Located on Museum Mile in Manhattan’s historic Carnegie Mansion, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is one of three Smithsonian Institutions in New York—and the sole museum in the U.S. specializing in approximately 240 years-plus of contemporary design history.


“Good design is as little design as possible … honest, innovative, long-lasting.” You may recognize these key points from Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles for Good Design­—but you’ll see them illustrated in real-life throughout this principally well-designed space.  

The permanent collection includes a bold mix of contemporary designed objects intermingled with dynamic, engaging experiences that call for participation. Opened in December 2014 after years’-worth of renovations, Cooper Hewitt has certainly modernized itself for modern day. With digitized collections on massive touch screens, DIY wallpaper designs, problem-solving components, you’ll discover 100 years-plus of artwork to admire.  

Money Score: Good

Considering this place is free entry for Smithsonian members, the money score is excellent for members, and good for non-members. While the under-20-dollars entry fee at the door is certainly not steep, the museum’s small size may leave some feeling only slightly shortchanged. The regular adult entry fee is $16 if reserved online ahead of time, and merits ample time for exploration. (OK, so here’s my shameless plug convince all of you DC-dwellers to invest in that Smithsonian membership.)

Consciousness Score: Good

Cooper Hewitt is conscious of assuring that a fair share of women artists is represented within its collections. In celebration of Women’s History Month, they highlight female artists by featuring a work by a female designer in a series of “Objects of the Day” blog posts. The posts tell about the artist herself, and the significance of her craft. There also is an exhibition featuring the work of Ilonka Karasz. While successful in sketching everything from toys to rugs and furniture, many consider her one of the most overlooked contemporary designers of the 20th century. You’ll spot many of this American artist’s works in the permanent collection.

‘All the Feels’ Score: Good

Most museums have those threatening “please do not touch” signs posted on every other wall. The highlight of Cooper Hewitt is that you get to touch stuff. In fact, they want you to! Interactivity is highly encouraged, right down to the spinning chairs. Before you enter an exhibit, you’ll be handed a “magic pen” that enables you to save all the items you liked, scanning over the number of the item, much as you would to purchase in a retail check-out line. At the end, you can review and learn more about the items you saved.

I particularly enjoyed the museum’s play on simplicity, exhibiting “simple” items that are relevant to our everyday culture in Access and Ability. The museum elected 10-20 items that designed history—including calculation and measurement tools, such as clocks, drones, calculators, and microscopes, all items used in the quotidian­—for a rather historically linked assemblage. Even the wheel (and a wheelchair) were included. I found it refreshing for such an artistic place.


My favorite on-view assemblage was Design process: Exhibition graphics, within which Wael Marocos and John Key imagine how sounds might look if they were expressed visually. Hear, See and Play: Designing with Sound is a hands-on experience that invites guests to be a sound designer for “Trash Bot,”a street-cleaning machine. Every sound depicts an emotion and personality, creating a fictional character through sounds. It was so cool.

And amongst the high, intellectual art, aspects of humor were interwoven throughout the SHOP Cooper Hewitt boutique, which is well-stocked with novelty goodies.

Beyond the museum’s collections, the actual beauty of the historic building itself is impressive: baroque ceiling carvings of bedecked octagons, a richly-toned wooden wall moldings, and a wrapping stairwell with the similarly moody-toned banister. Globed-light-bulb chandeliers cast a golden glow over the deep cherry wood of the walls and ceilings. With art-déco-esque awnings and houndstooth floors, the details are downright exquisite.  


You feel like you’re in a stately gentlemen’s club or the holiday hunting home of the British royal family. Pops of color include yellow-and-blue patterns in semi-circle-shaped stained-glass windows above French double doors and fresh bouquets of yellow-, purple-, white-, orange-colored blossoms. Wooden models, on view, from the actual carvers of the building amplified the appreciation for the attention to detail, and naturally, the Principles of Good Design.