Flashback to Friday: On the exact date Andrew Carnegie moved into his new mansion on 91st Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the stately structure reopened anew, 112 years later, as the freshly renovated Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.
Carnegie Mansion has always captained technology: in 1902, it was the first American residence built with a steel frame, and among the first outfitted with a private Otis elevator and central heating. Ever on the cultural frontier as well, it was the first mansion (nay new home) on the Upper East Side, then considered the derelict outskirts of New York City.
Last Friday, the mansion reemerged on the vanguard of museum studies: the innovation it showcases has always stood in stark contrast to the walls it preserves, but now, the juxtaposition of history and futurism feels more fitting, thanks to a three-year, $91-million renovation by a garrison of creatives led by Gluckman Mayner Architects. As soon as visitors step inside, they are encouraged to think and do like designers via table-size touch screens scattered throughout the aggrandized exhibition space. The activities sound simple – redesign the stuff in your pocket, design a dog tent, invent a lampshade – but the premise is revolutionary: the world, as framed by the museum, is ripe for reinterpretation, personalization, improvement by you. Who knew coffered oak ceilings and interactive digital displays could make such strangely beautiful bedfellows? (Proenza Schouler did, in this bold faux bois number.)
At long last, the mansion is fulfilling the ethos embedded within its architectural bones. Andrew Carnegie had inspirational slogans carved into the walls of his study to encourage contemplation: “Let There Be Light,” “All is Well Since All Grows Better” and “The Aids To A Noble Life Are All Within.” Hear the echo?