How the Cooper-Hewitt Fosters the Future of Design and Its Decorated Past, Under One Roof

Ellen Yoshi Tani
Jun 18, 2014 5:40PM

Housed in the opulent Andrew Carnegie Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is the only Smithsonian branch located outside of Washington, DC. It was founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Hewitt, the granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper who, inspired by the École Polytechnique,established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. An integral part of the school since its founding, the museum was intended as a resource for Cooper Union students and professional designers to study collections of decorative art, and now hosts an on-site masters degree program with The New School focused on object-based research and teaching. From the outside, the stately building and grounds suggest a traditional museum, but the Cooper Hewitt is rooted in the same radical model of art education as the school, even since joining the Smithsonian in 1967. Although its building has been closed since 2011 for an extensive renovation to expand available interior space—set to reopen in late 2014—the Cooper Hewitt hasn’t missed a beat.

Here’s why the Cooper Hewitt remains one of the most innovative museums of our day:

1. Good design understands how constraints can be opportunities.

During its closure for renovation, the museum has expanded beyond its own walls while growing its capabilities inside of them. The blog lets the museum shine, through interesting write-ups by staff members that are more in-depth than a digitized boilerplate, from “Object of the Day” to “Meet the Hewitts”. Traveling exhibitions have maintained the collection’s visibility in museums both inside and outside of New York; one of my favorite exhibitions of 2013, co-organized between the Cooper Hewitt and the Walker Art Center was “Graphic Design: Now in Production”, which traveled from Los Angeles to Houston to Rhode Island. For those seeking to learn more about design, the museum’s updated website has a new Design Dictionary feature that introduces audiences to various methods of design with short, engaging videos. And for practitioners, the museum just released a newly designed font, appropriately entitled “Cooper Hewitt”, for public use. They have extended their programming to a space in Harlem that hosts events, workshops, and panels. Moreover, the three-year closure has enabled them to dedicate more time to the research and care of the collection.

2. It is one-of-a-kind.

As the sole national institution devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design, the Cooper Hewitt occupies a unique position among collecting and exhibiting institutions. Not only does it exhibit the best in design, from 19th century earrings to architectural models to digital typography, but it offers a fascinating and encyclopedic lens on innovative solutions of aesthetics and function like this glass iron, or this painting in a button. Drawings comprise the largest area of its collection (about 25%), including many highly detailed and hand-colored renderings.

3. It walks the walk.

The institution has been steeped in innovation from the very beginning: the Carnegie Mansion was the first private residence to house an Otis Passenger Elevator, and was the first residential steel-frame construction building in New York. Additionally, it practices the same values that drive its collection and founding mission, a philosophy that understands design as not just the marriage of function and aesthetics but as both a result and potential cause of social change. Both process and product, design is a complex phenomenon involving education, research, and prototyping. The museum honors this through housing the National Design Library (the only resource of its kind in the country) located in a recently updated space in the adjacent Miller Fox Townhouses at 9 E. 90th Street. In addition to preserving historic examples of design, architecture and decorative arts, the museum’s approach to contemporary design extends far beyond the scope of affluent sensibilities. In 2011 Cooper Hewitt organized the stirring exhibition, “Design with the Other 90 Percent: Cities,” which showcased design solutions to the basic needs of the 90% of the world’s population not traditionally served by professional designers. This led to the creation of the Design Other 90 Network.

4. Its website and collections database are understated and pretty amazing.

Described as an “open theater of ideas”, the museum’s newly designed website—which plays a large part in engaging audiences during its renovation—features an innovative cataloguing system with a subtly open-source aesthetic and a sense of transparency rarely found among museums. A typical object page in the brand new Collections Database, for example, reveals basic identifying information, tells you where the object is located (“resting” in storage or on display), and provides a metadata tag for users to link their own images of the same object to the museum’s. More compelling is the inclusion of “roles” for every artwork, which describe all relevant contributors to a work’s creation, from designer to corporation to client. You can also sort the collection by color, by department or by individuals connected to it. By acknowledging the inherently collaborative nature of design, the museum helps visitors better understand the broader networks in which institutions are embedded. Over time, this way of organizing information will provide an increasingly rich at-a-glance record of the institution’s identity, like a portrait made of data. This is the work of Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope of the museum’s Digital & Emerging Media department, and you can read some really interesting stories about the history of the museum’s web presence over in Cooper Hewitt Labs. They even have a repository on GitHub, where you can view the original source code for Planetary, which is explained below.

5. Code is now collectible.

The Cooper Hewitt is possibly the first American museum to recognize software as a valuable and sophisticated medium/area of design (MoMA only just acquired an app, Bjork’s Biophilia, days ago). Last year the Cooper Hewitt added a piece of code to their collection: Bloom Studio’s Planetary (2011), an iPad visualization app for personal music collections that translates music-related data and playback frequency into a galaxy of celestial bodies. Now validated as a collecting category, code presents fascinating challenges to conversations about the preservation and presentation of digital collection items, given its inevitable obsolescence: how does a museum preserve the interactive nature of the code—its functional integrity—on continually evolving platforms? The productive yet fraught relationship between software and hardware, which inevitably fall out of step with each other, is a somewhat new challenge for museums. “Consider Planetary as akin to a panda,” Chan and Cope explain. “Planetary and other software like it are living objects.” What’s more, word has it that the museum has plans to adapt Planetary’s code into a “galaxy” for visualizing connections among the 27,000 objects in its collection (more on Planetary’s acquisition here). They will reportedly release it as open-source code when the app goes “live” at the museum’s reopening later this year.

Explore collection highlights from Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum on Artsy.

Ellen Yoshi Tani