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Design’s New Home

The Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt gets a full makeover

From the outside, the former mansion of the Gilded Age steel baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie has the same traditional and imposing façade—a full block along upper Fifth Avenue and across from Central Park—as it has had for more than a century.  But step inside the new public entrance on 90th Street on December 12, when the museum reopens to the public, and you will find a twenty-first century interpretation of the interiors. The renewed space keeps the best of the mansion’s historic fabric, while making room for the ever-evolving history of design.

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, as it is now named to better reflect its mission and tradition, opened its doors for a single morning in mid-June, to give designers, architects and journalists a sneak peek of what’s to come. Having relocated the museum’s collections and offices for the past three years, the entire structure has been restored, rethought, and repurposed, so that it now can truly function as the fully interactive learning and display space that its directors and trustees have always thought it should be.

Carolyn Baumann, the museum’s current director, introduced the transformation from her podium on the third floor’s new, 6000 square foot exhibition space.  Never before opened to the public, the Barbara and Morton Mandel Design Gallery, once the trunk room and service area for the Carnegie family (and storage space and offices for the old Cooper Hewitt), is now a flexible space that will be used continually for exhibitions.

Restored and renovated areas of the first and second floors, which were once the public and private living spaces for the Carnegies, have been meticulously revived to their original beauty, or evolved in a thoughtful way for their new purpose. Underneath the sumptuous original details are the systems and functions that will make each room supportive of the exhibits it contains, including state-of-the-art climate control and appropriate lighting.

What sets this redo apart, however, is the interactivity that all of the restoration partners have brought to the visitor experience; the museum truly twenty-first century design innovation. Central to this update is Cooper Hewitt’s Pen, given to all visitors as they enter the museum. The Pen will read data from object labels throughout the museum, storing the data in its onboard memory, which can then be accessed at interactive tables located in the museum galleries. These large, ultra-high-definition tables can be used to manipulate the data stored in the Pen, giving visitors the opportunity to learn, share and create from the stored data.  The Pen has a stylus tip, making it a drawing instrument as well as a storage device; it is unique, and also underscores the museum’s expanding depiction of the role of design in every facet of life.

Beyond the high-tech wonders of the Pen, however, is a new connection between the museum and its public, one that will include beautifully restored gardens, plus a newly located museum store and café that will be accessible to the public for cappuccino and conversation(and a gorgeous garden view) from 8 am, before the exhibition space is open. This provides the improved Cooper Hewitt with a new, lively, and friendly connection with the Fifth Avenue neighborhood it calls home.

Design mavens, mark your calendars for December 12 (or thereafter). Anyone interested to see what a national museum of design should look like should put Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on the destination wish list.  For more information, visit the museum website at www.cooperhewitt.org, call 212-849-8400, or follow at www.twitter.com/cooperhewitt and www.facebook.com/cooperhewitt . From 12/12/14 onward, visit at 2 East 91st Street in Manhattan, just a quick drive or train ride from Fairfield County.

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Carnegie Great Hall