Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

1/18/2010; Monday (MLK Jr. Day)
TIME: 2 hrs
COST: $10 each, plus free audio tour

Today we continued our exploration of the famous “Museum Mile” in the posh Upper East Side, a stretch of 5th Avenue across the street from Central Park with a grand total of 11 museums, including one of the largest museums in the world (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and one of the most distinctive (The Guggenheim). However today our selection was based on the sole criteria that the museum be open on the holiday (MLK Jr. day). Surprisingly for institutions so integral to the tourist trade, not many museums were open today.

Our first stop was the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a NY branch of the Smithsonian. The Coopper-Hewitt claims to be the only museum in the world “devoted to historic and contemporary design”, and I’ll admit that both Paul and I were a bit puzzled as to what the museum would contain. We both pictured exhibits of household goods and furniture, like maybe “the history of the chair” with rows of historic and modern chairs. Fortunately for us it was much more interesting than what we imagined.

The Cooper-Hewitt is housed in the former mansion of Andrew Carnige, a lovely Georgian-style “country-house” built at the turn of the century, and notable as one of the first residences to have central heating AND air-conditioning. The lobby is breathtaking, with the floors, walls and ceilings covered in elaborately carved and gilded wood, making you feel like you were standing in a massive and ornate hollow tree. Sort of like visiting very wealthy Keebler elves. Unfortunately, at some time in the past the interior decorations were stripped out of the rest of the mansion, leaving only blank white walls and little personality, and leading us to wonder what the rest of it looked like when the Carnegies lived here.

The exhibitions at the Cooper-Hewitt change frequently, but during our visit the entire museum was devoted to the winners of the National Design Awards from the last 10 years.
These awards honor “outstanding contemporary achievements in American architecture, landscape design, interior design, product design, communication design, corporate design, interaction design, and fashion.” Apparently there have been a lot of them handed out over the last 10 years, and it made for a very dense exhibit. The rooms were full of rows of shelves divided into small spaces, with consecutive spaces dedicated to various things such as the design of the first laptop computer (see picture), a lifetime achievement award for architecture (see picture of I. M. Pei's dome below), a novel design for pants, the invention of a human propelled plane, and Tupperware. If you go we HIGHLY recommend standing in line for the free interactive iPod tour. There’s little text on the exhibits themselves to explain what each is and without the tour we would have been lost, pointing and whispering questions like “What’s with the pants?”.

We both enjoyed the exhibit, and felt it gave us a lot to think about. We didn’t always agree with the choice of winners, but even the disagreements we had gave us interesting things to talk about; for example, was the invention of Tupperware a revolution in food storage and conservation, leading to changes in kitchen design and the way meals were prepared after WWII, as well as being a radical change in home marketing techniques and an influence on women’s liberation with its all woman sales force? Or is it just a colorful plastic novelty item? Discuss...

Paul’s one complaint was that much of the museum seemed awfully commercial, and while the argument should certainly be made that good design can and possibly should be commercialized, it was disconcerting that some of the prominently featured companies (i.e. Target and Apple) were also the exhibit’s sponsors. It lead us to ponder what Paul called the “chicken and egg scenario.” What came first, the Design Award to these companies, or their sponsorship of the award? Food for thought.

Ta for now; we will fill you in on the Neue Gallery next posting.


  1. You both are very ambitious! I enjoyed your comments on the museums you visited. You might consider collecting them and putting them into a book titled "The multitude of museums in New York"! My favorite to date is the Cloisters with the most incredible collection of church paraphenalia imaginable. It's no wonder the people were starving during the middle ages. The church had all the wealth! Lynn

  2. I think I would find the architecture of Carnegie's mansion more interesting that its current contents, but I suppose there is a place for everything. (Have you seen the proof that all numbers are interesting?) - Mike

  3. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum sounds really neat. I like the useful- to- potential- future- visiters notes like advising the free interactive iPod tour. I wish you could have included a picture of the innovative pants; I'm imagining all sorts of bizarre innovations, like an air hose attachment for inflating out the wrinkles.

    Oh, and I love the image you gave of the museum... "Sort of like visiting very wealthy Keebler elves." Heh.


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