Maria Vollas, MLA AP/MDes, ULE 2022

Summer 2020

Organization: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sponsor: Harvard Club of New York

EXPLORING THE COOPER HEWITT COLLECTIONS

“In my previous introductory post, I talked about the ways in which I felt so welcomed and embraced by the community and staff of Cooper Hewitt. I’ve also shared with you my experiences in serving a cultural institution in this particular moment in time that is characterized by unprecedented events of pandemics, social distancing, lockdowns, inequalities, and violence. In this post, I would like to change a bit the topic of discussion and shift from my overall perceptions of the institution of Cooper Hewitt to the more particular tasks that I have been working on along with Cynthia E. Smith, the Curator of Socially Responsible Design.

The nature of my fellowship work is mainly in the form of research and on the topics of design and social impact. My explorations are oftentimes looking outwards in the search for new works and designers that could be included in future exhibitions, while other times are looking inwards and towards the past in the discoveries of socially impactful objects that exist in the Permanent Collections of the museum. I am excited to share with you the ideas and considerations that have emerged from both facets of this work, and for this particular post, I would like to start with my experiences in exploring the Permanent Collections.

Screenshot of the online database of Cooper Hewitt’s Collection, which can be accessed at https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/. Website accessed on July 24th, 2020.

In conducting research on the materials that exist within the museum, it was fascinating to have the opportunity to study and extensively explore this vast collection of design objects. These represent the museum’s curatorial departments of “Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design,” “Product Design and Decorative Arts,” “Textiles,” “Wallcoverings,” and the more recent addition of the “Digital.” In delving into these diverse departments and collections, it was intriguing to see how different media or formats of design can be sources of empowerment and a motive for meaningful positive change. I’ve encountered posters that address multiple social concerns, from the environmentally responsible poster of the “Oil and Water Do Not Mix” (http://cprhw.tt/o/48J4n/), to the Metropolis Sign in Clearviewhwy® typeface that facilitates readability for older drivers (http://cprhw.tt/o/2Ei5H/), and to the Amnesty International posters on human rights (http://cprhw.tt/p/2Azix/). The OLPC (One Laptop per Child) XOXO laptop (http://cprhw.tt/o/2E16n/) is designed to address the limited access to technology in the developing world, whereas the Bioimplantable Device (http://cprhw.tt/o/2DRd2/) uses embroidery for medical purposes and particularly in supporting tissue growth.

I believe that many of these examples could be objectively defined as socially responsible, considering that they advocate for human rights, address global economic and social inequalities, illustrate the fragility of our planet, and even save lives! There is often disbelief in design’s capacity to move beyond its aesthetic and decorative nature, but in reality, this perspective can only lead to unfortunate and

missed opportunities. Throughout this research, I have witnessed many examples in Cooper Hewitt’s collection that have been instrumental in addressing issues in their respective times, cultures, and contexts. Such design references are not only very informative and helpful for their knowledge and intelligence that they contain, but also encouraging and supportive voices, expressing through their own personal message that design indeed matters”