — and building great spaces with a point of view.

Rockwell’s designs encourage people to make contact with built spaces — to run their hands along the scorched ash of the tabletops and feel the ridges of raised grain that mimic the texture of the food at Nobu, and to brush up against the thatches of wheatgrass sprouting out of the planters at W Union Square’s reception desk. Rockwell even makes people want to connect with elements that are beyond their reach, such as the 30 million crystal beads suspended from the ceiling of Connecticut casino Mohegan Sun.

The core of connection is narrative — the story line that brings a space to life. For the casino, Rockwell’s team studied a history of Connecticut’s Mohegan Indian tribe. They divided the 600,000 square feet of the project’s first phase into quadrants, each section related to a season, which were all connected by a “life trail.” For the second phase, the designers discovered that the tribe was originally drawn to a white rock in Connecticut, which they called Wombi Rock. So Rockwell’s crew sculpted a translucent mountain out of onyx and lit it from within, creating a luminous, cathedral-sized diamond right there in the center of the space.

Rockwell doesn’t expect visitors to decode Mohegan legend. But he wants to use the tribe’s history to give the place an underlying intelligence, something not associated with casinos — or, for that matter, with what passes for contemporary design.