The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is open again after almost three years of renovations. The good news is that it has done a remarkable job rethinking its exhibitions and programs to live up to its mission of being our go-to place to learn why design matters. Ironically, however, architecture keeps defeating it: the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, a sumptuous, if not brilliant, piece of late-late 19th century eclectic design (by Babb, Cook, & Willard) continues to overwhelm whatever takes place within its newly gleaming rooms.
The Carnegie Mansion was designed to be not just a house, but a showpiece and a centerpiece of the robber baron’s philanthropic enterprises, entombing his considerable wealth in acres of carved wood, expensive stone, and ornate decoration. I can imagine that daily life in there was as constrained and overwhelmed by all that entombed wealth as the current functions are. Since occupying the mansion in 1976, however, the museum's problems have become even more evident. The rooms are too constricted for effective exhibitions, and the whole place too small for everything the Cooper Hewitt wants to do. The art of the walls is a distraction from the art and design on the walls, or in the vitrines, that, no matter what designers have done, look alien. There is no logical way to move through the house, and most of the rooms are rather dark and gloomy.
The only thing the new, $60 million-plus renovation has done to improve that situation in a substantial manner is to use the attic, which is devoid of decoration and a relatively large space, for a new temporary exhibition venue. To do this, offices and library functions had to be exiled from the mansion. This, to me, seems backwards: the building should be a showplace of itself, perhaps an embassy (in the manner of many other such mansions now) or a place to gather for discussions, salons, and other ways to think about design. It could also be a headquarters for the institution. Exhibitions and education should take place somewhere that is more conducive to such a public function, more easily accessible and welcoming, and less oppressive in its design. [Full disclosure: A few years ago, I spoke to the Cooper Hewitt about taking on a leadership role there, and made some of these suggestions.]
Yet the curators and designers have done a remarkable job. The attic especially is a lively place, centered around an explosion of tools, some of them rather sharp and menacing, that lets you see the beauty of these humble objects while giving you the sense that they emanate from some unseen mind at the core of invention. On the floor below, the curators have made some wonderful groupings that break through temporal and typological categories to emphasize simple rhythms of color, line, and composition. You really get a sense of what design’s building blocks are, while enjoying highlights from the Cooper Hewitt’s collections.
Most of the press has centered on the whiz-bang technology that is part of the new renovation. The famous pen, which lets you design, and remembers your work for later contemplation or use, was still in beta when I visited, but the room where you could draw your own wallpaper and see it unfurl around you offered a nice bit of participatory and immersive magic. Beyond that, the digital information tables were nice, but did not seem to me to make a strong enough case about what they added to the whole experience. It seems to me that concentrating on the objects, and letting information float freely on people’s devices (and you could borrow a mobile device at the front desk to do just that) makes more sense.
Perhaps what matters most are the additions that have little to do with the exhibitions: the relocated shop is larger and more seductive in its displays, though the transition to the exhibition area is, perhaps tellingly, difficult to find; the nice restaurant has been expanded, and you can now enter the Cooper Hewitt through its garden, although you then have to wind your way through both café and shop to find the ticket desk.
I certainly am glad that the Cooper Hewitt has made the most of its site and of its curatorial talent; I just hope that some day it can escape from its gilded cage.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.