As a child, whenever we would travel as a family, my artist mother would insist that we visit the local museum of whatever city we were traveling in. In my day, I have been to the Louvre and seen the Mona Lisa (BEFORE it was encased in glass). I have seen Monet's giant water lilies, I have stood at the base of Michelangelo's Winged Victory, The Thinker, and countless other renowned pieces of art. Of course, I complained the whole way through each exhibit; sure my life was harder than most others'. Now, as an adult, nothing is more pleasurable to me than an afternoon at a museum, exploring each floor and all the wonders they offer. This love of museums and the art and culture they offer got me thinking about a friend who has been to far more exhibits than I have and has a deep intellect around art and its place in our lives. I caught up with Camille recently and talked to her about her favorite places. Cooper Hewitt came up almost immediately, so I decided to explore that more in our conversation. After just a few moments of talking to her, I knew I would be taking a visit to New York in the near future to check this place out.
HCD: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us why the Cooper Hewitt Museum is such a favorite of yours. Why, specifically, is it?
CL: It's the only Smithsonian museum dedicated to design and decorative arts and one of the smaller sets of Smithsonian's located outside DC. Indeed, it was the first Smithsonian to be located in New York City.
I not only love design but love how Cooper-Hewitt makes it clear that design is not only a part of the daily quality of life but also a vital way to build greater futures for humans and this planet. The range of shows they put on and questions they raise is astonishing. I always feel energized when I have the chance to visit.
It's also a beautiful building in a beautiful setting. It's housed in a 5th Avenue, Upper East Side Carnegie mansion. Every effort is made to maintain the feeling and personality of a house while also adapting to a museum's needs and meeting the mission of accessibility. It has a garden where summer events are held and a conservatory with Tiffany glass.
HCD: How did you come to know about this museum?
CL: I probably have a secret desire to be a designer. Inconveniently, I don't have the talent. But I'm happy to be a super fan. In college, I wrote to the museum asking -- possibly pleading -- to be an intern. I don't think they had an internship program at the time. So although I may have come across as a little intense, they accepted. The curator I got to work for, David McFadden, was the most blissful combination of brilliant, knowledgeable, and generous with his time. He picked up the phone as often as I did (my main job, as an intern) and helped people identify the historical background of items they'd found in their attics.
HCD: What, specifically, do you love about it?
CL: The museum takes depth and breadth into account in its definition of design and its efforts to illuminate design to visitors. They show sides to design which include problem-solving, better living through innovation, beauty, and much more. It delights in highlighting the connections and throughlines between objects and ideas over some 250 years of design creation.
HCD: Do you know the backstory of how this museum came to be?
CL: It was founded by the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, the namesake/founder of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The granddaughters asked the Cooper Union to create a museum of the 'arts of decoration' -- providing value to decorators and students who could study the collections. They were inspired by the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which is part of the Louvre museum.
HCD: What is your favorite element of this museum?
CL: It's the one place in America that collects the objects (and ideas) I consider to be of most usefulness and beauty: from matchbooks to wallpaper to chairs and table settings to improved freeway onramps. I love every kind of art, but really, what is more interesting than art -- i.e., design -- in everyday life? Design is inherently collaborative, practical, and optimistic. Each new design innovation reflects taking the challenges and opportunities of being a human in our time seriously. Designers are my heroes, and they are so often unknown. The museum collects designers' work, breakthroughs, experiments, and beautiful results.
HCD: Tell me something unique about Cooper Hewitt?
CL: Anyone will enjoy the Immersion room, where it's easy to create your own wallpaper design and see the museum's collections. I also appreciate that the museum lives its ethics of inclusivity; every time I visit, there is evidence of a new way to do signage, so it's more legible, or an updated app to provide interactive information as you go through the galleries.
HCD: For first-time visitors, what would you say is the perfect afternoon at the Cooper Hewitt?
CL: Museum-lovers visiting New York may try squeezing in the Cooper-Hewitt on a day that includes museums that are walkable nearby -- the Met, the Guggenheim, the Museum of the City of New York, the Museo del Barrio, and the Jewish Museum. I would say, give the Cooper-Hewitt its own afternoon. Start on the top floor and work your way down. You'll see design from different lenses and have many opportunities to be inspired.
HCD: Thank you so much for sharing your special place with us, I look forward to a future visit, and perhaps you can join me.
Not all of you have the privilege of knowing Camille, but I know that I am genuinely grateful for the insight she shares with me whenever I am lucky enough to tag along with her to exhibits. It is a true gift. Hopefully, as things open back up, each of you will feel inspired to take an afternoon and visit this unique and treasured museum.
Until next time,