Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 107 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Art Deco Coffee Service

I wanted to own many of the things in the Jazz Age show, but none more than this 1927 Cubic Coffee Service designed by Erik Magnussen for Gorham.  A Picasso-esque vision of reality brought astonishingly to life.  It makes me wonder, if a Cubist painted a still life of this coffee set, would it come out looking normal?

The Cooper Hewitt Museum is the Smithsonian Institution’s branch devoted to design.  It started out under the guardianship of Cooper Union, which closed it in the 1960s.  The Smithsonian then adopted it and it opened in its current location in the 1970s.  (There’s a second Smithsonian branch in New York: the Museum of the American Indian, in Lower Manhattan.) 

Two features deeply distinguish the Cooper-Hewitt from all other museums in the city.  First, the building, and second, the electronic pen.

The Cooper-Hewitt is another in the series of great New York museums occupying mansions of the Gilded Age robber barons. However, its mansion might just be the best of all of them. The Cooper-Hewitt’s  Fifth Avenue abode started out as the 1902, 64-room abode of Andrew Carnegie.  While the interior is much changed from Carnegie’s time, it retains a good deal of period detail, including yet another beautiful staircase (I should add it to my list), a glassed-in conservatory, and much ornate plaster and woodwork.

Cooper Hewitt Museum, Carnegie Mansion, New York
Crazy wisteria climb the rear of the Carnegie mansion

The jewel-like garden recently opened to the public for free — you can just walk in.  If you tried that back in Mr. Carnegie’s day, it probably wouldn’t have gone so well for you. The day I went the wisteria were blooming like mad, the sun was shining, and it was almost a shame to go indoors to look at art.

Before I get to the art, though, a word on the second distinguishing thing: the electronic pen.  The Cooper Hewitt underwent a major refit a few years back. When it reopened in 2014, along with a whole new floor of exhibition space and the public garden, the museum rolled out digital pens.  Every visitor gets one of these gizmos, enabling them to interact with the digital tabletops  throughout the museum. More importantly, visitors can also capture any object that they see with a tap of the pen. 

You return the pen at the end of your visit, but you take away a unique URL that provides details and images of all the objects you tagged.  It’s like a Crate & Barrel wedding registry, for things none of your friends could possibly afford.

Cooper Hewitt Pen
Cooper Hewitt Magic Pen (and my hand and iPad)

Part of me feels skeptical about the pen.  What’s wrong with taking notes the old fashioned way (i.e., by snapping photos of objects and captions)?  But part of me just loves it.  It’s super gutsy of the Smithsonian to  bridge the physical and digital worlds like this, and to zig when all other museums offer the zag of an audio guide.  It works really well.  It’s fun!  And I imagine the pens generate a treasure trove of data for the museum.  If I were them I’d map visitors’ paths through the place, identify popular items, and understand how people use the Cooper Hewitt. (I collected 47 items, 24 different types of item, associated with 9 colors and 119 tags…etc.)

The digital tables appeal, too, inviting visitors to “grab” random objects with their pens and trace their way through the museum’s collection by material, theme, function, or era. Visitors can also use the pen to take a stab at designing something of their own.

Finally, there’s also a space called the “Immersion Room,” which projects wallpapers lifesize on the walls, or lets you use the magical pen to design a wallpaper of your very own.  Maybe more about Instagrammable moments than about learning about design, but that’s fine in moderation, and my wallpaper had crescent moons and bats.

So that’s the mansion and the tech.  On top of all those, the Cooper Hewitt has a fantastic collection and the space to show it off well. The main show when I visited was “The Jazz Age,” design from the 1920s. 

Jazz-Age Desk
“Skyscraper Desk” from the Jazz Age show

A few weeks back I wished there was a historic house museum from the Art Deco era.  This show amplifies that wish.  How amazing would it be to see these objects in actual rooms that people lived in? Many beautiful, covetable things, and I also note that the exhibition deployed music well: it wouldn’t be a Jazz Age show without jazz.

Screen, 1921, Cooper Hewitt Museum

Who should visit the Cooper Hewitt?  I think almost everyone.  You definitely don’t need to be a design geek to derive huge pleasure and edification from it.  It combines a wonderful building from the past with interactive technology that feels like the future and a collection that spans all eras.

Deco Sofa, Cooper Hewitt Museum
Canapé Gondole, 1925, by Marcel Coard

Finally, design museums have the best gift shops.  So, if nothing else has enticed you yet (that pen, though!) go for the shopping.

For Reference:

Address 2 East 91st Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $16 in advance online, $18 at the door.  Free for Smithsonian members.


5 Replies to “Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum”

Comments are closed.