The Color of New York In the Garden of the Cooper Hewitt

One of the many hidden gems of New York is the charming and whimsical Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden at the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This summer, it’s especially vibrant, with a display of colors that dive deep into the beating heart of the city. Like so many of life’s true luxuries, this one is free: the garden is open to the public at no charge. Don’t you love this city?

We were out for brunch on Madison Avenue a few weekends ago, and were stopped in our tracks by the site of a vibrant series of painted stripes in the garden of the Cooper Hewitt Museum. We love color, and we had to investigate. Here’s our report.

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Founded in 1897 by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, the granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum was created to advance the public’s understanding of design.

Housed in the landmark Carnegie Mansion since 1976, the museum features four floors of galleries dedicated to all disciplines of design; a permanent collection of more than 210,000 design objects; and a world-class design library.

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The 64-room mansion, built from 1899 to 1902, is the former home of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie. Over the course of his lifetime, Carnegie directed the donation of some $350 million to education, cultural institutions, and the promotion of world peace. From his private office in the mansion, Carnegie also donated money to build a network of over 1,500 free public libraries in communities across the country.

The current exhibit at the museum, Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color, presents more than 190 objects from the collections of the Smithsonian Libraries and the museum’s own collection. It’s an inquiry into the ways in which designers apply the theories of the “world’s greatest color thinkers” to bring order and excitement to the visual world. The works of color innovators – such as Louis Comfort Tiffany – are on display, along with with examples of color’s relationship with music and camouflage.

The installation that caught our eye extends this exhibition into the museum’s garden.

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One of the most notable features of the original Carnegie Mansion property, the garden is accessible to the public from the museum’s East 90th Street entrance. It was redesigned and reopened in 2015, and features ample seating and cherry trees and rhododendrons that reflect the plantings in neighboring Central Park. It’s a lovely, intimate oasis in the middle of the city, and one that’s well worth a visit.

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The garden is regularly updated with new design objects, such as benches designed by 2004 National Design Award winner Yves Béhar and Spun Chairs designed by Heatherwick Studio. New this year are the M’Afrique outdoor furniture collection from Italy’s Moroso design firm. An ongoing collaboration with artisans in Dakar, Senegal, and other international designers, M’Afrique furniture celebrates exuberant forms and vibrant colors.

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The Manhattan Color Walk by the San Francisco-based collective Color Factory is a joyful explosion of color. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, and a homage to the everyday unique and vibrant hues of Manhattan.

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Each color in the striped walkway corresponds to a moment encountered by the Color Factory creative team while walking 256 streets — from the northern end of Manhattan at West 220th Street down to Battery Park.

One of them will speak to you, in ways that might surprise you.

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The colors are from completely mundane objects, and yet together they create something sublime. There’s the slate blue of a “Bench outside Lexington Houses at 99th Street;” the iridescent lavender of “Pigeons in Union Square at 14th Street;” the red of the tomatoes at an Italian grocery on 11th Street; the lime green of “Plantains, 3 for 99 cents, 156th Street;” the fuchsia of “Street Graffiti, 160th Street;” the purple of discarded medical scrubs; the orange of mango sorbet, and also of a discarded plastic bag on 103rd Street; the golden hue of while-you-wait keys at a hardware store; the teal of the trash bins in Herald Square; and the cool white of the stairs of the New York Public Library.

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Walking slowly along the pathway, we remembered so many moments from our own history with the city, including the time we walked from the Upper West Side all the way down Broadway to Little Italy with a good friend on a fine summer day a long while ago when the city was all ours and the future was, too. What a gift to be brought back to that wonderful day.

The installation is at heart a celebration of the diverse stories and shades that make Manhattan so incredible. Taken as a whole, the colors become a new kind of map of New York City at this exact moment in time. A new set of colors from which to draw inspiration. A new canvas upon which to paint.

Later this month, a new palette by the Color Factory will pop up in SoHo. We like to think of both of these exhibits as a call to action: to go out and explore New York with fresh perspective, and see what colors imprint themselves upon our imaginations.

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If you become intrigued and want to be a more active part of the life of this design museum, keep an eye out for the Cooper Hewitt’s annual National Design Awards, which honor “excellence, innovation, and lasting achievements in American design.” They’re bestowed every fall at a gala dinner and ceremony in this very garden during National Design Week.

The color exhibit runs through January 19, 2019, so you have plenty of time to see it. And as you make your way there, note the colors swirling all around you. And think about what fires they might light in you. And in the world.

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