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After a three-year renovation, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum will finally reopen to the public on December 12. Located in the early 20th-century style Carnegie mansion, the Cooper Hewitt underwent extensive transformations in order to properly house one of the biggest collections of both historical and contemporary designs in the nation. The renovations include a 60 percent expansion of exhibition space (from 10,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet), which has allowed the second floor to be fully dedicated to showcasing the museum’s permanent collection through rotating shows. The museum itself is an embodiment of the antique and contemporary designs housed within; immersive technologies have been integrated throughout the beautifully renovated―yet preserved―mansion.
The renovation of the former residence of Andrew Carnegie took a total of 13 design firms and $91 million to accomplish. Most of the changes went towards enhanced space flexibility to better accommodate exhibition installation and public access, as well as system upgrades such as lighting and signage, and interior and exterior conservation efforts. Deputy Director Brooke Hodge and architect Richard Gluckman spoke at a press preview this week about the ways in which they integrated 21st-century museum standards into a 20th-century home. For instance, a 2,000-pound “secret” pivot door conceals the back-of-house functions, such as the newly installed art elevator that is large enough to fit a Formula One racecar. The door, as well as the steel beams along the ceilings of the galleries, are overlaid with the original woodwork designs of the mansion, but possess pivoting functions to facilitate the movement and installation of art objects.
The third floor―which has never been previously accessible to the public―underwent a 6,000 square foot expansion and houses the museum’s temporary exhibitions, such as the current show “Tools: Extending Our Reach.” The townhouses along 90th Street were also reconfigured to accommodate the design library, as well as the entrance to the new public garden designed by Hood Design. In conjunction with these changes, the museum shop has been relocated from the western end of the first floor to the eastern end, adjacent to Tarallucci e Vino, the new greenmarket-inspired café.
As a registered National Historic Landmark, careful restoration went into to the great hall and stairs, the teak room, and other significant spaces on the first two floors, while the exterior masonry and wrought-iron fence received cleaning and repairs. While some new designs such as the digital immersion room lend themselves to obvious contemporary updates, other additions were handled discreetly such as the moveable display cases and updated lighting made possible by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Goppion.
Other modern details include the creation of a new font designed by Chester Jenkins of Village GE. design community. The “Cooper Hewitt” typeface can be seen throughout the museum on various, updated graphic displays. The graphics themselves further exemplify the combination of classic and modern elements; Pentagram, the design firm behind the museum’s new graphic identity, wished to create a deliberate and bold contrast to the traditional elements throughout the mansion.
Instead of clashing with the classical construction of the mansion’s architecture, the contemporary designs on display and technological innovations integrated into the infrastructure open a dialect between object and exhibition space in a way that most contemporary museums do not permit. The new Cooper Hewitt is a true reflection of its own art, and at last can properly display its 210,000 objects in a classic space reimagined for a contemporary audience.