For years, the Cooper Hewitt museum, founded by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt in 1897 and acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1967, has struggled with its identity. How could the museum—with its decorative-arts collection heavy on wallpapers, painted fans and glass birdcages, housed in a Neo-Georgian manse encrusted in oak paneling and stained glass—reconcile its gilded-age swank with the mandates of a contemporary design museum appealing to a modern audience?
That conflict is actually the wellspring of the museum’s idiosyncratic appeal, especially since the launch of the National Design Triennial in 2000. Showing off the latest in design-gizmo wizardry in the cosseting intimacy of elegant domestic-scale rooms may present steep curatorial challenges, but those same dissonances can enliven and focus the visitor’s experience.
Now that frisson has been exponentially increased by an $81 million makeover completed last month that adds 60% more exhibition space, introduces zoomy interactive features on every floor, and highlights meticulously restored craftsmanship throughout. Some 720 objects from a collection of more than 210,000 items are on display, making room both for 19th-century Sèvres porcelains and 3-D-printed prosthetic limbs. Thirteen blue-ribbon design firms pitched in—including Gluckman Mayner Architects, which focused on interior renovations; Beyer Blinder Belle, which provided a master plan and managed the restoration work; and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which designed the reception desk, new shop and the LED lights embedded in the granite piers along Fifth Avenue. There’s even a new custom-designed typeface by Chester Jenkins. ….