On a windy Manhattan evening in October 2009, designer Bill Moggridge put on a dinner jacket over a black T-shirt stamped “Design USA” and accepted the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Clutching his trophy, a torqued torch of silicon carbide whose designers and fabricators were in attendance that evening, he didn’t yet know that within a few months he would be at the helm of the now 114-year-old institution.
“I never thought I’d be back as part of the help,” says Moggridge, 68, laughing in his light-filled office on the third floor of the landmark Andrew Carnegie Mansion on Fifth Avenue. Behind him, an elaborate gilt-framed mirror hangs next to a constellation of Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s modular fabric “Clouds,” while, to his left, an upholstered perch overlooking East 91st Street is scattered with pillows printed with verbs: “think,” “share,” “talk,” “question,” “sit.” Moggridge sits at a marble conference table that is bisected by a Ping-Pong net. Paddles and a ball are at the ready. (His recent defeat at the hands of Caroline Baumann, associate director of the Cooper-Hewitt, still stings.)
The Cooper-Hewitt was founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Hewitt—granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper—as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and has been a branch of the Smithsonian since 1967. It moved into the Carnegie Museum in 1976. In addition to the main building, the campus includes two historic town houses that are currently being renovated as part of a $65 million expansion project scheduled for completion in 2013. The museum’s diverse collection of approximately 204,000 artifacts allows for a lively range of exhibitions, including the recent Sonia Delaunay and Van Cleef & Arpels shows.
Moggridge began as director of the museum on March 29, 2010. He knew his predecessor, Paul Warwick Thompson, from London’s Design Museum, where Moggridge served on the board of trustees while Thompson was a curator. “When Paul went back to London, it occurred to me that perhaps this is a national platform,” Moggridge recalls, explaining his decision to contact the museum’s search committee. “But I also thought it was pretty likely that it would be a fund-raising job or a bureaucratic job or a curatorial job, none of which I was particularly qualified for.” Moggridge, who was then teaching in the design program at Stanford University, was intrigued by the job description, which included not only directing the museum but also developing it as a national design resource and an international design authority.
The three-pronged approach aligns with what Moggridge describes as the third phase of his career, which began in 1965, when he graduated from London’s Central School of Design. At that time, he opened his own design firm, where he conceived products ranging from a toaster to the first laptop computer, the Grid Compass. Then, in 1991, he cofounded IDEO, the global design-consulting powerhouse that is behind everything from corporate logos and video games to medical devices and social programs. “In that phase, I thought of myself as a leader of interdisciplinary teams, where team members shared the authorship of design solutions and innovative concepts,” says Moggridge, who stepped down as head of the firm in 2000 to focus on writing, conference presentations, teaching, and making videos. As for this third phase, he says, “I have thought of myself as a storyteller, and in my new role as director of the Cooper-Hewitt, I hope to become a spokesperson for design, to help explain the value and processes that design can offer.”
News of his appointment was greeted with surprise and delight in the design community. Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, also believes that a designer is uniquely equipped for the role of museum director. “The choice of Bill Moggridge to be at the helm of the National Design Museum proves an idea I strongly believe in: a great designer is also a great thinker, a universal intellectual donor whose habit of making the most out of constraints can be beneficial to all sorts of endeavors,” she says, adding that his particular mind-set will provide the Cooper-Hewitt with “vision as well as pragmatic and constructive strategy.”
Among the director’s first orders of business is defining the Cooper-Hewitt’s audience. In addition to retaining its existing one, he wants to focus on broadening the museum’s educational resources for children. “The ambition would be that every kid in America has some experience with design before they’re 12 and the opportunity to study it in high school if they wish,” says Moggridge. He also wants to address design professionals, who have plenty of discipline-specific organizations to choose from but lack a national one to help integrate them. “As design becomes more interdisciplinary, we can maybe help these organizations see ways to connect to each other and provide resources and tools.” Finally, he is looking to leaders who can apply key design processes—creating alternative building prototypes—to problems in any field. “Lots of business schools now have design departments, but at the same time the ambition would be that every leader in America, whether corporate or organizational, would understand how to use design to get better and more innovative solutions.”
As he was working on transforming his ambitions into concrete plans, Moggridge, along with the Cooper-Hewitt’s 71 other employees, had to prepare for the museum’s two-year closure, as the galleries, educational spaces, visitor services, and back-of-house facilities are being redesigned. The Cooper-Hewitt is slated to reopen in 2013 with 60 percent more exhibition space, including a new 7,000-square-foot flexible space on the third floor. “When we reopen, expect a lot more things to do when you come to the museum,” says Moggridge. “It will be more of a combination of learning by doing and learning by seeing.”
He hopes to bring a similar hands-on approach to the museum’s series of off-site programs throughout New York. First stop: the United Nations, which will host a free exhibition called “Design with the Other 90%.” The urban-focused follow-up to “Design for the Other 90%,” the museum’s touring exploration of life-saving design solutions, it will run from October 15 through January 9. “We’d like to make the off-site programming more activity-oriented,” says Moggridge. A show of contemporary graphic design will run throughout the summer of 2012 on Governors Island.
The director’s latest book, Designing Media (MIT Press), examines another aspect of design, mass communication, and features interviews with 37 media-related people, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “I think it’s interesting to see what’s happening with connections between traditional media and new media,” says Moggridge, who posts frequently to Bill’s Blog on the Cooper-Hewitt website. “Sometimes that’s a clash, sometimes it’s complementary. It’s changing fast.” n
Stephanie Murg is a New York–based writer covering art and design. She blogs at UnBeige.com.