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Treasure House of Design
by
Bob Brooke

 

Where will you find a chair used by Abraham Lincoln and a Rolls-Royce once owned by the Beatles? The answer is the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City. The car, donated by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1978, was sent to Sotheby’s in the summer of 1985 where it sold for $2,090,000. Obviously, the museum needed the money more than the fame the car would have brought.



And so it goes with many of the museums founded during the “Golden Age,” the Belle Epoque. Wealthy upper class New Yorkers donated an assortment of objects. But it wasn’t until later that the original collection received a good analysis and the museum got its present-day focus.

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is the nation’s premier museum exclusively devoted to design in all its forms. When someone mentions the word “design,” thoughts of architectural forms, industrial art objects, and graphic printing are tops on the list. But design is much, much more, and the Cooper Hewitt showcases it beautifully, especially after its recent $91 million renovation.

Located in the Upper East Side's Museum Mile in Manhattan, it’s one of 19 museums that fall under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution and is one of three Smithsonian facilities located in New York City, the other two being the George Gustav Heye Center in Bowling Green and the Archives of American Art New York Research Center in the Flatiron District. It’s the only museum in the United States devoted to historical and contemporary design. Its collections and exhibitions cover nearly 240 years of design aesthetic and creativity.

Founded in 1896, Cooper Hewitt Museum was originally given the name of Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration and fell under the wing of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In 1895, the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt and Amy Hewitt Green, asked the Cooper Union for a space to create a Museum for the Arts of Decoration. The new museum took its inspiration from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. It would serve as a place for Cooper Union students and professional designers to study decorative arts collections. When it opened on the fourth floor of the Foundation Building in 1897, it was only open three days a week and was free.



Eventually the museum and the art school distanced themselves from one another, resulting in the museum’s closing on July 3, 1963. Public outcry was strong against the closing. Henry Francis Du Pont formed the Committee to Save the Cooper Union Museum. Negotiations began between the Cooper Union and the Smithsonian Institution. On October 9, 1967, the Trustees of the Cooper Union signed an agreement turning over the collection and library of the museum to the Smithsonian. On July 1, 1968, it was officially renamed the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. The following year, 1969, its name changed once again to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design.

The museum moved to its home at the Andrew Carnegie Mansion in 1970. The Mansion was renovated and the museum opened to the public on October 7, 1976 with the exhibition "MAN transFORMs."

The Georgian style mansion, under construction from 1899 to 1902, has 64 rooms. The home served as not only the home for Andrew Carnegie, his wife, and daughter, but also as his office for his philanthropic work after his retirement. The architectural firm of Babb, Cook & Willard designed the mansion as the first private residence in the country to have a structural steel frame, as well as the first home in New York to have an Otis elevator. The home also had central heating and an early form of air-conditioning. The conservatory, made of Tiffany glass, underwent renovation in 1975. In 1995, the museum closed for a year for a $20 million renovation to connect the three buildings on the property, improve accessibility, and build a design study center.

In 1994, the museum's name changed again to Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum. And on June 17, 2014, the museum's name changed once again to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The mansion closed to the public in July 2011 to a second period of renovations costing $91 million. On December 12, 2014, the Cooper Hewitt reopened to the public. Renovations included an "Immersion Room", an interactive space that provides visitors digital access to the museums collection of wallpaper. The main exhibition space had also been expanded.

Collections
The Cooper Hewitt collections consist of decorative and design objects. It’s original collection focused on architecture, sculpture, painted architecture, decorative arts, woodwork, metalwork, pottery, costume, musical instruments and furniture. Upon its opening, Abram S. Hewitt's wife, Sarah Amelia Hewitt, donated a lace collection, George Hearn donated two fountains worth $1,000, and Lloyd Bryce's wife donated art and objects from the Palace of Fontainebleau.



The museum has a wide variety of objects in its collection, ranging from matchbooks, to shopping bags, porcelain from the Soviet Union, and the papers of graphic designer Tibor Kalman.

Exhibitions Through the Years
Exhibitions at the Cooper Hewitt explore the history and culture of design and decorative arts. A 1968 exhibition called "Please Be Seated," focused on contemporary chairs.



In 1977, approximately a year after the museum reopened, "Palaces for the People," explored a century of resort and motel architecture in the United States. In 1979, the museum hosted hundreds of objects on loan from various other Smithsonian museums for an exhibit called "Smithsonian." The museum, in 1980, showcased the history and culture of the oceanliner in the exhibition "The Oceanliner: Speed, Style, Symbol." Later that year the "Hair" exhibit featured over 350 objects about the history of hair styles and "Electroworks" covered the history of copy machine art. In conjunction with the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities the Cooper-Hewitt showcased Scandinavian design. In 1983, The Cooper-Hewitt was the first museum in the United States to exhibit the Amsterdam School.

The jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels was a focus of an exhibition in 2011. That same year artist Sonia Delaunay had a solo show at the museum. The Cooper-Hewitt worked with the Walker Art Center, in 2012, to develop "Graphic Design - Now In Production," which showcases graphic design that has been created since 2000.

Other exhibitions at the museum have included Puiforcat silver, wallpaper, the works of Alexander Girard, and universal design.


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