Cooper Hewitt is back and New Yorkers will be thrilled with the results. Closed for three years, while its East 91st Street Carnegie Mansion home was renovated and restored, it reopens Friday, December 12th, and it’s new incarnation is well worth a long visit.
Cooper Hewitt, part of The Smithsonian, is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to design. Its reconfiguration – with 60 percent more exhibition space – required: eight years from concept to execution; a $91 million capital campaign; 17 Sponsors (including Bloomberg Philanthropies); a Project Team of 13 leading design firms – among them Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, Diller Scofdio+Renfro, and Pentagram – and, as Chairman of the Board Barbara Mandel put it, a “level-headed” director, Caroline Baumann, to preside over this immensely complicated transformation. Bauman joined Cooper Hewitt in 2001 and has overseen the master plan and its implementation.
Much of the transformation is hidden from view and is a model of how to upgrade a 1905 residence into a 21st century museum, while preserving and enhancing the beauty of the original edifice. For example, and it is only one of many, to retain the gorgeous first floor ceiling, while installing new electricity, etc., they opened up the floor of the second story, and then put down a new floor.
Equally subtle, the rehabilitation and cleaning of wood floors, walls, and some exquisite Tiffany Glass panels, makes these design features pop out as never before, and provides better exposure of the beauty of the building’s interior. Architects and historians might be interested to learn, as I was, that the Carnegie Mansion was the first steel frame building in the U.S., and among the first to install an Otis elevator. Carnegie also built a primitive kind of air conditioning whose shafts are now used for the real thing.
More obvious changes include: a large new two-room gift shop; a bright and broad three-floor stairwell, with new signage and graphics by Pentagram; a new freight elevator; and a new Café, which will ultimately offer wine, as well as soft drinks and snacks. The Café will open onto the mansion’s lovely new garden (which will get its own overhaul in the spring), where outside seating will enable visitors to relax and munch outside.
Perhaps the most dramatic change is on the third floor: transforming what was once a library into a modern, floor-through exhibition space. While lower floor exhibitions still must work with and against the Mansion’s dark wood paneling, the third floor is white, open and without those constraints.
Design can be hip and quirky as well as focused on meeting our everyday needs. Both sides of the design spirit can be found on the First Floor with “Maira Kalman Selects,” and “Beautiful Users.” An entire room (the Mansion’s former Music Room) is dedicated to the sensibility of Maira Kalman, author, artist and designer, whose visual whimsy is often seen in The New Yorker. Included in the objects she chooses for special attention are Lincoln’s pocket watch and Toscannini’s trousers.
More moving, to me, is “Beautiful Users,” a large space dedicated to user-centered design, pioneered by mid-twentieth century American designer Henry Dreyfuss, including everything from wheel chairs to everyday consumer products.
Also on the First Floor is the new Process Lab, which immerses visitors in the design process and includes a hands-on learning space. The Process Lab highlights innovative design technology, including the 3D printing process using liquid plastic, and some of the products created by that process, including high heel shoes.
Visitors can also “play designer” on touchscreen tables and access the Museum’s Collection on seven tables installed throughout the museum’s three floors. The Process Lab
Innovative, interactive activities are both fun and educational. For example, the new Immersion Room, on the Second Floor, focuses on the Museum’s collection of wall coverings, dating from 1780 to 2013. Visitors can select a design from 200 images by artists ranging from William Morris to Andy Warhol, and then project full-scale versions of those designs on the walls. And they can draw their own designs, as well. The effect is psychedelic.
Other exhibitions include: “Making Design,” with gorgeous examples of furniture drawn from the Museum’s collection; “The Hewitt Sisters Collect,” a room dedicated to objects from the sisters’ core collection; a gallery focused on the role of “Models and Prototypes,” in the design process; and “Passion for the Exotic,” works from the museum’s Frederic Church collection.
Damin Ortega’s Hanging Tools Sculpture
3rd Floor Display Case
“Tools: Extending Our Reach,” inaugurates the Third Floor exhibition space, and draws from the Smithsonian’s collection. The room is dominated by Damin Ortega’s beautiful mobile of Hanging Tools, and showcases 175 tools ranging from a handbag and Apple computer to Pill Cam, a tiny camera that, once swallowed by a patient, is used as a tool in the detection of anomalies of the small bowel.
Part of the Museum’s mission is educational, and in addition to streaming live and archived programs on its You Tube channel, it has scheduled a range of K-12 activities for New York City’s public school children, as well as family and teen programs.
New York is probably home to more architects and designers – and students of design — than any city in the world. Cooper Hewitt, back in business, fills what has been a huge hole in the city’s aesthetic conversation and museum line up. It’s a pleasure to welcome it back and to see that it is in such wonderful hands.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
2 East 91st Street
Open 7 Days a Week
Sunday thru Friday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Admission: $18 Adults; $12 Seniors; $9 Students. Children 18 and under are free.
Saturdays, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. – Pay What You Wish