Discovering Design at Cooper Hewitt

There are so many museums to explore in cities across the country and around the world. There are so many pieces of art to look at and ancient objects to admire, that we often find ourselves hitting only the most famous artworks as we seek out culture. But it’s important to look at things as a whole, and recognize that everything has relevance. In New York especially, I find my list of places to visit, shows to see and areas to explore far longer than I could ever manage to get to. But as you compile lists of your own, I strongly encourage you to add The Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Cooper Hewitt Museum on 91st and Fifth

The Cooper Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s design museum, is located in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion on 91st and Fifth Avenue, a stretch of the Upper East Side also known as “Museum Mile.” The mansion is spectacular, with a garden open to the public and sixty rooms in total. It is amazing to think that people used to live in homes like this in New York!

The Museum’s collection is focused on historical and contemporary design, and the museum itself is revolutionizing what it means to be a cultural institution in the digital age. After undergoing a massive 6-year renovation, Cooper Hewitt reopened in 2014 and presented  an entirely new way to experience the mansion and its objects.

The first thing that struck me during my visit? The pen!! Every visitor to Cooper Hewitt receives a “pen”, which is actually an object much larger than a pen and much more exciting. The pen is closer to a giant crayon and about a foot in length. It completely revolutionized my museum-going experience. I’m usually that annoying person holding up traffic by pausing to take a picture of the placard of whatever object I like so I can remember the details. This is no longer necessary at Cooper Hewitt – praise be! Every object has a small target-like shape on the placard that you can touch the base of the pen to and save. Later, you can log onto the museum’s website with an individual code they give you as you check in, and every object or design you saved will be at your fingertips! I cannot tell you how thrilled this made me.

The pen!! And half my hand

Another fantastic element of the museum is the way it has brought the digital into what is usually a physical environment. There are stations throughout the mansion where you can look up objects, design hats, furniture, lamps, shoes of your own, and play around with digital versions of items in the collection that aren’t on display. In fact, there’s an entire room dedicated to this. In “the Immersion Room”  you can explore the museum’s wallpaper collection and project different patterns onto the walls, create your own design and mix and match different coverings and borders. I had a blast in the immersion room trying out different wall coverings, and the best part of it was that I had the entire room to myself!

My drawing versus the design the computer made for me. Thank goodness for technology! Lol!
Playing around in “The Immersion Room”

That’s another part of the museum I really enjoyed and I always appreciate: it wasn’t crowded. Granted, I was there on a weekday afternoon, but having just come from the Met’s Michelangelo exhibit, I could not have been happier to feel free to move and explore at my own pace in a quiet space.

The museum has an exhibition up right now called “Access + Ability“, which explores the ways in which innovative design is helping those with all sorts of disabilities thrive and overcome them in previously unimaginable ways. I loved this exhibition because it showcases how important design is to our everyday lives, and how it is so much more than picking out decor for a room. There were tons of innovative items displayed and many that I felt would be really useful in my own life, such as a portable indoor/outdoor chair and a fancy pair of bejeweled cordless earbuds. I hadn’t expected it to be so relevant to my own life, but it certainly was.


My absolute favorite was this wheelchair accessible pool. Aesthetically pleasing AND accessible!

Access + Ability
Graphic, Jikka Complex, with Wheelchair-Accessible Pool, 2015–19

Not only does the museum do a great job of marrying digital and physical, it effectively showcases historical designs right next to modern and contemporary pieces. As someone who is used to more chronologically based museum experiences, I really appreciated this curatorial decision. It was fascinating to see a snuff box from the 18th century set against the backdrop of a 2015 screen-printed wallpaper of Marilyn Monroe’s face. It’s exciting and fascinating to see how these objects still work together, but also how trends and ideas are constantly being recycled and rejuvenated throughout the eras. You get a really solid idea of how design has evolved throughout civilization’s history.

Snuff box in shape of a man with turban Snuff Box, mid-18th century; France; H x W x D: 6.4 x 5.7 x 6.4 cm; Gift of Anonymous Donor; 1967-48-19

So, head over to Museum Mile and be sure to pop into the Cooper Hewitt! The giant pen and scintillating designs await!


Matt Flynn 024
Textile, Lippen, 1968; Designed by Verner Panton (Danish, 1926–1998); Switzerland; cotton; H x W: 448.9 × 121.9 cm (176 3/4 in. × 48 in.); Gift of Evan Snyderman and Zesty Meyers of R 20th Century and museum purchase from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund; 2011-36-1