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My nabe is cooler than yours: Cooper Hewitt’s new advertising is one-dimensional

In December 2014 the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum reopened it’s doors to the public at it's revamped location on East 91st Street—a location that current advertising appears to reveal the museum is suddenly self-conscious about.

Can world-class design exist on the Upper East Side? The reborn Cooper Hewitt claims to be proof positive. And they’ve launched their multi-neighborhood campaign, created by Widen+Kennedy New York, in an attempt to lure design-centric residents uptown, across town, or across the East River.

The Upper West Side gets a Museum of Natural History-themed joke and the Upper East Side a Guggenheim joke, Meatpacking is reminded that the thrill of fashion models will eventually wear off, Chelsea’s gallery scene is criticized, the West Village is shamed for messing up New York’s perfectly designed street grid, the LES receives directions from the Bowery, Bushwick is reminded that converted factory spaces don’t compare to huge Georgian Revival mansions, Williamsburg looks like an afterthought with a lame brunch joke.

And the Cooper Hewitt wants to grab Greenpoint’s attention with mason jars.

Two things. First, it would seem that Greenpoint has been enjoying a renaissance with new shops, restaurants and construction popping up faster than one can blink, but as rents climb and displacement becomes ever more the reality, I wouldn’t say that most of the neighborhood’s longtime residents have been enjoying it. No one wants to be reminded of this. Second, a campaign that relies on stereotyping shows a clear lack of understanding around what would actually attract the attention of a serious designer living in the neighborhood and get them through the museum’s doors, not to mention a clear lack of tact.

Quips that knock on other neighborhoods are fun depending on who you are and which neighborhood you live in, but they don’t do much to actually lure residents to the museum. Remind us of the museum’s history, show us the new things on display, and show us the beautiful new building. Those are the things we will come for, and we will bring our coworkers, friends and families along with us. Yes, Meatpacking has models, Bushwick has converted factory spaces and Greenpoint (apparently and sadly) loves mason jars. But playing on neighborhood stereotypes has been done—over and over. 

If you want designers and those they wish to influence to come, give them a reason, and show them a reason.

For example: 

Who knew that the museum offers a “Design your own robot” workshop for kids? Or that visitors can use a Picture Pages-like pen to interactively “collect” and “save” objects from around the galleries? Did you know that they have a Process Lab where visitors can brainstorm design solutions hands-on and digitally? The gallery emphasizes how design is a way of thinking, planning, and problem solving by encouraging visitors to try designing themselves, to get a feel for the thinking involved. What about the Immersion Room where you can discover the museum’s permanent wallpaper collection and use the pen to select digital images of the wallpapers, or sketch your own designs and then project them onto the walls at full scale to see their impact? Very cool, all of these things. I wasn't aware of any of them until researching for this post, and I would travel to any part of the city to see them.

One of the museum’s key exhibitions is called Beautiful Users, organized by Ellen Lupton. It looks at how design has become more user-focused over the past fifty years, and how this shift has affected the daily lives of people everywhere. Where was this thinking when creating the advertising?

I admire Wieden+Kennedy immensely, but this ad campaign is one-dimensional. If the Cooper Hewitt wanted to get designers to a design museum, there would be no better way than showcasing all of the fabulous design-centric features we’ll benefit from when we visit. Much more effective than pitting design-y neighborhood against design-y neighborhood and reacting prematurely in a self-conscious way about an “unhip” uptown location.

My conclusion? The Cooper Hewitt is aiming for trendy young millenials who are unlikely to think about it as much as I just have—the newest residents of the neighborhoods in question. Not serious designers. Not those of us who remember the museum before it began renovations in 2008. As with everything else in the city, it’s out with the old and in the with new—even if the new can be a bit one-dimensional.

Alyssa YeagerComment