SI in the City

Cheryl Carlin

If you’ve ever ridden a New York City subway, you might well have gone through one of those three-pronged turnstiles like the one pictured below. The original cabinets—intended for quick, easy passage—were designed in 1930 by industrial and interior designer John Vassos.

The turnstile has been such a fixture of New York life that it comes to mind as one considers the many links of the Smithsonian Institution (SI) to the Big Apple. Our Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, the nation’s only design museum, is there. It celebrates good design, like Vassos’ turnstile cabinet. Also in New York is the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian magazine’s business office is there, too, where the Smithsonian Enterprises media team helps us embrace new energy and purpose. And the Archives of American Art has a New York center. The Archives has digitized nearly 1.6 million documents from artists, architects, photographers and others, including Vassos’ papers and those of Florence Knoll Bassett, who helped give the Knoll furnishings’ look of uncluttered simplicity its international renown in the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s.

Our roots in New York are deep. Five of the 12 Smithsonian Secretaries have come from New York State. New Yorkers, such as Joseph Hirshhorn (Hirshhorn Museum) and Arthur Sackler (Sackler Gallery), have donated priceless collections. Prominent New Yorkers serve on Smithsonian boards and have supported splendid renovations of Cooper-Hewitt’s Carnegie Mansion and the Heye Center’s Customs House, where through July 2011 visitors can see “A Song for the Horse Nation,” an exhibit on the role of horses in Native American cultures. (See and for information.)

At Cooper-Hewitt, two recent exhibits, “Design for the Other 90%” and “Design for a Living World,” addressed global issues of poverty and sustainability. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, for example, used a byproduct of Alaskan salmon-processing to create exquisite dresses decorated with sequin-like disks made of the fish’s skin. A current exhibit, “Design USA” (on view through April 4), commemorates the first ten years of the National Design Awards. Last July, first lady Michelle Obama hosted a White House awards ceremony to announce the tenth-anniversary winners, among them SHoP Architects’ sustainable technologies (Architecture Design); the New York Times graphics department’s maps and diagrams (Communication Design); Perceptive Pixel’s intuitive touch surfaces (Interaction Design); and HOOD Design’s reconstructed urban landscapes (Landscape Design). The Smithsonian is proud to be part of New York, arguably the world’s most diverse and culturally exciting city.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

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