Around the Mall & Beyond

Doghouses, lace, luggage, wallpaper, backpacking tents. Since 1897, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has been amazing us

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When the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum announced a $20 million renovation of its New York City home, the old Andrew Carnegie mansion (plus two adjacent townhouses)-a project to coincide with the museum's centennial this year-60 architects applied for the job. The intriguing challenge was to turn this classic 1902 pile into a cutting-edge museum without destroying its character. And character it has.

The steel baron built the place at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue for himself, his wife and daughter, and 19 servants. The first private home ever built with a structural steel frame, it had 64 rooms, two elevators, a generator in case the city power plant broke down, two brass-fitted furnaces fed from a 250-ton coal bin, an air-conditioning system with fans that blew air through cheesecloth filters, over tanks of cold water and into all the rooms, and a three-story aeolian organ on which the family organist performed every morning at 8. 

There was a fine garden, a playhouse for young Margaret, a sewing room, music room, drawing room, picture gallery, teakwood library, gymnasium and an oaken staircase you could drive a Sherman tank up...You know, this is a complicated story. I have to cover the history of three inspired collectors, the Hewitt sisters, plus the recent changes in the building plus something about the incredible collections themselves, plus a little about Henry Dreyfuss. Why don't we just start with a tour? "The ceiling fixtures are original," remarks my guide, a Cooper-Hewitt docent, as she points to the massive octagonal rosettes of Scottish oak that lead the eye to the monumental staircase; its risers, she notes, are only six inches high, "perhaps because Carnegie was kind of short, 5 feet 2."

"If you'd come here as a guest of the Carnegies," she says while ushering me through the white marble front vestibule and out to 91st Street, "you'd give your coat to a butler here. But it's been remodeled to make access easier." With a virtually unnoticeable four-foot extension of the pillared entryway, a ramp has been inserted, giving stairless access to the main door. Push a button and the two 800-pound bronze doors open, letting you into the Beaux-Arts vestibule, where a little elevator awaits.

"It used to be quite a rigmarole for people who couldn't climb stairs to get into this building, but we've solved that problem," the docent explains. "Another big challenge is to show our exhibits of modern design within the context of a turn-of-the-century mansion."

She takes me into the museum shop, once the music room, with carved ceiling, vintage chandelier and, in each corner, a golden decoration on a musical theme. Then we enter the magnificent glass conservatory. "We had to take that whole conservatory down, a thousand pieces of glass and steel, because it was leaking so. The area was wrapped in industrial plastic while they releaded the glass and finally put it all back together."

Design Resource Center, where scholars can view items from the collection. The history of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (SMITHSONIAN, November 1977) begins with Peter Cooper who, you may recall, was the inventor of the Tom Thumb (arguably the first American-made locomotive) and the founder of Cooper Union College for the Advancement of Science and Art. His daughter married Abram Hewitt, a pioneer in the steel industry, and they had three lively daughters, Amy, Eleanor and Sarah.

These three young women loved to collect beautiful things. They traveled the world picking up drawings and prints, exotic textiles, furniture, ceramics and buttons, and compiling hundreds of large scrapbooks showing the evolution of design across many cultures and centuries.

Cooper Union. The public was invited to peruse the ever-growing laboratory of design: 20,000 fabrics; 6,000 wall coverings, the largest accumulation in America; 1.5 million pictures of various kinds, not to mention clocks, jewelry, birdcages, 4,280 matchboxes and 2,000 buttons.

But eventually, as you might imagine, the museum needed more room for the collections. In 1968 the Smithsonian agreed to make it one of its own, and the Carnegie Foundation provided the mansion. The transfer took eight years and there are now 250,000 objects. The Cooper-Hewitt is the only museum in America devoted exclusively to historical and contemporary design.

"Here's the textile department," my guide tells me. "Everything's crowded in and covered with plastic because of the renovation." I glimpse microscopes for studying different weaves; one project concerns the mechanics of knitting.

Then we enter the library, with its 50,000 volumes on design, from The Art of the Tin Toy to Bohemian Porcelain. "We have one of the world's largest collections of pop-up books, too," my mentor adds. "Also, books on English drinking glasses, fans, spoons and other everyday things that tell us who we are."

This, she tells me, is the whole idea of a design museum. The centennial will feature some stunning shows, beginning with "Disegno: Italian Renaissance Designs for the Decorative Arts," which runs through May 18, and the first major retrospective on Henry Dreyfuss, the great industrial designer whose style influences the look of America to this day: from the Princess, Trimline and TouchTone phones, to Westclox alarms, Polaroid cameras, airline seats and the ubiquitous round Honeywell thermostat. This exhibition will be open through August.

It was organized by guest curator Russell Flinchum. I see that the subtitle of his book on Dreyfuss is The Man in the Brown Suit, and I ask what that is about. "Henry Dreyfuss was a master at creating a strong persona. His closet was full of brown clothes; they were his hallmark and served as an instant identifier. They set him apart from the gray-and-blue-suited business people who were his clients. His presentations were carefully calculated and very persuasive, and he used the force of his personality to see his priorities through. He was the first industrial designer to be taken very seriously, the first to be brought in on retainer by the majority of his clients."

I call on Dianne Pilgrim, the visionary director since 1988, to get an overview of the Cooper-Hewitt. When, after all, did people first perceive that design itself, the history of design, was worthy of study? "I think it was the world's fairs that started it," she says. "Like the Crystal Palace in 1851. You showed off your national products and saw what others were doing and got inspiration from that. Fairs were industrial trade shows. The word turns up in the 1891 Cooper Union yearbook, where it talks about design, designers, even interior designers."

Design became a viable profession in the late 1920s, she adds, through innovators like Henry Dreyfuss. The theater was a major influence along with industry. "The Bauhaus spread the idea of good design, but it wasn't mass- produced. Americans did that. We're action-oriented. Look at the new housing after World War II." The idea of learning by showing appealed to Pilgrim from the start, for she is dyslexic. "Visual arts have always been my words and my way of learning," she explains.

Right off, upon arriving here from the Brooklyn Museum, she discovered that something had to be done to better house the collection and the staff of 65. "To move an object from one of the townhouses to the mansion, you had to go down steep stairs, go outside, walk across the terrace and up a double flight of stairs," she recalls. "That was just not acceptable."

As Pilgrim explains two other centennial year exhibitions — a show on backpacking tents, which opens outside in the garden in June, and "Design for Life," opening in September — I begin to understand the Cooper-Hewitt's big picture. Design affects the look and feel of just about everything, from buttons to bulldozers, from glasses to glockenspiels, from highway signs to the highways themselves, and the cities they lead to. Designer cities? Some are certainly better designed than others.

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