Man’s Reach

The Cooper-Hewitt explores the wide-ranging impact of historical and contemporary designs

The Dahlia necklace was produced in the Netherlands in 1984. Dave King/Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, NY

The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is the Smithsonian museum most distant from the great cluster of the Institution’s buildings in Washington, D.C. But given its purpose, it couldn’t be more appropriately situated than in New York City, where artistic innovation and daring—on, off and over the edge—have traditionally come with the territory. The Cooper-Hewitt is the only major museum in America whose sole purpose is to celebrate historical and contemporary design. Indeed, it’s one of the largest showcases of design in the world. And what, exactly, is meant by design? Well, the Cooper-Hewitt collects in four principal categories—prints, drawings and graphic design; product design and decorative arts; wall coverings; and textiles—but to name them is only to hint at the variety of what qualifies for display in the museum’s Upper Fifth Avenue Georgian Revival mansion (which was built for Andrew Carnegie in 1902 and is itself a notable achievement of design).

In fact, the word "design" lays claim to a surprising portion of the world’s contents. After all, what nature hasn’t made for us, we’ve made for ourselves, designed the lot of it, in effect, even when we haven’t realized we were doing anything as formal as that. The environment of our daily lives is a "made" world, and design is as common to it as air. Personal comment on design is pretty common too—those one or two irrepressible exclamations, for instance, when a child-resistant bottle cap turns out to be adult resistant as well.

California and harvest energy from the ceaseless swells of the Pacific Ocean.

The objects in the triennial exhibition are on loan only and will leave the Cooper-Hewitt at the end of January. But the museum has its own extraordinary collection of some 250,000 objects, dating back to the Han dynasty of 200 B.C., and most of them have never been seen by the public. Now, thanks to the generosity of trustee Nancy Marks and her late husband, Edwin, the Cooper-Hewitt will have, for the first time since it opened its doors in 1976, a permanent gallery in which to display its holdings. The newly renovated space, in what was once the music room of the Carnegie mansion, will reveal the range and beauty of the collections in two major installations a year. Among the 150 items in the inaugural exhibition, opening in mid-October, are a blown-glass Roman bowl from the first century A.D., a large silk-velvet wall panel of exceptional color from 17th-century Persia, a Dutch-designed necklace from the 1980s—and a Sunbeam Mixmaster from the 1990s. That association of the rare and the ordinary across millennia may seem whimsical, but skill and imagination, qualities common to all the objects, keep their own calendar. In any era, the practical object can be pleasurable too, when it’s well fashioned—but only if it has first been well designed.

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