Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Proudly billing itself as the sole museum anywhere in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is a unique destination. Located in a historic mansion occupying prime real estate on 5th Avenue just across the street from Central Park and a mere two blocks from the Guggenheim Museum, Cooper Hewitt houses a fascinating assortment of decorative arts objects that tell the history of modern design through numerous interactive galleries and special exhibits.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum History

The story of this distinctive museum begins in 1896, when three granddaughters of Peter Cooper—the founder of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art—established the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. The museum was part of Cooper Union until the early 1960s, when the school’s financial difficulties saw it consider shuttering the facility in order to save money.

Fortunately, cooler heads intervened, and after a drawn-out legal process the museum was placed under the control of the Smithsonian Institution, making it the first Smithsonian museum to be located anywhere outside of Washington, D.C. During the 1970s, Cooper Hewitt moved to its current location, a 64-room mansion that was once the home of Andrew Carnegie. It adopted its current name—Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—in 2014.

What’s at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection consists of approximately 215,000 objects ranging from the very contemporary to the very ancient—think 3,000 years ago. Highlights of this fabulous permanent collection include design objects as diverse as furniture, textiles, books, posters, wallcoverings, embroidered lace, metalworks, pottery, and so much more.

There are also typically several special exhibits being staged here at any given point in time. These temporary shows can vary extensively in theme. Recent examples include galleries showcasing eighteenth-century design, artistic representations of botanical forms, nineteenth-century silk and wallpaper pieces, and the history of design in times of crisis, to name but a few. 

Cooper Hewitt has its very own café, which you’ll find on the ground floor of the museum. There you can enjoy an Italian-forward seasonal menu with a focus on salads, soups, and paninis. In particular, the Cooper Hewitt café is known for its selection of Italian pastries. It also serves espresso and wine.

The Cooper Hewitt museum shop has been proudly curated to reflect the same high standard and rich diversity of design work found in the institution’s permanent collection. To that end, the museum shop sells an assortment of books, accessories, gifts, art, and home décor perfect for any individual with a passion for design.

Tips for Visiting the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

  • The Cooper Hewitt Musem is included on the money saving New York Pass.
  • Cooper Hewitt sets aside only a very limited number of tickets each day for walk-up guests, meaning timed-entry tickets are practically required here. As a result, you’ll definitely want to make a reservation in advance.
  • Cooper Hewitt has produced a virtual visitor guide that you can download for free ahead of your visit. It contains maps, exhibition information, and curator suggestions intended to enrich your experience. It’s a terrific resource to have while you tour the museum.
  • They are a few private parking garages located a short distance from Cooper Hewitt, but be advised they each charge flat-rate fees for the day that exceed $50. If you’re able, consider utilizing other methods of arriving at the museum. There are several public transportation options that’ll do the trick at a fraction of the cost.
  • Cooper Hewitt routinely hosts design workshops, informative lectures, and various kinds of educational programming that enhances the mission of the museum. For more information on what type of special event might be occurring while you’re planning to visit, check out their official website.
  • While you’re at Cooper Hewitt, be sure to set aside some time to spend in the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden. This beautiful outdoor space is a great spot to soak up the sun, snap some pictures, and relax for a bit.

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