Cooper Hewitt: Beauty In the Eyes of Museum Visitors


Non-Format (Minneapolis, USA, and Oslo, Norway, founded 2000): Kjell Ekhorn (Norwegian, b. 1965) and Jon Forss (British, b. 1966); Illustration by Von; Poster, Elsewhere exhibition, KK Outlet gallery, London, 2014; Silkscreen printed in black and bronze ink; 70 * 50 cm (27 9/16 * 19 11/16 in.)

By Joyce Perisco

Undefined and often random, beauty is no one absolute thing.

Some may find it in a baby’s smile or the latest runway creation of an up-and-coming clothing designer. It can elicit powerful visceral responses or a calm sense of serenity. When something is viewed as “a thing of beauty,” notes Andrea Lipps, Assistant Curator of a the new exhibit, “Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial,” beauty usually “lies in the eye of the beholder.”


Located at 91st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. The original building, built between 1899 and 1902, was once the home of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. A recent renovation has provided for 60 percent more exhibition space and Lipps, collaborating with Cooper Hewitt’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Design Ellen Lupton, has filled two floors of the five-floor museum with more than 250 works by 63 designers from around the world.

The organizers have divided “Beauty,” which runs through April 12th, into seven themes: “extravagant,” “intricate,” “ethereal,” “transgressive,” “emergent,” “elemental” and “transformative.” They are hoping that interactive, digitally savvy exhibit will attract a new generation of visitors to the museum.

“Millennials really like the new digital experience,” Lipps explains. “Overall, the museum has made a significant move to digital, with new entry points into different types of contents in the museum. There are still very traditional entry points as well, but, for the most part, visitors are looking for a shared experience.”

Indeed, visitors can take sharing and defining beauty to new levels in the exhibit’s “ethereal” section where, a “smell bar,” devised by scent artist Sissel Tolaas, attempts to recreate the smells of Manhattan’s Central Park. What may be a challenging experience for seasoned New Yorkers may also serve as a draw for the younger crowd the Cooper Hewitt is hoping to attract. “People familiar with Sissel’s work know she has a very provocative way of doing things,” says Lipps. “She’s come up with a completely new smell for the show; Central Park was an obvious choice.”

The sweeping range of “Beauty” wends from Giambattista Valli’s sensual gowns to Guido Palau’s hair artistry and Pat McGrath’s makeup, all found in the “extravagant” approach to the theme. Studio Job’s gas masks, peace symbols and syringes juggle the difference between everyday and something worth a second look in the “intricate” cycle. “Elemental” beauty examines materials that change from liquid to solid. Nexi Oxman’s wearable 3-D objects translate to “emergent” beauty as do user interactions with data flow.

“Transgressive” beauty invites androgyny to the mix and also transposes the features of animals with those of humans. In the “transformative” category, designers take the familiar and use them in a different way, such as Brynjar Siguroarson employing the techniques of Icelandic fisherman to make furniture.

Objects on display include rubellite tourmaline earrings; a photo of a wrinkled forehead; blown glass bowls; fingernails painted in black and white to look like webs; a silk taffeta and tulle skirt and top that fades from a raspberry to pink, and a photo of a man in a sweeping black coat.


Trace Architecture Office (Beijing, China, founded 2009): Hua Li (Chinese, b. 1972) for Beijing Meijingtiancheng Investment Co., Ltd.; Forest Building exterior, 2015


Lipps emphasizes that the museum is a place for everyone, from children to adults. Efforts to be up-to-date and beyond include “the pen,” a formidable new tool that allows each visitor to touch museum labels, draw on interactive tables, and save 3D creations or wallpaper designs in the museum’s Immersion Room. Later, they can log onto a web address printed on the admission ticket to call up collected items at home.

“Overall, the thing that draws me to this line of work is a passion to experience and opening people up to celebrating designers,” observes Lipps. “I like enabling people to be exposed to different ideas and new access points. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to design.”


The museum is housed in the former home of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie. When Carnegie began planning the 64-room mansion, he knew he wanted “the most modest, plainest, and roomiest house in New York,” he wrote, with room for his wife to garden and his daughter to play. He made sure to purchase land far north of where his friends and fellow millionaires were living, to ensure that outdoor space.

Built between 1899 and 1902, the house was designed by New York architects Babb, Cook and Willard. Carnegie was very much involved in the process. Despite his interest in simplicity, he had a fascination with technology and construction. The Georgian-style mansion was the first private residence in New York to have a structural steel frame, and was among the first to boast central heating, a pre-cursor to air conditioning, telephones, and a passenger elevator by Otis. That elevator is now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history in Washington, D.C.

Even the boilers were state-of-the-art. A pair of enormous twin boilers in the center was run by coal, which was transferred from storage bin to furnace by a coal car that traveled over a miniature railroad track. Another prominent feature was the massive Aeolian organ in the main hallway, which had pipes extending through three floors. A church organist arrived each morning to play the organ so the Carnegies could hear their favorite tunes as they awoke and prepared for the day.

The building received landmark status in 1974. It reopened two years later as Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution It was renamed Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2014.


Giambattista Valli (Italian, active in France, b. 1966); Skirt and top, from Fall / Winter 2014D15 Couture collection, 2014; Tulle degradŽ, silk taffeta


Several special tours and events related to exhibits are scheduled. Following is a selection of some upcoming events:

High school students can enter Cooper Hewitt’s Student Design Challenge, its first for their age group. #ThinkOutside invites high school students across the United States to “think outside” and submit designs for an outdoor chair inspired by the museum’s world-renowned collection. The winning design will be manufactured by Target for use in Cooper Hewitt’s Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden. Submit entries through February 21, 11:59PM.


On Thursday, March 31 from 12-2PM, curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps give an inside look at the works in the exhibition of the same name, then lead a tour through the museum. Tickets are $25.


On weekdays, tours begin at 11:30AM and 1:30PM. Weekend tours are at 1 and 3PM They are free with the price of admission, and no reservations are required. Group and private tours are also available.

Starting February 12, tours of “Beauty-Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” will be held. This is the fifth installment of the museum’s contemporary design exhibition series. Tours will be held through August 21.

Tours of the permanent collection are ongoing. “Making Design” is devoted to showcasing the museum’s collection of over 210,000 objects spanning 30 centuries.

For information, call (212) 849-2950.