Maria Vollas, MLA AP/MDes, ULE 2022

Summer 2020

Organization: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sponsor: Harvard Club of New York


“This summer I am working as a Curatorial Fellow at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, collaborating with Cynthia E. Smith, the Curator of Socially Responsible Design. Cooper Hewitt was founded in 1897 with the mission of educating, inspiring and empowering people through design. In a year full of the unprecedented events of the Covid-19 virus and the public health risks, of the strange social distancing and lockdown and of the arising concerns for inequity and racial discrimination, this mission is more relevant than ever. Although I am working remotely and away from the physical location of the museum in New York City, I truly feel very fortunate to be part of the vivid conversations and critical transformations that take place at Cooper Hewitt and at all the cultural institutions at large.

My first impressions of the Cooper Hewitt community were beyond positive! Even before the official start of my fellowship on June 1st, I was welcomed by the community and invited to participate in their first online panel discussion during the COVID pandemic. Titled “Creating a Bright Tomorrow: Design Education for a New Sustainable World”, the event was an amazing opportunity for me to meet and communicate with the speakers: Susan Szenasy, Harriet Harriss, Gita Nandan, and Claire Weisz. They have truly inspired me with their ideas and visions for the post-COVID reality. In these strange moments of social distancing and digital communications, it is significant for me as a design student to hear words of encouragement and inspiring visions for the post-COVID reality that include equitable urban and community development and environmentally responsible urban solutions.

I have learned so much through my participation and attendance in various meetings and lectures, as well as through multiple discussions with the curator Cynthia E. Smith. It is becoming evident that, more than ever, designers along with the society as a whole, are being called upon to rethink societal structures, confront the Covid-19 pandemics, the social and racial inequity and injustice. There are alarming challenges of global warming and devastation of the natural environment. This movement is a result of our realization that everything is interconnected. In confronting the pandemic of a virus, one needs to simultaneously acknowledge and respond to larger societal and environmental “infections” (of poverty, inequity, climate change etc.).

As I develop my own ideas and values on the betterment of our Design, it is wonderful to collaborate with Cynthia and join in her research and curatorial work on socially responsible design. Our topics of exploration and research are deeply connected to topics of inequity, poverty, and environmental destruction. They are also full of designs and proposals that bring us hope through their meaningful positive change in these domains. My first week was an introduction to this work through the various publication materials and previous exhibitions dedicated to socially responsible design at Cooper Hewitt. I familiarized myself with the “Design for the Other 90%”, the “Design with the Other 90%: Cities”, the “By the People: Designing a Better America”, and the various writings on designing for social impact. This preliminary introduction was significant in my understanding of what socially responsible design is and important guidance and foundation for all the work that follows and unfolds throughout the summer.

Cover images of the socially responsible design publications “Design for the Other 90%”, “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” and “By the People: Designing a Better America”.

This is a wonderful fellowship and I am excited to share with you my explorations and findings on the domains of the socially responsible design as well as my experiences as part of the Cooper Hewitt community.”