PDC member Martha Castaing visits her favorite museum
I first visited the Cooper Hewitt when I moved to New York in the early 2000s. Coming from Southeastern Michigan, the idea that there could be an entire museum devoted strictly to design in all its glorious manifestations was something beyond my wildest imagination. I was laboring under the youthful misapprehension that design in museums meant some Louis XIV chairs tucked into a damp-smelling decorative arts wing, to be visited only when you needed a break from battling the crowds in the fine arts galleries. I have since walked out of the Cooper Hewitt’s doors with renewed appreciation for the modest trimline corded telephone (thank you, Henry Dreyfuss) or more recently reeling from the emotional gut punch that color can deliver in propaganda posters. It’s a wonderland for designers, but also really for anyone who is even remotely sensitive to how the objects and spaces we surround ourselves with impact every aspect of our lives.
The museum was founded in the 1890s by two sisters, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, granddaughters of the industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper. They intended the museum, and an accompanying library of reference materials, to be a teaching resource for students attending The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Inspired by Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Hewitt sisters wanted their collection of prints, drawings, furniture, and metalwork — from buttons to birdcages — to elevate the status of decorative arts in America. The museum was housed downtown at the Cooper Union until the late 1960s, when the collection was acquired by the Smithsonian. It then moved to a grand Georgian Revival mansion on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, formerly owned by Andrew Carnegie. (I have a soft spot in my heart for museums in mansions — I’m looking at you, The Frick, Neue Galerie, Morgan Library — so manageable to visit in an afternoon and so fun to fantasize about what you could do with those locations).
In 2012, the museum underwent a massive renovation and now utilizes four floors of the building for exhibition and event space. The Cooper Hewitt is perhaps best known for its design triennials (begun in 2000), which survey all that is innovative and new about design in contemporary culture, from user-friendly reinventions of the quotidian pill bottle to whatever the latest visualization The New York Times interactive design team has cooked up to relay information more beautifully and clearly to an online audience.
The museum’s rotating exhibitions feature contemporary design addressing issues like environmental degradation or racial segregation, alongside iconic pieces from the past that brought comfort, humor or beauty to day-to-day lives. Every visit sheds fresh light on how the products, interior design, fashion, and architecture of every era are uniquely of and for their time.
Of particular usefulness to production designers is the research library, housed in adjacent buildings on East 90th Street. As a branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, the Cooper Hewitt offers portals to all of the national libraries’ online collections and electronic journals. Locally, it houses over 80,000 volumes, including books, periodicals, catalogs, and trade literature covering design and decorative art from the Renaissance to the present. About a third of those holdings are onsite on the Upper East Side, while the remainder is in a storage and conservation facility in New Jersey. Accessible by appointment, the library has open stacks to peruse its hefty collection and librarians available to facilitate access to rare manuscripts or off-site resources (it’s worth emailing in advance with the scope and parameters of your research subject so that they can assist you and ensure that the resources you need are pulled in advance).
On a recent visit, I got distracted by the multiple shelves devoted to books on wallpaper alone. And in their oak-paneled reading room, you can browse long runs of shelter magazines. House Beautiful’s December 1947 issue, for instance? Yes, please. Meanwhile, trade catalogs and textile sample booklets are an invaluable tool for researching furniture, textile and wall-covering design from different periods. One special collection of note is the World’s Fair Collection, which includes original lithographs, books, posters and photographs covering fairs from the 1844 Beaux-Arts et Industrie Exposition in Paris to the present. It’s a treasure trove of historical architectural reference, as well as product design over time. The museum also has a robust archival collection of Caldwell Lighting, which offers a window into the taste and style of the United States in the affluent 1890s. The library offers quiet sanctuary for work and inspiration. The reception room contains current serials and reference volumes (everything from the latest issue of Dwell and the Ephemera Society Journal to The Complete Dictionary of Furniture). There are two reading rooms to work in, and space can be reserved for groups, if working with research assistants. And on sunny days, the enclosed garden is a perfect spot to read or enjoy a quick drink.
Information on the hours and admission to the museum can be found on the website: https://www.cooperhewitt.org/visit/plan-your-visit/ (Saturdays from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. are pay-what-you-wish admission).
For access to the research library, call ahead at (212) 849-8330 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. https://www.cooperhewitt.org/collections/library/
Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collections: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections
Bard Graduate Library (by appointment only): https://www.bgc.bard.edu/library/3/using-the-library
NYPL Art & Architecture Collection: https://www.nypl.org/about/divisions/wallach-division/art-architecture-collection
Library for the Performing Arts: https://www.nypl.org/locations/lpa Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture: https://www.library.wisc.edu/decorativearts/
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