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Caroline Baumann in the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt museum.

Caroline Baumann in the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt museum.

Interview by Aileen Kwun    |     Portrait by Chris Mottalini

After closing its home at Carnegie Mansion for renovation three years ago, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will reopen its doors to the public on Dec. 12—the day Andrew Carnegie himself minted the landmark Beaux Arts residence. The historic significance of the day is just a hint of the thorough considerations that have played into the $91-million initiative: The project involves not only a restoration and expansion of the museum’s physical location—the building will boast 60 percent more gallery space and an entirely new library—but also upgraded lighting, signage, and display casework; refinements to its name, visual brand, and ticketing system; a revamped website and digital mission; and an admissions-free outdoor garden. 

The wide-ranging effort counts more than 12 leading American design firms as collaborators—among them Beyer Blinder Belle, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hood Design, Local Projects, and Pentagram—and in rethinking every aspect of the museum, it has strategically demonstrated the reach of design’s many disciplines in the process. It’s a long evolution from the museum’s founding by sisters Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt in 1897—and one that’s likely to continue. With a rejuvenated focus on digital and permanent collections, design thinking, and the launch of a new interactive stylus—dubbed “the Pen”—that will guide visitors’ explorations through its 10 inaugural exhibitions, the Cooper Hewitt aims to redefine the role of a 21st-century design museum. 
Surface met with the museum’s director, Caroline Baumann, to discuss what it has been like to helm the museum’s largest initiative to date, and what visitors can expect from the new-and-improved Cooper Hewitt come December. 

This is a big year for the museum: It marks the 15th anniversary of the National Design Awards, and the culmination of the museum’s renovation. How did it all begin?
    
It’s funny you should ask, because the fundraising actually jumps into chapter seven of the process! It began in 2003, when then-director Paul Thompson and I—then the museum’s deputy director—were realizing that our admission numbers were soaring, and our education program numbers were soaring. Everything was going up by big percentage points. Seeing lines around the block, seeing that hunger for design like never before, coupled with this paralysis that we had with trying to present contemporary design in this Georgian Revival building with dark molding everywhere—we were constantly building walls to conceal that. 

In thinking about how to fulfill our mission as America’s design museum, we turned all of the ideas upside down: Should we move downtown? Should we stay here? Should we build under the garden (which was one of our proposals, years and years ago)? We looked at it from every single angle and then created a master plan from 2004 to 2005 with [architectural preservation firm] Beyer Blinder Belle, and hired Gluckman Mayner as the design architect. In 2006, we got the blessing from the board of trustees. It began with a $35-million campaign, and today we’re looking at a $91-million campaign. 

That’s a big investment. 

The fundraising is essential, but a huge part of the process has been asking, “How can we make the most of being in the Carnegie Mansion?” I feel like we came up with the ideal solution to this design problem, which was a really creative reuse. In this period of starchitects creating new buildings left, right, and center, I’m really proud that we said, “No, let’s do the best we can within the structure of the house.” It’s been a big cheerleading effort to say we’re transforming America’s design museum, asking people to come with us. This was all during 2008 and 2009, when the economy was going downhill—it’s been incredible that we’ve had a steady stream of necessary support to make this all fly.

The renovation of the Carnegie Mansion is part of a larger, comprehensive refresh of the museum’s overall identity—which extends to its digital presence, visual branding, and new interactive gallery experiences. Were all of those components planned from the start? 

From the outset, the point was to renovate, expand, and increase our potential to impact people. But as we began to become embroiled—in a good way—with thirteen different design teams, we started turning everything upside down and saying, “Let’s not do it the way we used to do it,” from the ticket design to the entry to the museum. There have been at least 13 teams involved, not counting the engineers or other key design-thinking people. And they are all American design firms, so we’re embracing that.
It’s two things at the same time: It’s this gorgeously renovated building, inside and out, from masonry and the galleries, and it’s a renewed philosophy that asks, “How can we make design relevant?”

The museum’s name has been refined several times, most recently as “Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum”—no mention of “National” and no dashes. What’s the reasoning behind these subtle but significant shifts?

When I used to give speeches, I’d always be like, “Oh my God.” Because if it were anywhere outside of New York, I’d say, “Hi, I’m Caroline from the …”—and begin to see people’s eyelids go down. [Laughs] I also had quite an issue with the fact that, wherever you were getting missives from, whether it was the shop or education or curatorial departments, nothing looked the same. It was time to come together, unify, and have a common denominator in this Cooper Hewitt typeface. 

We really wanted to simplify and make it more succinct and energetic, both in the name and in the typeface. There’s a lot of bifurcation here; first, we thought, “‘Smithsonian’ and ‘National’ are duplicative, so let’s drop the ‘National.’” So now, it’s Cooper Hewitt—no hyphen—Smithsonian Design Museum. Why put a hyphen between “Cooper” and “Hewitt”? It never made sense, so we dropped it. As for the typeface, when it was all done, we said, “Let’s give it to the world.” We had no idea how that would take off. We’ve had nearly 7,000 downloads and counting to this day—I can’t wait to see how people are using it.

Why open source the typeface?

It reiterates our new philosophy, which is: As America’s design museum, we want to make design accessible. A major step of this initiative has been putting most of our collection online and saying, “People, have fun!” You can download and search items in our collection by color and country of origin. Second was letting everybody have the typeface. And third, which I just announced at our National Design Awards gala, was the 3D-printed file of the Carnegie Mansion itself, which is also online. We’re asking people to take it and run.

It’s a significant evolution from the museum’s original agenda, which began with the Hewitt sisters’ focus, modeled on the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. How has the museum’s approach to collecting changed over the course of this?

It has changed to reflect the world’s collective need to think about sustainability. And I would say that it’s also reflected in our exhibition program—with shows like “Design with the other 90%” that really send home that message that design improves people’s lives. Reflecting that both in our collection and our exhibitions is major. We’ve also started collecting digitally. 

The museum inaugurated its relocation to the Carnegie Mansion in 1976 with the groundbreaking show “Man transFORMS: Aspects of Design.” The exhibition featured some of the most avant-garde, conceptual design thinkers of the time—including Hans Hollein, Buckminster Fuller, and Arata Isozaki—as if to make a visionary statement about where the museum was headed. Are there similar shows planned for this year’s reopening?

I think our new philosophy will be so loud and clear the moment you walk through the doors of 2 East 91st Street, because you’ll be handed the Pen, a tool to understanding design and the Cooper Hewitt like never before. Usually, when you go to a museum, you’re told, “Don’t touch that, don’t write on that.” Here, we’re saying, “Touch that, write on that, play designer, think like a designer, have a good time.” It’s a completely different way of experiencing a museum and experiencing design. We think it will really make design come alive for people.

There are four floors of exhibitions. The ground floor will be really telling the story of how we got here today; we’ve invited the various design teams that helped bring us to this transformation point, covering what they were tasked with, and how they solved the problem: Cooper Hewitt led this project, but we really couldn’t have done it without all of our design teams, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Jake Barton, Chester Jenkins, and many more. Then, on the first floor, we’re inviting visitors to dive in and learn what the heck design thinking is before being plunged into a temporary exhibition. We’ll give them a primer in design education first, and really get their feet wet with design thinking and understanding how to solve a problem through design.     
The entire first floor through this exhibition, entitled “Beautiful Users” [on view from Dec. 12, 2014, to April 26, 2015], will be talking about how designers today must think about the end user before they start designing. The second floor will be from the permanent collection, and the third floor will be focused on tools through the ages, showing man’s design ingenuity from a prehistoric axe to something that takes pictures of the surface of the sun. We’ll really be showing that span of design, but also emphasizing how good design endures—things like hammers and saws that we’ve been using for centuries and that haven’t changed. 

While closed for renovation, the museum hosted a series of satellite exhibitions throughout the city. “Graphic Design—Now in Production” took place on Governor’s Island, and “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” took place in the United Nations building.

I’m very cognizant that people forget things very quickly, and the last thing I wanted them to say was, “Cooper what?” I’ll never forget being on Governor’s Island, looking up and seeing these two ferries coming just packed with people for the opening. I was just like, This is awesome. During the same period, we traveled the “House Proud” show to Paris and to China—it was our first foray into Asia, which I was also very, very happy about. I really felt like this is what we should be doing—we need to spread our tendrils and really make people realize that we’re a powerhouse.

In a previous interview, you stated that you were “purposefully promiscuous” about opening up the museum’s collections during the renovation. Could you speak more about releasing the “metadata” online and what that means?

We were doing it in a very beta way, testing out what it looked like. There were some interesting pushes and pulls because some curators wanted all the research for a particular object to be done in a really polished way before we let it loose. And we said the opposite: “Let’s just let it go so the world knows what’s in the Cooper Hewitt collection.” It’s led to some really interesting online conversations. 
More museums are doing it now, but we were among the first to say, “Let’s share our assets.” My hope is that eventually, as you walk through the museum with the Pen, if you’re interested in these Sheila Hicks textiles, you can actually see where there are Hicks textiles in museums internationally.

Fascinating. It seems to relate to an existential question that’s been coming up a lot lately: What’s the future of the museum? 

I observe the 20-something and younger visitors when I go to museums to see what they’re doing and what a short attention span they have. The Pen was a solution for everybody, but very much with the younger generation in mind, as well as the digital generation—which is not necessarily the same generation, because there are some D-generation people who are 75 years old. To make design relevant, we need to make it exciting for people, and there’s nothing like seeing the real object. By using the Pen, hopefully you’re putting the iPhone away and looking at that object. 

How does it feel to be nearing the end of this huge project?

It’s extraordinary and titillating. It’s much more than the birth of a baby; it’s 10 years of gestation! It’s massive, and I’m enthusiastic for a reason: This is going to be impactful for all of these new people and new audiences. I can’t wait to stand at the museum entrance and welcome the hordes of people.

For the rest of the interview with Caroline Baumann, order your copy of the November issue here.