Museum of Arts and Design

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 132 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Kaisik Wong’s spacey, glam 1970s fashions look like costumes from a very trippy sci-fi film.  The opposite of most of the counterculture fashion on display, and yet they fit in somehow, too.

Museum of Arts and Design, New YorkNew York City is lucky to  boast not one but two extremely fine design museums — the Museum of Arts and Design and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.  Augmented by the estimable design collections at MoMA and The Met.

Does it really need two design museums, though?  I think it does. The Cooper Hewitt and the Museum of Arts and Design (“MAD”) feel extremely different.  MAD’s collection starts at midcentury, shaping its outlook and sensibilities.  Cooper goes deeper and can do more with historical context.  I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that the one is like MoMA and the other is like The Met.   But it’s not necessarily unfair to make that comparison, either.

I spent a good chunk of my Cooper Hewitt review talking about the Carnegie mansion that houses it. The mansion indelibly shapes the Cooper Hewitt experience. MAD’s building is equally important, and also unique, but it could not be more distinct from a palatial, beaux-arts, Fifth Avenue home.

MAD today resides in a mini-skyscraper, 10 stories of dedicated museum building prominently located on Columbus Circle.  The 4 stories used for exhibitions have small floor plans, but it’s still ample space to execute the museum’s program. The building has always been a museum:  it was constructed in 1964 to house the art collection of a guy named Huntington Hartford. This vanity museum lasted only 5 years before going bust, and Mr. Huntington sold the building.  It went through a succession of owners and uses but mainly was defunct and empty for years as no one could figure out what to do with it.  And yet, MAD’s decision to renovate and occupy it actually proved quite controversial.  No one really loved the monolithic old museum building, but several notable architects and artists spoke loudly against changing it, at least partially just because it had been there so long. 

Museum of Arts and Design
Architectural slice, with tie-die

In this case, I’m glad the perservationists lost. The modernized building has a friendlier facade and the interior spaces function well. Large chunks cut into the facade provide terrific views of Columbus Circle and Central Park, but the cuts go deeper than that, stretching across the floors as well, creating extra translucency.  The interior feels thoroughly up-to-date, although if you visit the basement (restrooms, coat, check, and  theater) sleek wood paneling and lighting feel like you’ve briefly crossed over from MAD to Mad Men.

Columbus Circle, Museum of Arts and Design
Columbus Circle view from MAD, rainy day

MAD’s collection and resources may not go as deep as the Cooper Hewitt’s, but they go pretty deep.  The current exhibit is an absolute delight:  “Counter Couture”  — fashions from the 1960s and 1970s.  Lots of handmade, quilted, embroidered,  denimed, bedazzled, and crocheted clothing from a time long gone.  I can vaguely remember (and photographs exist to confirm) my parents wearing garb that would not have been terribly out of place in the company.

Crocheted fashions, Museum of Arts and Design
100% BIRGITTA, Rainbow Ensemble with Large Pendant, 1969 (and other crochet-wear)

Period music sets the mood, wallpapers evoke the psychedelic, and beaded dividers screen sections from one another.  And a few macrame planters hang out, just to make the flashback complete.

Counter Coture Show at MAD

In terms of ties to other things I’ve seen recently, the show features the album cover for Ike & Tina Live at Carnegie Hall, as well as a bit on the dashiki’s role in the Black Power movement, hearkening back to the Schomburg Center show.

1975 denim jacket
Billy Shire, Welfare, 1975

For all that I think of counterculture fashion as being highly anti-commercial and do-it-yourself, the show made an interesting point about major designers adopting elements of the looks, and counterculturists who made a living making clothes and jewelry. Levi’s even sponsored a juried contest for the best decorated denim, drawing over 2,000 entries. MAD’s 1960s incarnation, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, showed off the winners.

Partly because of my early childhood, my natural reaction to anything vaguely hippie is to turn and run the other way.  And yet I loved this exhibit, found it both fun and interesting, a tribute to clever and thoughtful curation.

Handbag at MAD
Judith Leiber, Pig Handbag

Other current shows look at efforts to bring inclusiveness and diversity and accommodation to contemporary fashion, as well as the work of Judith Leiber, a famous handbag designer.

Then there’s the permanent collection,  tucked away here and there.  I ran into a set of goblets cleverly installed into a window in one of the stairwells.  And look out for drawer after drawer of contemporary jewelry, well worth an avaricious peek.

Glassware, Museum of Arts and Design
Goblets at MAD

Other things to keep in mind:  

MAD’s gift shop is fantastic.  Strong emphasis on jewelry and housewares, extremely well selected, though it’s all on the spendy side.  No hippie beads or bedazzled denim available.

MAD also boast one of the best views of any museum restaurant in New York. It outdoes even The Met’s Trustee’s Dining Room.  While I haven’t eaten there, but I have enjoyed an expensive cappuccino and the priceless vista.

If you just look at their homes, you might well think the Cooper Hewitt is the stodgy, “classic” design museum while MAD is the upstart, creative, alternative one.  That’s incorrect:  The Cooper Hewitt is thoroughly modern, adaptable, and light on its institutional feet.  But their spaces create such distinct vibes, I do believe that the same exact exhibit might feel just a bit zippier and hipper at MAD.

I do not know what I would say to someone who only has time to visit one design museum.  You could flip a coin with confidence that you will have a great and rewarding experience.  If you possibly can, I’d strongly recommend visiting both MAD and the Cooper Hewitt.  They make a study in contrasts and commonalities.  And New York is lucky to have them both.

Museum of Arts and Design
MAD Stairway


For Reference:

Address 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $16 (free membership for IDNYC members)
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