Designing Women

The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum continues to expand the mission of the sisters who founded it

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The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, located in New York City, is the only museum in America devoted exclusively to the study of historical and contemporary design. In 1853 the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper established the Cooper-Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; it opened to students in 1859, offering tuition-free education in art, architecture and engineering. From the start, Cooper had envisioned that his institution would include a museum to enrich the educational experience.

His plans were delayed for nearly half a century until three of Cooper's granddaughters — Amy, Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt — founded the Cooper-Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration in 1897, an institution modeled on the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria and Albert) in London. With a keen sense of connoisseurship and significant financial resources, the Hewitt sisters acquired textiles, laces, prints, drawings and decorative objects of the highest quality that ultimately formed the core of the museum's collections. As the new museum evolved, it became a working laboratory of design meant to educate and inspire artisans, architects, designers, scholars and the general public.

By the early 1960s, however, the Cooper-Union found itself hard-pressed to fund its educational programs and decided in 1963 to close the museum. Dedicated efforts to save it eventually led to the transfer of the collections to the Smithsonian in 1967. To house the treasures, the Carnegie Corporation donated the landmark Andrew Carnegie Mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, which included an extensive garden and terrace and an adjacent town house. These two residential buildings were converted into a functional museum complex and reborn in 1976 as the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design (it was later renamed the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum). The museum acquired another contiguous town house in 1989.

With the generous support of individual donors, the Cooper-Hewitt launched an extensive construction project in 1994 that unified these disparate buildings into a state-of-the-art museum complex. The centerpiece of the plan is the Design Resource Center — a research facility that allows greater public access to actual objects in the collection.

The Cooper-Hewitt has established numerous educational programs that have further extended the Hewitt sisters' original mission. In partnership with the Parsons School of Design, the museum organized a master's program in 1982. Granting degrees in the history of the decorative arts, it focuses on European influences. A master's program in American decorative arts was added in 1996 and is based in Washington, D.C.

Nearly ten years ago the Cooper-Hewitt expanded its commitment to building audiences by extending its educational programs to schoolchildren and educators. It offers lectures, seminars, workshops, tours, family events and gallery talks, as well as interpretive materials and publications, all made possible by partnerships with corporations, foundations and schools. These programs augment the museum's wide range of exhibitions. For example, this summer it is featuring photographs documenting changes in houses and buildings in the Latino communities in East Los Angeles. At the same time, the museum will also offer an exhibition of 17th- and 18th-century Huguenot silver. Opening this fall is an exhibition of furniture, building designs, films, photographs and toys from the American husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most creative thinkers in design of the 20th century.

As it looks to the future, the Cooper-Hewitt is working hard through corporate and private philanthropy to provide support for all its programs. Among several new initiatives, the first exhibition of the millennium will be the National Design Triennial, the first attempt to establish a regular forum to feature the best in contemporary design. The museum is also creating the National Design Awards, the first award program directed by a national institution to honor individual designers as well as corporations for enlightened commitment to good design. As always, the Cooper-Hewitt looks forward to increasing its private and institutional support to expand its exhibition program and to meet the continuing challenge of building its collections.

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