Overidentified with Ormlu and other crustaceous species of ornament, museums of decorative arts find it hard to shake their reputations as the preserves of connoisseurs devoted to the rare, the beautiful, and the obscenely expensive. Not so the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, whose inaugural show some 25 years ago featured a cornucopian banquet table loaded with the daily breads of the world -- twisted, braided, and kneaded. The first director, Lisa Taylor, and the second, Diane H. Pilgrim, thought outside the exquisitely decorated box and set the museum on a course of social relevance by explaining culture through the lens of everyday objects. The two women updated the decorative-arts museum, airing out its image as a latter-day Victorian attic. The recently retired Pilgrim encouraged shows that portrayed objects as both products and agents of social change. A hallmark of her thirteen-year tenure, "Mechanical Brides" addressed the gendered object, and along the way it de-gendered the subject of decoration and made the Cooper-Hewitt as much a guy as a gal place.
Taylor and Pilgrim put the "design" in the title, and their pumps will be hard to fill. The new director, Paul Thompson, is just off the plane from London, straight from the directorship of the Design Museum founded by Sir Terence Conran. The opening of the "Aluminum" show in March was a baptism in swirling eddies of guests checking out the newest director on Museum Mile while browsing the futuristic toasters and chairs. Tall, thin, and fresh-faced at 41, Thompson looked surprisingly plain with his generic gray suit and clipped hair; in his greige office there was no cool stool by Philippe Starck or stolid Biedermeyer chair to reveal his personal bent (though, at a recent reception, he admitted to succumbing to the charms of a croquet set from Crate & Barrel).
But you don't have to plumb his accent or scan his bookshelves to read his mind: He's the rare Englishman ready to tell you what he's actually thinking (and in full paragraphs rather than sound bites). Like his predecessors, Thompson sees a big picture and he's making no small plans. Since the late-nineteenth century, the British have understood that design can tip the balance of power among nations vying for space at the world's loading docks. A former schoolteacher with a Ph.D. in modern European thought, Thompson anticipates that education about everyday design will be a primary goal on his watch, as it was in London. "I'm keen on looking at the vocational opportunities with such programs as our 'Design Directions,' which offer young people hands-on experience and insight into the design profession," he says. "The Smithsonian operates at a scale suitable for delivering such programs at the national level."
Thompson established his bona fides at the Design Museum by starting off as a curator of contemporary design before becoming chief curator and then director. "High-art critics dismissed us for displaying vacuum cleaners," he recalls. Here, he inherits the ample goodwill generated by his predecessors (though the museum has been suffering from a low energy level since Pilgrim announced her retirement nearly two years ago). He also inherits a unique approach for examining objects in a social context. Gail Davidson's show, "Packaging the New," explored the impact of advertising on product design, and Ellen Lupton, curator of "Mechanical Brides," is planning a show called "Skin," about interpreting designed surfaces.
Rooms With a View: Landscape and Wallpaper, which opened April 24, is the exceptional show in a program that has emphasized contemporary design because it hints at the iceberg of historical material archived out of sight. "The show is a great riposte to those who ask, 'Why don't we ever get the collections out on display?' " Thompson says. "It's a huge challenge to pull the collection out of the past into the present, building a bridge between history and contemporary design."
Thompson, who quickly turned around an inherited £1.5 million deficit at the Design Museum when he took over, has more zeros on both sides of the ledger to contend with here and must keep his eye on the turnstile. He has said he wants to foster a greater sense of "must-go" urgency about design by involving such marquee guests as J. Mays, Ford's vice-president of design, and the Australian industrial designer Marc Newson. "And last year the Design Triennial here was a huge success," he adds. "We'd like to repeat the notion of a contemporary-design blockbuster." He also wants to develop the subject matter beyond graphics and product design into fashion, architecture, structural engineering, multimedia, and digital design. Mixing the experts, shows, and disciplines will help the Cooper-Hewitt cultivate the multiple audiences now needed at large museums to sustain attendance.
Two blocks down Museum Mile, two controversial shows at the Guggenheim -- "The Art of the Motorcycle" and "Armani" -- brought huge, paying crowds -- along with choruses of criticism. Thompson faces the problem of walking a fine line between quantity and quality. (Not to mention cross-town comparisons with the Bard Graduate Center, the other decorative-arts institution in town; in just nine years, under the direction of Susan Weber Soros, Bard has generated an exemplary series of scholarly catalogues, any of which outshines, for example, the commercially motivated booklet accompanying the "Wallpaper" show.)
The "Wallpaper" show, thoughtfully assembled and beautifully presented, fits surprisingly well in the upper story of the Carnegie Mansion, that monument to opulence whose domestic dimensions and ornate, historic surfaces have proved a mixed blessing for curators forever running up against its sacrosanct walls.
A quick study as a New Yorker, Thompson already is thinking real estate, cautiously eyeing the lawn out back. Big, roomy, flexible underground galleries could help accommodate the permanent collection as well as touring shows. Angels fear to tread in the Upper East Side Historic District, but stepping out of the Victorian corset may amount to the single most effective move toward a reinvigorated Cooper-Hewitt. That would truly be improvement by design.
Rooms With a View: Landscape and Wallpaper
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, through October 14.