Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The Cooper Hewitt campus includes the Carnegie Mansion and garden and adjacent townhouses.
Courtesy Cooper Hewitt

The nation’s design museum reopened in mid-December with a refurbished home and expanded programming. The new Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum looks a lot like the old Cooper Hewitt, only better, more efficient, and effective. The museum has gained an additional floor of galleries—expanding display space by 60 percent—as well as new service and support areas that will make the museum more functional year round (the museum used to have to close galleries and public areas during installations because it lacked a service elevator).

An all-star roster of design teams worked on the project, including Local Projects, Pentagram, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Thinc Design, and Beyer Blinder Belle. Gluckman Mayner—experienced hands at museum projects and historic renovations—led the architectural piece of the puzzle. They made smart and subtle calls throughout, such as tucking a new elevator discreetly behind a pivoting paneled wall. On the third floor, the firm left one room of oak walls to create a small focus gallery, while stripping away the rest to flexible white box space. The Carnegie mansion, which often felt like an obstacle in the past, is very much in tact and present in the viewing experience, yet the galleries can now better accommodate contemporary shows and innovative exhibition design.

The new galleries.

The museum has gone all-in on the technology front. They have developed a much touted electronic “pen,” which will allow visitors to “collect” objects in an electronic library for further study later as well as to interact with digital displays on tables and wall screens. Unfortunately, the pen was not yet ready during the press preview. A small “immersion gallery” displays the museum’s 15,000-count wallpaper collection via digital projection. Viewers can enlarge or rotate the patterns or even redesign them using a table touch display. The approach runs the risk of being gimmicky or distracting, but the result is a delightful way to flip through this vast trove.

The “immersion room” displays wall coverings through digital projections. (left). New service areas are tucked behind pivoting walls (right).

Thankfully for those who want to see actual objects at the design museum they are on ample display, and all the technology is not overly intrusive. The gadgetry seems to have freed the curators to show some of the museum’s delightfully fusty, frilly, and downright odd objects, such as an alcove of exotic birdcages, collected by the namesake Hewitt sisters, with piped in birdsong. Those looking for a more butch experience can head upstairs to an exhibition dedicated to tools, pulled from numerous museums in the Smithsonian system, which includes a show-stopping installation of saws, scythes, screw drivers, and other implements suspended by nearly invisible lines so as to appear to be exploding from a central point.

Left to right: The museum’s garden entrance; the museum shop; an updated corridor.

On its own terms the renovation is a success. But given another controversial museum expansion proposal 20 or so blocks south on Fifth Avenue at the Frick Collection, the Cooper Hewitt’s relatively modest approach seems all the more effective. Working within the constraints of their existing building, they relocated offices and the library to adjacent townhouses and moved collection storage offsite. The one thing noticeably lacking in the new Cooper Hewitt is a large flexible hall—typically used as a party space in most museums—making the press and opening events crowded affairs. The coat-check remains tiny. The museum prioritized galleries over visitor “amenities,” though they did get a better shop and a lovely looking new café that opens out into their lush garden, which is now open to the non-museum visitor through a new entrance along 90th Street. One off-note is the cheap-looking signage tacked on to the wrought iron garden fence. Thankfully the garden remains and is being slightly updated by Hood Design for a spring reopening.

Opponents of the Frick’s expansion plan can rightfully point to the Cooper Hewitt mansion-as-museum to show what can be done within an existing building to bring an institution up to date. Maybe the Frick can learn to live with a cramped coat-check area or move the director’s office offsite. The Cooper Hewitt, a partially publicly funded museum, seems to have found a way—it’s a refreshing example of public stewardship, institutional self-reflection, and intelligent restraint.