Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, located in New York City, is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. It is the mission of Cooper-Hewitt’s staff and board of trustees to advance the public understanding of design across the 240 years of human creativity represented by the museum’s collection.

Peter Cooper, by Unknown, c. 1870s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2011-2174.
The Cooper-Hewitt Museum was established in 1896 as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. Its parent organization, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, was founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper as a free school for the working classes of New York City. In his original plans for Cooper Union, Peter Cooper made provisions for a museum, but these plans were not immediately carried out.

In 1895, Peter Cooper's granddaughters, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt, Sarah Cooper Hewitt, and Amy Hewitt Green, asked the trustees of the Cooper Union for room in which to install a Museum for the Arts of Decoration, modeled after the Musée des Artes Décoratifs of Paris, France. The purpose of the museum was to provide the art students of Cooper Union, other students of design, and working designers with study collections of the decorative arts. The trustees assigned the fourth floor of the Cooper Union's Foundation Building to the sisters, and the museum was opened to the public in 1897.

Until the death of Sarah Cooper Hewitt, the management of the museum was handled by the Hewitt sisters as directors. Following Sarah's death in 1930, the trustees of the Cooper Union appointed a board of four directors, with Constance P. Hare as chair, to administer the Museum. When Edwin S. Burdell became director of the Cooper Union in 1938, the museum was made part of his administrative responsibility, the board of directors was abolished, and an advisory council on the museum, responsible for matters relating to the museum's collections, was established.

Dining Room, Renovated Carnegie Mansion
In 1963, the Cooper Union considered the discontinuation of the museum because of the financial demands of the other divisions of the Union, and the absence of a close relationship between the programs of the Museum and the Art School. The announcement of the plans led to a considerable public outcry, and a Committee to Save the Cooper Union Museum, headed by Henry F. Du Pont, was formed. With the help of a study on the future of the museum, prepared by a committee of the American Association of Museums, negotiations took place among the committee, the Cooper Union, and the Smithsonian Institution. On October 9, 1967, an agreement was signed by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and Daniel Maggin, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Cooper Union Museum, giving the collection and library of the Cooper Union Museum to the Arts of Decoration to the Smithsonian Institution. On May 14, 1968, after a judicial review of the Smithsonian Institution/Cooper Union Museum agreement, the supreme court of the state of New York ruled that the transfer of the Cooper Union Museum to the Smithsonian could be accomplished and that the museum was legally an entity within the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum was formally transferred to the Smithsonian on July 1, 1968. The museum was renamed the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design at the time of the transfer, and became the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in 1969. The Cooper-Hewitt was the first Smithsonian museum to be located outside of Washington, DC. In 1970, the museum moved into its present home, the Carnegie Mansion, which was renovated and reopened to the public in 1976. In July of 1978, the museum opened a conservation lab. The museum was renamed the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 1994. In addition to exhibits, the museum hosts design competitions, such as the National Design Awards and offers a wide array of educational programs, including a masters degree program with Parsons The New School for Design since 1982. In 2008, the museum launched a new effort to renovate and expand the building.

Carnegie Mansion/Cooper-Hewitt Museum
The museum is housed in the former home of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who built the sixty-four-room mansion from 1899 to 1902. The building was intended to be a spacious, comfortable, and light-filled home where Carnegie and his wife, Louise Whitfield Carnegie, could raise their daughter, Margaret. After his retirement in 1901, Carnegie oversaw the philanthropic projects to which he would dedicate the final decades of his life from his office in the mansion. Carnegie focused on funding free public libraries in communities across the country, and the improvement of cultural and educational facilities in Scotland and the United States.

The mansion was designed by the architectural firm of Babb, Cook & Willard in the style of a Georgian country house. The house contains fascinating innovations, such as being the first private residence in the United States to have a structural steel frame, and one of the first in New York to have a residential Otis passenger elevator (now in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC). Another innovation was the inclusion of both central heating and a precursor to air-conditioning. In the cellar, enormous twin boilers were run by coal transferred from storage bin to furnace by a coal car that traveled over a miniature railroad track. The building received landmark status in 1974. The museum changed its name to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2014.

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