After closing its doors three years ago for a massive renovation, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is finally reopening the century-old mansion that houses the design museum. In its new incarnation, the Cooper Hewitt taps into what distinguishes a design museum, which celebrates functional objects built with users in mind, from any other museum full of beautiful objects: It allows you to play with the collection, rather than just look at it.
On December 12, the Smithsonian Design Museum opens once again within the newly renovated and revamped Carnegie Mansion, home to steel baron Andrew Carnegie and his family until after his wife’s death in 1949. Expect a slicker, more 21st-century museum–it dropped the stodgy hyphen from its former name, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, debuted a new open-source typeface and a Pentagram-designed graphic identity, and expanded its gallery space by 60%. The museum has also used its hiatus to rethink how visitors interact with the collection (which includes hundreds of thousands of examples of wallpaper, products, graphic design and more dating back to 1500 B.C.) in the process attempting to design one of the most cutting-edge experiences for a museum today.
Cooper Hewitt has been working with designers like Local Projects’ Jake Barton (known for his work with the 9/11 museum and memorial) and High Line and MoMA architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro to create a space that’s as relevant and engaging to a world-renown professional designer as it is to a group of schoolchildren.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity for a design museum that differentiates us from an art museum,” Sebastian Chan, director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, says of the new, technology-focused experiences the museum is introducing, like an interactive digital pen that lets you explore the collection through drawing. “Design’s about doing; art’s about looking. That’s important in this city [full of art museums], to actually state a claim about what a design museum is and can be.” Here are a few of the coolest new features:
“Museums, I think, are becoming more and more aware of how to turn themselves into a must-see spectacle,” Barton says. Especially with much of the museum collection already online, the Cooper Hewitt–and every museum that makes money off admissions–needs to get people through the door.
For the new Cooper Hewitt, the spectacle starts with a new device: a pen. Starting in early 2015, every visitor to the museum will receive an interactive digital pen with their ticket. When you touch the pen to labels on the exhibition display cases and elsewhere in the museum, a digital copy of those items is saved to an online account accessible via a URL on the back of each ticket. You can save objects on display you want to look up later to explore more in-depth, or share what you saw with your friends via email.
The initial idea for the device came out of a brainstorming session with the design team where the conversation turned toward how to make the museum a more social experience. “This happens in many conversations, where people just say ‘You know what we really need in this? We need a bar, because people should just be drinking and having fun and enjoying themselves,'” Barton explains. “And I was like, ‘You know, you need a bar, and you need a pen.’ You want to be drawing and sketching and discovering. You want it to be this social sort of generous experience.”
Only a fraction of the entire museum’s collection can be displayed at any given time, and the pen is a way to bridge the divide between the physical collection on display in the museum and the digital collection that exists online. As of the reopening, only 726 objects are on display in the museum, but the online collection spans more than 188,000 objects. Interactive digital tables within the galleries recommend related works not on display, and bookmarking objects with the pen gives visitors a reason to visit the online collection after they leave. As a piece of experience design, the pen was created to be a “quiet” device–one that wouldn’t attract too much attention. It’s not another screen, or an app on your phone. And because everyone knows how to use a pen, it’s not hard to figure out what to do with it. “It’s not there to flash up alerts and be in your face. It’s there to be there when you need it, and to give you permission to draw,” Chan says. “This is like saying to people, when you come in the door, you’ve got permission to do anything you want. It’s kind of cool, right? It’s symbolic in that way. Being a pen, it works like a pen, so you don’t need instructions.”
The pen works with the museum’s new high-resolution touch-screen tables, where visitors can look at the items they’ve saved on their pens, draw their own designs, and generally explore the collection in a different way (using software designed by Local Projects). The seven tables scattered throughout the museum are kind of like giant tablets (a few are seven feet long and can be used by up to six people at a time), with a river of digital icons flowing consistently down the middle. These icons represent items in the collection–vases, wallpaper swatches, drawings–and they can be grabbed at random just by dragging them off onto the side of the table. More information on the item, as well as a series of related items, comes up, allowing you to delve deeper into a piece of design. “It’s a giant curiosity machine,” Barton says.
The best part of the interactive tables is that you can browse the collection simply by doodling a shape. Playing with a prototype of the table in Barton’s office, I draw a half-hearted squiggle, and a vase that incorporates a similar shape pops up. I draw a circle, and a tapestry appears. I doodle a few curvy lines, and Peter Schlumbohm’s Chemex pour-over coffee maker appears.
“At its simplest, that allows you a fun, engaging way into the collection,” Barton says. “But it does have this sort of conceptual point, which is that every piece of design started with a human hand. Whether it’s a computer or a pen drawing, design is about drawing shapes and making physical things.”
Because the collection is meant to serve as inspiration for contemporary designers, there’s also a function to draw your own digital designs, and save them to your online museum account with your pen. Draw a few lines, and the software will turn it into a 3-D rendering of a table, or a lamp, or a chair, or a building, or a hat. You can add different colors and shapes, manipulating your design, adding textures like metal or ceramic attributes, seeing how your simple line drawing could be the basis for a lamp or a skyscraper.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the new Cooper Hewitt in the Immersion Room, a space where you can use the same type of interactive table that’s featured throughout the rest of the museum to explore the Cooper Hewitt’s historic wallpaper collection. The Cooper Hewitt houses the largest collection of wallpaper in the United States–thousands of pieces–but much of the samples take the form of small swatches, only a few feet long at most. The Immersion Room allows visitors to browse the wallpaper collection digitally, and project it onto the walls of the room, recreating the immersive physical experience intended by the wallpaper’s designer. Selecting certain pieces on the touch-screen table brings up audio narration by designers like architect Clive Wilkinson and Roberston Hartnett of wallpaper studio twenty2.
Similar to the other interactive tables, the Immersion Room’s table lets you draw your own designs. You can create your own wallpaper patterns to project on the wall and learn about how wallpaper is designed. (Yes, you can save your personal pattern to your pen.) Though only one wallpaper can be projected at a time, two different people can use the software at once, allowing people to use one side of the table for examining historic samples while drawing their own wallpaper on the other side, or to play off what the museum visitor alongside them is drawing.
One of the Cooper Hewitt’s opening exhibitions, “Beautiful Users,” explores the history and evolution of user-centered design. For the exhibition, Local Projects designed Gesture Match, an interactive experience that help visitors understand the relationship between the human body and design. “We wanted to basically identify the shape of people’s bodies along with the designs that they inspired,” Barton explains, “meaning physical form factors and how those things actually contributed to the design of actual objects.”
You stand in front of a large digital screen that cycles through life-sized silhouettes of human bodies in different positions. Strike a pose in front of the motion sensors, and Gesture Match will cycle through its catalog of gestures to connect your posture to a piece of design. Raise up both arms, and a magazine cover from the collection featuring a doll in a similar position will appear. Pretend to drink something, and it will bring up a set of cups. Raise one hand up to the ceiling, and a lightbulb–the kind you might twist out of a fixture above your head–shows up. A dancing position reveals a historic drawing of a mansion room–“this bathroom is big enough for a dance party,” the description reads.
The Process Lab is a section of the museum that focuses on hands-on design experiences. Visitors are invited to design their own lamps with LED bulbs and a selection of pre-cut materials, and to handle and evaluate different versions of the same product (like water bottles) to explore why so many iterations of the same object exist.
In this room, the interactive tables aren’t focused on the well-designed objects in the museum’s collection, but the designs we encounter every day that could be improved. “Design It Better” is a basic introduction to design thinking and the design process. It invites visitors to sketch new features for ubiquitous objects, like a backpack, a prescription pill bottle, or a newspaper, or a drinking fountain. The app asks you to consider the end user of a particular object–could a backpack be redesigned for a really organized student? Could the water fountain be redesigned to work better for someone in a wheelchair? How could a newspaper be easier to read on the train? You can explore previous visitors’ ideas and vote for your favorites.
All these new technological features are designed to make the Cooper Hewitt a place where you not only learn about design, but undergo a design training of sorts. The pen, the interactive tables, and the Immersion Room are all about engaging with the collection as design inspiration, an idea that harks back to the Hewitt sisters’ original intent for the library of designs they collected for what was originally dubbed the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration.
“These weren’t originally collected to be precious objects in the way that you think about the Metropolitan Museum of Art or MoMA,” Barton explains. “The Hewitt sisters were these amazing both sort of philanthropists and dilettantes who went out and single-handedly collected all of these of-the-moment designs in wallpaper and textiles and in graphic design in order to teach people about design.” The original collection was housed in cases where young designers could come pull out swatches of wallpaper, study them, copy them, and learn from them–it was a practical learning space for the visual arts. In the 21st century, that historic wallpaper has become a bit more precious, but new technology allows a contemporary return to that practice. You can pull up something from the wallcoverings collection and copy it, zoom in on it, examine it in detail. You can trace the shapes of historic objects to get a better sense of how designs changed over the years. In this way, the Cooper Hewitt has created a museum that can be experienced anew every time you visit, whether the exhibits have changed or not, creating experiences that are worth returning for.