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Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum: The Value of Design(?)

100220-cooper-hewitt-1I just last weekend went with some friends to the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.  I hadn’t been there in several years so when I received their invitation I figured it was high time I went for another run-through.  In retrospect… my time would have been better spent doing something else.  With the friends of course.

I regret to say that I was disappointed with my visit to the Cooper-Hewitt.  First of all, a good portion of the gallery space was closed for renovation.  The Design Museum is not big to begin with so any reduction in exhibit space is very noticeable.  Available for viewing that day were two exhibits.  One  was what the museum calls a ‘Quicktake’.  A small exhibit of the fashion design label Rodarte.  I have heard good things about Rodarte but have never gotten up close to their clothes so I was happy to get the chance.  But the exhibit consisted of only a handful of outfits, shoes and accessories so I was through it in about five minutes.  Not to mention that I think everything displayed was from one season so no historic design development or depth of content.

The other exhibit, larger in scale, is called ‘Design USA: Contemporary Innovation’.   Starting to probe the content of this show was when the wheels of the afternoon really started to fall off.  Being a designer myself I am always interested in seeing the cutting edge of what is new in the design world.  This exhibit, unfortunately, was no cutting edge.  It seemed to me that it would be more appropriate as a casual exhibit kiosk in the departures terminal at JFK.  Something that the foreign tourists can look at before they buy some duty free and head home.  This is supposed to be an exhibit showcasing American innovation?  In what year?  I ask because there was a Herman Miller Aeron chair on display as part of the show.  An Aeron chair?  I am sorry but maybe half of all American office workers have been sitting in an Aeron chair every day for the last ten years.  Nothing new there.  Also on view was a model of the American Folk Art Museum.  A museum that has been open for somewhere around eight years.  And is easily visitable mere blocks away on west 53rd Street.

I could go on but I will spare you a detailed list of the exhibits other non-current pieces.  The most ridiculous thing about the whole afternoon, though, was that we were charged $15 entry.  $15?!  For what?  MoMA is an outrageous tourist trap at $20.  And that museum has thousands more square feet of gallery space than the Cooper-Hewitt.  Not to mention it has world-class masterpieces on display.  If the Cooper-Hewitt charges 75% of that I had better be getting about 75% of the content that MoMA offers.  I think the Cooper-Hewitt has at most 2%.  A total bummer of a cost/benefit ratio.  What I saw that afternoon at the Cooper-Hewitt was worth maybe… maybe $4.  Maybe.  There were two good things about the visit.  One was the Cooper-Hewitt gift shop.  A good collection of product and books.  But that should cost nothing since they want you to buy things.  The other was the super ornate interior woodwork of the Cooper-Hewitt mansion itself.  Really beautiful craftsmanship.  I could study that for a while.  I’d even pay $4 to look at the woodwork.

As ‘National Design Museums’ go the Cooper-Hewitt is something of an embarassment in my book.  This is all the Uninted States of America can muster?  A country that prides itself on a history of invention and innovation?  This place doesn’t hold a candle to Britain’s Design Museum in London.  Much bigger with more content, usually more interesting exhibits, and at roughlythe same price a much better value.  Cooper-Hewitt, I have two requests.  First, if you are going to close down a good portion of your museum for renovation work, please adjust your entry fee accordingly.  That way everyone who visits won’t feel ripped off.  I know it would be financially painful for you but from a public perception standpoint it would be worth millions.  I know I won’t be coming back anytime soon.  Second, if there is going to be only one major exhibit showing at your gallery, it would probably be a good idea if the curator didn’t ‘phone it in’ when putting the show together.