I’ve been really eager to visit the Smithsonian Design Museum, the Cooper Hewitt ever since I discovered their Object of the Day feature. Unfortunately for me, the museum had been closed for renovations during my last two trips to New York, but because it has recently reopened I put it at the top of my visit list. I’m so glad I did, as it was one of the highlights of my New York trip.
While the Smithsonian collections are more associated with Washington, DC than with New York, it is quite appropriate that this branch of the museum is located in New York City. The core of the collection and the idea of a museum of design started with two New York sisters, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, granddaughters of railroad pioneer Peter Cooper. Cooper had founded the Cooper Union school in New York, a free institution of learning in the fields of applied sciences, such as engineering and architecture.
In 1895 the Hewitt sisters decided to start a working collection of design for the school, and the next year the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration was opened. The women, being products of the Gilded Age, had traveled widely and had collected objects that they thought to be great examples of design. The collection included everything from textiles to bird cages.
The sisters were aided in their collecting by rich friends, such as J.P. Morgan and members of the Astor family. The members of their social class often remembered the collection in their wills, and so the collection continued to grow. The sisters died in 1924 and 1930, but the museum continued on at Cooper Union until 1963, when the museum was closed. Public outcry led to the collection being acquired by the Smithsonian in 1968. In 1970 it was moved to its present location, the Andrew Carnegie mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
It is worth a visit to Cooper Hewitt just to see Carnegie’s “understated” mansion. While the house looks quite extravagant to our modern eyes, by Gilded Age standards it was understated. At the top you can the main staircase in the house.
There were quite a few exhibitions going on at Cooper Hewitt, but to me the topper was Hewitt Sisters Collect, a sampling of the original collection assembled by Sarah and Eleanor. The French parchment and ivory fan above is a good example of what the sisters acquired, possibly on one of their trips to France.
There were several 19th century bandboxes in the collection. This one, a scene of Sandy Hook Lighthouse, was gifted to the collection in 1913.
This piece of silk on linen embroidery was given to the collection by J.P. Morgan in 1902. The piece is from the 17th century, and is Portuguese. Can you see the centaurs shooting arrows at dragons?
Here is another textile from the Morgan gift. It’s a French brocade, circa 1700. To see more photos of each of these objects and to learn more about them, click on the links I’ve provided. They go to the Cooper-Hewitt website, where every object in the exhibition is pictured. It’s a remarkable resource, and it’s not just for the Hewitt Sisters Collect exhibition. Almost every item on display in the museum has a page on the website that tells more about it and shows more photos.
Making Design fills a large gallery and pulls items from the collection to illustrate the elements of design: line, form, texture, pattern, and color. It’s my understanding that the items in the exhibition will change, so more of the extensive collection can be seen.
This hanging was made by artist and weaver Lenore Tawney in linen wool and silk in 1959 and 1960.
The textile, called Abacus, was designed by artist Paul Rand in 1946. He used an actual abacus and laid it on photographic paper to create the design.
This is a bound volume of the 1924 issues of French fashion periodical, Gazette du Bon Ton. The illustration, or pochoir, is of three Jeanne Lanvin fancy ball costumes. Illustration by Georges Lapape.
What looks like a 1960s pop art textile is actually a piece of a mid 19th century hand woven overshot coverlet made in Georgia.
From Japanese designer Issey Miyake we have a folding skirt and top. See the origami-looking square on the floor? It unfolds into a garment like the pieces on the mannequin. To see how it works, you’ve got to see the videos (scroll down the linked page to see them).
Anyone care to guess what this item is? You can find the answer in the on-line exhibition, but guessing might be more fun. I’ll give the correct answer tomorrow. Hint: it is not a textile.
Cooper Hewitt has lots of fun activities for visitors to become immersed in the design process. In a room called the Process Lab, I took a stab at making a jacket more high tech by adding a pocket for a cell phone on the sleeve and built-in gloves with conductive finger-tips. I wish I’d thought of a solar panel on the back that powered a heating system in the jacket. That is what I really needed for the frigid New York weather!