The museum director stands at the windows of his 14th-floor apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and surveys his domain from a distance. The view is spectacular, with Central Park lying below like a tapestry, unrolling lush shades of green all the way to the towers and manors across town.
“Right there,” he says. “Do you see it? No?”
To be honest, it’s a bit difficult to pick out. “Of course you see the Guggenheim,” he adds helpfully, motioning to that building’s distinctive round silhouette. “Now look to the left. There’s the museum’s roof.” He is pointing toward the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, housed in the stately Andrew Carnegie mansion on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. And if it is not easy to figure out exactly where it stands, it seems even more difficult to truly identify it–to describe not just its profile but its purpose, too. The Cooper-Hewitt has an identity that has long seemed to border on the schizophrenic. Its origins go back more than 100 years, to New York’s high society, when the museum began as a small collection that now amounts to more than 200,000 decorative-arts objects–wallpaper, fabric samples, cutlery, and much more. The mansion that holds the Cooper-Hewitt collection was built as a private residence, not as a modern museum meant for gala exhibitions and big crowds. And yet ever since the Cooper-Hewitt was annexed by the Smithsonian Institution decades ago, it has had national ambitions. It runs the annual National Design Awards, which attempt to pick out the best and brightest in the industry, and which are celebrated with parties at the White House and in New York that attract not just design-world figures but boldface names.
But the Cooper-Hewitt has yet to discover how to serve all of its core constituencies. On one side is a devoted local coterie that expects bread-and-butter shows on textiles and jewelry; on the other are designers across the country who know of the museum mainly because of its prestigious awards. And how to capture a larger share of the general-public audience, both in the hothouse environment of New York’s cultural scene and on the national stage? The prospect of balancing these yin-yangy realities, anchored in the past but reaching toward the future, is a little like trying to remake an Edwardian costume drama as The Matrix. In other words, the National Design Museum has a design problem of its own.
To solve this dilemma, the Cooper-Hewitt hired a new director last year–a man who has no experience in running a museum. At the same time, he might be the only person who could–or would–undertake the redesign of an institution with such large ambitions and profound personality puzzles. The man pointing from his apartment windows into the distance happens to be Bill Moggridge, the 68-year-old English industrial and interactive designer who designed the first laptop computer; cofounded the influential design and business-consulting company Ideo; won the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement, in 2009; and is described nearly universally as one of the design world’s gurus and elder statesmen. It is difficult to find a high-profile designer who was not at least a little surprised by the Cooper-Hewitt’s choice of Moggridge. It is also difficult to find a high-profile designer who is not rooting for him. And if he succeeds in remaking the museum, it will be a vindication–using an improbably large case study–of what he most believes in: the application of “design thinking” to any problem.
“Bill’s appointment signals a different kind of museum,” says Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art, and culture, who led the search committee for the Cooper-Hewitt’s new director. “Museums originally were founded as 19th-century institutions. Well, now we exist in a different kind of world. A hundred-thousand people came to an exhibit? Well, a hundred-thousand people watching a TV program is very little. A hundred-thousand people watching a YouTube video is puny! And so I think the idea is, How do we take the stuff of the museum, the visceral experience of the object, and somehow translate that to other forms of media? We haven’t figured that out yet. If anyone can do it, I think it’s Bill Moggridge.”
It would be hard enough[/b] to try to create a new museum for the 21st century from scratch. But the expectations for the Cooper-Hewitt are even more daunting. After decades spent curating treasures and artifacts, the aim now is to command a much more assertive role–to completely own and articulate not just the history of design, and the narrative of design’s importance, but also the application of design as a tool for education and for business. To propose to do all this from within a Gilded Age mansion on the Upper East Side that has yet to shake off a reputation for fustiness might sound implausible. But what the Cooper-Hewitt’s most committed boosters want is nothing less than for the institution to become the voice of, and the voice for, design in the United States. This is where Moggridge comes in. “I don’t know about museums,” he says with typical guilelessness. “But at least I know design.” Moggridge is not an academic or an artiste. He moved with his family to Palo Alto in 1979 to open a second office of his London design firm. He speaks the language of design in terms of the marketplace of ideas and solutions, the lingua franca of TED conferences rather than the fortresses of culture. After decades in the industry, during which he taught and also published two books of interviews, Designing Interactions and Designing Media, “I got more interested in telling stories about design,” he says. “And this was a more natural platform for telling these stories.”
What’s different now is that the museum gives him a far bigger platform. “We have five different audiences,” he says of the Cooper-Hewitt, ticking them off on his fingers. “There’s the leadership audience–we can help every leader in America figure out how to solve challenges using design methods and processes. And then kids; we have our strong educational program for K-12, with 400-plus lesson plans. There’s the current audience, trustees, the people who come to every show. There’s the general public. And then designers themselves.”
You can’t help but notice that business comes first. For the Cooper-Hewitt, this is a new development. The museum has its roots in the eccentric obsessions of two 19th-century New York society ladies, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt. Their father, Abram S. Hewitt, was the mayor of the city, and their grandfather, Peter Cooper, was an entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Cooper Union as a free school to train working-class artisans and draftsmen. The sisters collected everything from birdcages to buttons, and they took trips to Europe to buy objets and tour the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, in Paris, which inspired them to create their own museum. In 1897, the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, holding the sisters’ treasures and dedicated to the memory of their grandfather, opened on the fourth floor of the school, in Greenwich Village, where it remained until 1963. At that point, Cooper Union announced that it no longer had the funds to maintain the museum.
In 1967, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the collection, on the condition that it remain in New York, and renamed it the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. Now it just needed a new home, and the steel baron Andrew Carnegie’s 1902 mansion was available. Taking up the whole block of Fifth Avenue between East 90th and East 91st streets, with a wide terrace and deep garden surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, the estate seemed well suited to housing a collection of decorative arts, and, in 1972, it was given to the Smithsonian by the Carnegie corporation. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design opened its doors in 1976, with a double helix of New York society history now firmly embedded in its DNA.
The tchotchkes and baubles on which the museum’s reputation was built, though, are not what attract today’s forward-thinking corporate sponsors and cutting-edge designers. The challenge for the Cooper-Hewitt is how to accelerate into the future without leaving behind those who have been along for the ride since the beginning. The last show at the Cooper-Hewitt, before it closed its doors this summer for a long-planned two-year renovation, was “Set in Style,” an exhibition of the jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels. It was exactly the kind of show that society matrons adore–and that bores most designers. And yet the exhibition broke all attendance records for the museum, with 172,000 visitors.
“The lesson there, probably,” says Moggridge, “is that the forms of design that beautify the human are always popular–so that’s jewelry or fashion–and therefore one should make sure one doesn’t leave them out.” The show buoyed other figures as well: Admissions revenue doubled in fiscal year 2011, and there was a 72% increase in on-site membership sales (which allow impatient patrons to skip the line) as well as an 85% uptick in revenue at the museum shop. “There’s a real irony there,” says Ric Grefe, executive director of AIGA, “because the exhibit may have resonated better with the public than it would with the design community itself. That is always a challenge in an institution like this–for whom do we create our services? Can you occupy the common space in the Venn Diagram between designers and everyone else?”
On a warm day in June, Moggridge is sitting in a bright, spacious, bay-windowed office that was once the night nursery of Andrew Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret. He is going over renovation plans, wearing rectilinear spectacles and an Ole Mathiesen watch. “When I got in touch with the [Cooper-Hewitt] search team,” says Moggridge, “they had these goals–both physically and digitally.” He arrived at the Cooper-Hewitt a little over a year ago, just enough time to get his bearings before the museum’s scheduled closure. A major capital campaign with a target of $54 million has raised all but the last $1.9 million, and an additional $7 million has been raised toward an endowment goal of $10 million to cushion the modest existing endowment of $11.5 million. (Of all the Smithsonian museums, the Cooper-Hewitt relies most heavily on private funding for its operating costs and exhibits.)
The main event of the museum’s renovation is the creation of a 6,000-square-foot exhibition space on its third floor for what Moggridge hopes will be “blockbuster” contemporary shows (his curators are still researching possibilities for the first one). But the physical transformation of the Cooper-Hewitt–housed in a national landmark that “was never made in God’s universe to show things,” says Mark Robbins, dean of the school of architecture at Syracuse University–can only go so far. The mansion is a large house but a small museum. In the first-floor galleries, which will remain the same, patrons sometimes find themselves backing into each other, or into a fireplace mantel, as they lean over displays in what was once a formal dining room. The mansion’s antique exterior cannot be changed (due to historic-preservation rules); neither can its location (the museum and its board considered and discarded that option years ago). Still, Moggridge admits that there is a younger audience he would like to attract “who seem to think coming all the way uptown is too far.” (The Whitney Museum is abandoning its space on Madison Avenue and 75th Street for the Meatpacking District downtown.) “I think that the biggest problem they have [at the Cooper-Hewitt] is the building itself, which is a straitjacket rather than a showcase,” says Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. “I am afraid that the constraints of the historic building are such that it will be difficult for them to really be the kind of public laboratory for design that I think Bill would like it to be.”
And it isn’t only the museum’s physical limitations that get in the way. Even its own name is an obstacle. In 1994, it was renamed once more as Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution–commas and all. All of its materials use “Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum,” as well as the Smithsonian’s name and sun symbol. “It’s a branding issue,” says Michael Bierut, graphic designer, partner at Pentagram, and cofounder of the Design Observer website. Moggridge admits he’d like to just make the word “design” really big and shrink everything else.
To Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, taking on a new name would fit in with Moggridge’s outsize–and, to her, admirable–aspirations. “We should call it the ‘National Design Museum,'” she says. “They’re really trying to position the agenda of design on a national level.” Grefe of AIGA, which no longer uses the name that its initials stand for, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, argues for a similar solution. “I would say the National Design Museum is the name, and at the bottom, the tagline would be ‘The Cooper-Hewitt Collection of the Smithsonian Institution.’ “Really, it’s a matter of time,” he adds, laughing. “How long can people defend a wallpaper collection?”
You get the sense that Moggridge is not entirely sorry that his museum will be closed for the next two years. For that time, at least, he gets to slip out of the constraints of the building and, in a way, conjure a more conceptual Cooper-Hewitt out of thin air. What does he imagine? The museum should address, he says, “the fact that everything is designed. We want to show people how it happens.” So he would like to see visitors have more hands-on experiences, where they will “learn by doing.” A pile of Lego bricks for aspiring architects, maybe, or computer stations where people can design something, print a 3-D photo, and take it home. A smell lab! And that’s just the beginning: “We create influence, become a national resource, and expand the virtual presence,” he says.
At times like these, Moggridge’s grand vision goes a bit blurry. It’s hard not to wonder whether you’re hearing about dreams rather than plans. There has been talk of the Cooper-Hewitt serving as the platform for a national design policy (though its Smithsonian oversight would seem to effectively prevent the museum from lobbying other arms of the federal government). Moggridge suggests that the museum could function as a sort of clearinghouse, or an umbrella, for all of the different member organizations for professional designers–AIGA, IDSA, AIA, and so on. Yet when you ask how a clearinghouse would work, or what exactly it would do, he says, “Well, I don’t know! Got to figure that out.”
“I think that there may be naivete about what it means to be part of the Smithsonian,” says a representative of one of those organizations who insists on anonymity. “[Moggridge] has run design studios, and now he gets into this bureaucracy. He may want to be the parlor where people gather, but in fact, the idea that the Smithsonian Institution would bring professional associations together that are principally advocate organizations–the Smithsonian would not like that. There are elements like that where his intentions are good, but he hasn’t quite figured out what it means to be part of this behemoth.”
Of course, the Cooper-Hewitt already has one national platform to build upon that does not conflict with the Smithsonian. Casting itself as arbiter of the design industry with the launch of the National Design Awards, in 2000, was a coup. The awards have elevated the museum’s national profile and given it a significant amount of credibility in the industry. This, in turn, has attracted major business players to its board of trustees who bring with them significant corporate support that is enabling the museum to expand its ambitions. “In a nonprofit arena, you may have a great idea, but how are we going to fund it?” says Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of GE and president of the Cooper-Hewitt’s board. “That’s been an eye-opener for me. I think one of the things I’ve been able to bring as a perspective is, ‘Wow, that’s fundable,’ or ‘Someone would sponsor that.'” Comstock was brought to the board by Michael Francis, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Target. In 2003, Target won the National Design Award for Corporate Achievement. In 2006, the company endowed the museum’s Target Education Center, which hosts seminars, high-school programs, and workshops. Francis is now vice president of the museum’s board of trustees. “Design innovation, for Target, has been a critical aspect of our differentiation strategy,” he says. “That syncs up beautifully with the Cooper-Hewitt’s mission, which is really to celebrate the impact of design, beyond aesthetic, and that shared commitment ultimately led us down a path of collaboration.”
Moggridge is seen as someone who can engineer these valuable connections between the museum and the business world–particularly in tech, where his name carries weight. “Bill knows all the people in the TED community,” says John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a trustee of the Cooper-Hewitt, who invited Moggridge to deliver the commencement speech at RISD this year. “If he knows, like, a Flickr person, or a Google person, or a YouTube person, he can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this really cool museum, and you’re American, so come on board!’ How can you not want to help our country?” Both Maeda and Moggridge are seen as “renegades,” says Debbie Millman, president of the design division at Sterling Brands and past president of AIGA, “coming into two very established institutions, and being tasked with shaking things up.” Maeda has suffered a backlash since his arrival at RISD in 2008, absorbing a vote of no confidence from the faculty earlier this year. The predicament that he and his institution now find themselves in may be a cautionary tale for the Cooper-Hewitt and Moggridge. “It’s like, be careful what you wish for,” says Millman.
At the museum, the hope seems to be that Moggridge will act as a brand ambassador during this period of transition. His name was not in the air while the search committee was interviewing candidates. The names that people heard were those of the more usual suspects: Antonelli at MoMA; Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum; Robbins of Syracuse; Maeda of RISD; Alice Rawsthorn, former director of the Design Museum in London. “I remember on a number of occasions sitting around over drinks with people, speculating about who it would be,” says Pentagram’s Bierut. “And then it came up on the Metropolis blog, and I thought, Oh, of course–if he would do it. There’s a kind of rightness to it. He plays the part well. And I can tell you, from experience, that if you ask businesspeople to name a design firm, if they can name one, Ideo is the one they can come up with.”
David Kelley, who cofounded Ideo with Moggridge and Mike Nuttall, in 1991, and who also founded the “d. school” at Stanford University, was already sitting on the Cooper-Hewitt’s education advisory board before Moggridge was hired. “There were questions about [how] he’s never run a museum before, he’s not a fundraiser, he doesn’t have a lot of the skills that the conventional museum director would have,” explains Kelley. “But what they didn’t know, which I knew, was that people want to be around Bill and work for Bill. So all those things he can’t do, there’ll be people who’ll be dying to do those for him. Don’t underestimate Bill. When he’s committed to an idea–the content, not the organization, but the content–he’ll make it happen.”
If Moggridge is about as far as you can get from someone with administrative experience at a museum, his associate director, Caroline Baumann, is 180 degrees in the other direction. Having spent the past decade at the Cooper-Hewitt, she served as acting director before Moggridge was appointed. Baumann is crisp and relentlessly on message, with data at her fingertips or on the tip of her tongue, while Moggridge prefers to paint the big picture. “Which is where the dream ticket comes into play,” says Paul Thompson, who left the Cooper-Hewitt in 2009 to head the Royal College of Art, in London. “Caroline is fulfilling that operational role, which allows Bill to be the creative director.”
Many people seem to see Moggridge in almost messianic terms, bringing the word of design down from the mountaintop for the masses. But while his admirers and supporters–and he has a lot of them–are cheering and campaigning for him, Moggridge’s own style is not to galvanize crowds with stirring speeches. He is quiet and thoughtful. He is iterative out loud. What that means is that he is willing to speculate, to try on and discard ideas if they don’t seem to fit or fly. He is willing to “embrace failure,” as he puts it, which is one of his most dearly held mantras. This is the design method he is known for, and in his view, this is “the way forward toward a good solution.” But this is quite different from the typical head of an organization reciting the party line. “They’re always trying to sell it,” he says, with a shrug. As Moggridge cheerfully goes off-roading, you sometimes detect, among those around him, a barely checked desire to wrench the wheel back.
And yet Moggridge’s willingness to take different perspectives into account is one way in which he’s been able, so far, to build bridges and not burn them at the museum. “We don’t want to lose our Cooper-Hewitt, that part that makes us all comfortable,” says Paul Herzan, chairman of the board of trustees. “I mean, you go to the Guggenheim, you go to the Frick, you go to the Morgan, and you still are going to go to the Cooper-Hewitt. We’re a boutique museum that will still cater to that specialized audience–but that’s just one part of it.” Moggridge sees the strain of conservatism within some of the museum’s trustees and donors more sympathetically than you might expect. “They want the museum to do more of the same sort of thing it’s always done,” he says. “They’re contributing to the redesign program in order to continue with that. So then, by definition, they’re not so interested in the new goals, or the national thing, or the Smithsonian–but they’re not against it. It’s just that they don’t want to see anything sacrificed in terms of what’s currently happening.”
Rising over the far west side of Manhattan, amid a landscape of old brick factories and shimmering showcase towers by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, lies a realized vision of something old–a defunct elevated freight-train track–that has been successfully redesigned into something completely new. The track, known as the High Line, was a pet project of a citizens’ group that formed to save it from dereliction and demolition, and was turned into a public park by teams of architects working with the city’s support.
On a Saturday morning in June, Moggridge, wearing a peach-colored bamboo-print shirt and black Converse sneakers, is eating a plate of chilaquiles at a nearby art deco eatery on 10th Avenue that was once the well-known Empire Diner but has been recast as the Highliner. He is talking about an idea for the Cooper-Hewitt cafe on which he’d like to collaborate with Phillip Tiongson, an MIT Media Lab alumnus who has done interactive projection installations in restaurants with his company, Potion. Visitors could “design your own lunch,” Moggridge says. “Design your own cocktails. So design doesn’t stop at the entrance to the cafe.” He doesn’t quite know how it would work, but he clearly enjoys imagining it.
“Bill’s going to redesign the experience of going to the Cooper-Hewitt, or interacting with the Cooper-Hewitt,” says Kelley. “In our long collaboration, you always looked for Bill to be the one who knew what was coming next. He could predict that we were going to be more interested in interaction design than just the object, that how people were going to react to our things was going to be more important.”
Out on the just-opened section of the High Line, Moggridge strolls among the other visitors, shooting photos with his Ricoh Caplio camera. He says he’d like to have the artist Paul St. George reprise his 2008 Telectroscope–in which viewers in Brooklyn and London looked into a tube and saw each other via fiber optics–to coordinate with the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Design With the Other 90%: Cities” exhibition, which will open at the United Nations building in October. You could connect people in Mumbai and Manhattan, he says–maybe right here at the High Line, with a hole in the wall near the staircase. (The plan evaporates a few weeks later, he says, “due to time and cost constraints.”)
“The movement in museums that I’ve observed,” he says, “is that it’s an experience where people learn by doing and not just looking. You can’t really do much with treasures that can only be looked at and have to be protected.” He stops to admire the rusted train tracks, now overgrown with wild grasses, that run alongside the walkway. What has captured his eye is “the mixture of the rails and the lackadaisical flowers,” he says, gesturing to some tall pale-pink echinacea with drooping petals. The old tracks are now, essentially, an installation alongside the walkway, with signs prohibiting pedestrians from wandering off the path onto them. But suddenly Moggridge is out there, literally following his vision. “Typical bloody designer,” he says, leaning down with his camera to get his shot. “Always breaking the rules!”
PHOTOS BY JOÃO CANZIANI