“Design USA” at the Cooper Hewitt

This past Friday, October 23rd, I took the NJ Transit to Grand Central, and from there, the subway up to 86th Street and walked a few blocs up to 91st Street and 5th Avenue—the Cooper Hewitt. On the 16th, the museum opened up it’s newest exhibit, taking up the entirety of the first floor, Design USA. I am aware that the class assignment for my Thesis class was to visit a gallery or gallery space and write on it, however, I was greatly looking forward to seeing and experiencing the Design USA exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, and yes, I do consider design, when in the context of the literal word, “design,” as art. If it was not art, then it would not be called “design,” per say.

Design USA showcases contemporary American designers who have greatly impacted, effected, and changed the various worlds of design: architecture, interactive, print, fashion, product/industrial, and interior. The exhibitors are all winners of the National Design Awards from the last ten years. The exhibit itself is set up throughout various rooms, complete with white tables and shelves set in rows. Each room has a specific category or topic allocated to it. The topics range from “Lifetime Achievement,” “Craft,” “Experience,” “Technology,” “Materials,” “Method,” to “Design Mind.” Depending on what iconic category the designer’s work fits, he or she has a small card with name and description printed on it, and then either photographs, the product or work itself, a monitor or viewing display, or some sort of visual display showcasing either one or more works. The entire setup is rather evocative of a grade-school science fair, except the fair students are world renown designers or design firms.

In the vein of the thesis assignment, I suppose visiting the Design USA exhibit was a bit unfair compared to a visiting a gallery, due to the fact that every piece in the show is a “good” piece, as each piece has won numerous awards and are all famous in their own right. I say this is “unfair” due to the fact that my opinion on the exhibit becomes greatly overshadowed—insignificantly so—by these behemoths of design. I went into the exhibit knowing that every piece is going to be a showstopper. However, there were pieces that piqued my interest slightly more than the neighboring ones, as well as design names that stood out to me—many of these designers are my design heroes and the pieces are those that have inspired me for a number of years now.

Of all of the displays, the one’s I instantly gravitated towards were those of designers Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, and Chip Kidd. All of the aforementioned have created amazing printed (for the most part) work that has stood out to me for one reason or another.

{Alternate typography by Stefan Sagmeister}

{NYC Subway Map by Massimo Vignelli}

{Cover of All Star Superman by Chip Kidd}

Although the big-name graphic designers were the obvious choice for me to seek out, the displays that really enthralled me were the interactive ones, or the ones showcasing active use of digital technology. The New York Times Design Department’s interactive work was one of these displays. Set up on an iMac, one could play with the many various flash-based animated graphs and charts that have been featured on the New York Times website. What made the graphs so captivating was their visual simplicity in contrast to their conceptual complexity. Design USA also featured displays for Apple, as well as Google. When I first saw those two displays stationed next to each other, a grin crept across my face as I thought to myself, “Hah! A beautiful example of how interactivity, interface design, and programming are now being treated as art.” This bridge of programming, algorithm, math, science, art and design is really where my interest lies, and as an extension of that, I rather like it when interaction design gets it’s proper dues—not merely as an application of science/math, but as an application of art and something of beauty.

{Apple’s iPod Touch}

The one last perk to top off an already amazing exhibit was the fact that museum goers could use an iPod Touch or iPhone to upload comments, Twitter style, about each display throughout the exhibit. If you do not have an iTouch or iPhone, you could borrow one from the front desk for free. Commenting requires an App that you either download through the iTunes store (also free) or already loaded onto the borrowed device. These comments are then downloaded and displayed live on a series of large, flat-screen monitors on the first floor of the Cooper Hewitt. There is one monitor that displays the very last comment a viewer made, while the others show random comments from up to 3 (or so) days ago. Also, the Cooper Hewitt Design USA exhibition website shows random comments. Although there is no artist attributed to the installation, it struck me as a creative interactive art piece that not only interacts with a viewer, but interacts quite directly with other artists’ pieces. It was a great way to tie in the exhibit’s two main concepts of furthering design both conceptually and technologically with bringing design to the every-day person.



  1. gerry

    I think it is fine to review design, in fact I believe I have said as much, there just aren’t that many design shows. A great post.

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