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Today a redesigned Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum opens its doors. Over the past three years the museum has completed an extensive physical renovation of its campus, the Carnegie Mansion, a National Historic Landmark building. The $91 million project ($81 million in cost and $10 million in endowment) expanded Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition galleries by 60%, overhauled the exhibition experience and back-of-house operations, and created digital initiatives aimed at invigorating audience engagement. The museum has developed new interactive technologies that endeavor to increase understanding of its 220,000-object collection, not simply as static products but also as illustrative of the trials and errors of the design process.
It’s fitting that the Cooper Hewitt, which shows historic as well as contemporary design, is housed in the Carnegie Mansion, built in 1902 by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie as a family home. Carnegie intended to incorporate the latest technologies into the structure of the building, which was extremely modern by turn-of-the-century standards: it was the first home in the United States to be built around a steel frame, and one of few New York City residences at the time with an elevator. In the basement, Carnegie installed a small, toy-like train track to transport coal to massive boilers that heated the house. In the summer, a primitive air-conditioning system cooled its interior.
The building is a beautiful piece of design in its own right, and the current renovation has carefully balanced the restoration of historic detail with contemporary technology, sustainability, and accessibility goals. A small cadre of architecture and design firms — including Gluckman Mayner Architects, Beyer Blinder Belle, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Local Projects — tackled various aspects of the project. Considering the coordination efforts required of so many teams, and the fact that federal National Historic Landmark regulations, Smithsonian SD410 guidelines, and ADA laws had to be followed throughout the multiyear overhaul, the physical transformation of the building is nothing short of miraculous. “What I admire so much about the new Cooper Hewitt is how they have taken special care to treat this Victorian behemoth as a design challenge in and of itself,” said Heather Ewing, author of Life of a Mansion, a history of the Carnegie Mansion commissioned for the reopening.
Many of the building’s original architectural details — among them the Great Hall, main staircase, and Teak Room, all of which feature exquisite hand-carved wood, and the exterior wrought-iron fence — have been restored. The mansion’s third floor, previously home to a cozy but dated library and administrative offices, was gutted to provide 6,000 square feet of sleek, white-box gallery space. An original carved wooden cornice that now pivots to allow tall objects to enter the new gallery demonstrates the extraordinary delicacy of balancing preservation and modernization. The first- and second-floor exhibition spaces have also been renovated, administrative offices and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library moved to the adjacent Miller-Fox townhouses at 9 East 90th Street. In addition to these visible changes, electrical and mechanical systems have been updated, and the institution is pursuing LEED Silver certification for the renovated building. The expansive outdoor garden, the largest private garden in New York, will be free to the public for the very first time.
Tied as it is to the building, the renovation also encompasses a rethinking of audience engagement. New digital initiatives aim to create an interactive relationship between museum attendees and the collection. “We wanted a series of experiences that encouraged in-gallery sociability,” Seb Chan, Cooper Hewitt Director of Digital & Emerging Media, told Hyperallergic over email. “We wanted the new Cooper Hewitt to open with a set of core digital interactive experiences across all exhibition spaces that worked in unison and gave the museum room to grow.”
The Pen, the institution’s most talked-about new digital device, is unfortunately not ready with the rest of the museum; it will arrive in early 2015. The Pen looks like a large ballpoint, but its tip will allow visitors to interact with object labels, noting pieces of interest and storing them in an online portfolio. Collection Browsers, touchscreen systems installed in seven low tables throughout the galleries, allow users to search collection and exhibition objects, including by the innovative criterion of shape. The Immersion Room showcases Cooper Hewitt’s vast compendium of wallpapers and wall coverings — the largest collection of its type in North America — using two digital projections. Visitors can choose which wallpaper to project, zoom in for detail, and create their own design. In the Process Lab, on the first floor of the museum, facilitators guide participants through the steps of designing an object: solving a specific problem for a particular client, brainstorming, prototyping, evaluating possible models, and more. Impressively, these new digital initiatives are successfully integrated into the gallery spaces; they don’t detract from the exhibition experience but rather enrich it.
On offer for that experience are a whopping eight inaugural shows: Tools: Extending our Reach; Beautiful Users; Maira Kalman Selects; Making Design; Designing the New Cooper Hewitt; Models & Prototypes Gallery; Hewitt Sisters Collect; and Passion for the Exotic: Lockwood de Forest, Federic Church. Mirroring the balance of the renovation, the exhibitions draw from older objects in the permanent collection as well as from new design technology. In Maira Kalman Selects, the writer and illustrator pulls a variety of largely historical objects from across the Smithsonian’s collections, and from her own, more idiosyncratic ones, to suggest the outlines of a life. In contrast, Tools: Extending our Reach showcases an original model for the basic clothespin alongside a live digital image of the sun transmitted by satellite. Standing in front of this changing sun surface, one is reminded how increasingly vast the applications of design have become, literally extending into the galaxy. The reimagining of the Cooper Hewitt demonstrates an openness to engage not just with the history of design but with its future as well — an ambitious and laudable undertaking.
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