A recent trip to the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reminded me of three things. One---the human condition is riddled with issues, maladies and puzzles, many of them unsolvable. Two---art provides breathing room and promotes mental health for both the artist and the consumer of art. Three---inspiration is everywhere.
Located in the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile in Manhattan, Cooper Hewitt is the only U.S. museum devoted to historical and contemporary design, spanning 240 years.
The story begins with Peter Cooper, whose granddaughters founded the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. He inspired them with his creative genius and enormous appetite for innovation, which made him a millionaire by the outbreak of the Civil War.
Born in 1791 in New York City, he lived until 1883, during which time he left an indelible mark on the world without any formal education in his background. Although he thought of himself as a mechanic first, he was ultimately an industrialist, who innovated the self-rocking cradle, among other things, then bought a glue factory in Kips Bay, where he patented a glue-making process that eventually led to a patent on small packaged gelatin products that became known as Jell-O.
By the mid-19th century, he changed gears to the iron business, which landed him in Trenton, NJ, where he founded Trenton Ironworks. There is plenty more to his industrious resume, but most interesting was his lack of formal education, which inspired him to lay the groundwork for his and his granddaughters’ legacy.
,p>In 1896, he founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, one of the first colleges to offer free education to the working class. It became such a part of cultural life in the city that the Great Hall, designed to seat 900 people, was one of the most popular meeting rooms in the city---grand enough to host speakers such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan. B. Anthony and Mark Twain. Part of his dream was to include a museum at Cooper Union to create an even larger opportunity for learning.
Cooper’s ideals about education inspired some of his rather recognizable peers: Andrew Carnegie, Matthew Vassar, Ezra Cornell and Cornelius Vanderbilt. He inspired many people, in fact, and got involved in politics on the local and national levels. He was active in the anti-slavery movement, and accomplished much more before his death at 92, in 1883. Apparently, the entire city took part in the bereavement of Cooper, whose granddaughters would miss him terribly.
As teenagers, Amelia Bowman Hewitt, Sarah Cooper Hewitt and Eleanor Garnier Hewitt studied wood engravings in magazines and searched auctions for rare textiles. Later, they searched Europe for unique and rare objects d’art with interest in quality and innovation for their collection, which included everything from wallpaper to birdcages to buttons. Eventually, their private collection became quite public as they realized their gift for collecting, which often took them to Europe.
Knowing it was a wish of their late grandfather, they were granted space by the Cooper Union trustees to create a museum for Arts of Decoration. The sisters served as the directors from 1897 until 1930, when Sarah died. But while it was their business, the Hewitt sisters helped shape the future of design and raise consciousness of the decorative arts, which was quite obviously their passion.
In 1919, in her book, The Making of a Modern Museum, Eleanor wrote, “Love of beautiful and exquisite workmanship was an inheritance from two practical and artistic grandfathers who were master workmen and master mechanics and craftsmen.”
Considering they grew up in Victorian times, they were fortunate to have the support of their family and influential people, such as J.P. Morgan, who became one of the advisory committee members in 1907, to give life to their talents and aspirations. Their collective vision of creating a museum “for anyone who wanted to use it as a place to work and learn” became a reality recently enhanced by the miracles of technology. Now there is a digitized collection on huge touchscreen tables, the Immersion Room where you can draw your own wallpaper designs, and the Process Lab for problem-solving, among other innovations.
For me, the best part is the ability to create a museum diary of your experience by using an interactive pen that allows you to collect images of everything you saw by pressing it on the indicated spots on the exhibit, and having it available later when you visit the online address printed on your admission ticket. That’s what I call a brilliant design.