IIDA Perspective - Spring/Summer 2015 - 25
On her first visit to the newly renovated Smithsonian CooperHewitt Design Museum, Anna Yanofsky found herself getting
a little nervous. A security guard had shown her to one
of the museum's new interactive display tables, one of the
relaunched museum's "technological interventions" that
allows visitors to explore and engage with the museum's
entire collection. Yanofsky was immediately struck by the
ease and flow of the interface, the amount of information
available to her, and the table's ability to put a design in
context. When she chose an object from the collection to look
at in more detail, the display would also bring up information
about related objects, making it easy to see connections
amongst items in the collection. It would do the same in
response to her own digital sketches, showing her related
objects in the museum's collection, allowing her to immediately trace the lineage of her own design. Yanofsky said she
could have spent much longer at the table, exploring the
collection and digitally sketching -save for one drawback.
The line of people waiting behind her.
"Stepping up to 'play' with something in front of a crowd
of waiting people is kind of nerve wracking," Yanofsky says.
"It's almost like you are performing. You need a bit of bravado
to really let yourself go and experiment with something
in such a public way."
Sound familiar? When they started the renovation process,
the museum encouraged staff to think about big picture
questions: how they could make design relevant to all
audiences, how they could become a global design destination
and resource, how they could become "the museum of the
future." Museum Director Caroline Baumann says it was all
of those factors together that led to the Cooper-Hewitt
embracing a new philosophy: allow people to "play designer."
Even for an organization that prides itself on creativity and
innovation, it was a bold idea. For a museum-institutions
notable for their exclusivity, rather than inclusivity-maybe
even more so. The museum gambled that letting everyone
who came through the door try their hand at creating the next
Butterfly chair, light fixture, or building would heighten their
appreciation for design, and illustrate it wasn't something
done ad-hoc. If Anna Yanofsky's experience is any indication,
the museum may have succeeded in educating visitors in
ways they couldn't have even anticipated. The chance to "play
designer" not only gives visitors a sense of how design works
and evolves, but also what the experience of designing itself is
like-and how the immediate and (very) honest feedback
from the public can influence a design, for better or for worse.
The "play designer" philosophy excited Diller Scofidio + Renfro
(DS+R), the design team who'd been brought on by CooperHewitt's late director Bill Moggridge, "to develop a new visitor
experience for a 21st century institution." DS+R, creators of
projects ranging from New York's Highline to the Blur
Building, a "structure" made entirely of fog, are known for
their unconventional design approach, which made them
good partners for the Cooper-Hewitt.
"We have a long legacy of working on museum exhibition
design," says Tyler Polich, DS+R's project architect. "We always
try to tackle the content in innovative and unexpected ways,
to try and challenge the viewer and how they engage with an
object. Cooper-Hewitt's is trying to change the way people
engage with museum artifacts in the 21st century, swapping
out the usual display methods for something that's more
interactive. It was a good fit."
DS+R was charged with defining a program for the master
plan as well as a number of "architectural interventions"
within the space, which would respect the historic design
of the building while bringing in a reinvented museum
experience. They worked alongside Gluckman Mayner
Architects, who were responsible for the interior renovation
of the mansion. Beyer Blinder Belle acted as executive
architects, coordinating the engineering, master planning,
and historic-preservation and restoration aspects of the
project-down to the meticulous replacement of the floors
in the same seven patterns originally laid by Carnegie.
The challenge for DS+R was to design systems that respected
historical context, and work in concert with interior finishes
that couldn't be touched or altered. Working alongside
interactive designers Local Projects, they were charged with
making sure the infrastructure was flexible and unobtrusive,
allowing the museum's identity to take center stage, and
could be used for the next ten years.
The first thing the team decided to do? Give visitors a pen.
It was a sharp departure from the norm: generally when we
enter a museum, we're told to put away our pens and pencils,
to "look not touch." But for Cooper-Hewitt, it was paramount
that every visitor felt encouraged to engage with the works
on display, in a tactile way. Or, as the museum has called it,
create a "look up" culture. The approach was somewhat
physically necessary, because despite the grandeur of its name,
The Carnegie mansion is a relatively small space by museum
standards (16,000 square feet) with narrow doorways, and,
of course, finishs of historic significance.
"We have a long legacy of working on museum exhibition design,"
says Tyler Polich, DS+R's project architect. "We always try to tackle
the content in innovative and unexpected ways..."