Founded in 1897 as part of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, later becoming a branch of the Smithsonian in 1967, the Cooper Hewitt (full name “Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum” and né “Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum”) is a museum devoted to historic and contemporary design. Housed in the landmark Andrew Carnegie Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, Cooper Hewitt’s collection includes 217,000 design objects and brings together great exhibitions like the National Design Triennial and programs like the National Design Awards. While the mansion has its charms, it’s always been an awkward (and tight) place to look at contemporary design and the museum has been under renovation since 2008 and this November it will reopen to the public with 7,000 more square feet of gallery space and a new identity designed by Pentagram partner Eddie Opara and a new all-encompassing (and free to the public) typeface designed by Chester Jenkins.
Iconic, engaging and highly functional, the new Cooper Hewitt wordmark forms a perfect rectangle that can easily be scaled, positioned and colorized without losing its strong visual presence. There is an intriguing relationship between the words “COOPER” and “HEWITT” in the new identity: Set normally, the words are different widths. Here, each character has been tailored to help define the overall typographic frame. The wordmark has been expressly designed to serve as the basis for a wide variety of uses.
The old logo wasn’t the Cooper Hewitt’s logo, it was the Smithsonian’s. This is the most important aspect of the new identity as it gives this museum its own, much needed identity (literally and metaphorically). The work shown in the museum and the initiatives carried out by its staff have always felt far removed from the more historical Washington-based Smithsonian. The new logo also gives us permission to call the museum what we’ve always all called it: Cooper Hewitt. Period. No hyphens, no Smithsonian, no Design Museum. Just big, bold Cooper Hewitt. As a long-time adoring fan of Chester’s Galaxie Polaris family, the new logo tickles me just the right way. It’s a sturdy wordmark that makes a dense rectangle. You can drop it anywhere and it will always be visible and discernible as the Cooper Hewitt house font.
The Cooper Hewitt typeface is a contemporary sans serif with characters comprised of modified geometric curves and arches. The font evolved from a customization of Galaxie Polaris Condensed that Opara originally commissioned for the identity. Jenkins designed a new, purely digital form built on the structure of Polaris. The new font is redrawn from scratch, using the existing forms of Polaris as a rough guide.
Cooper Hewitt will be available as a free download as installable fonts, web font files, and open source code on cooperhewitt.org. Widely used across all Cooper Hewitt media and collateral—from object labels to the museum website—the unique font will become closely associated with its namesake.
So far, in application, it seems Cooper Hewitt is placing all its bets on their typeface, with absolutely everything typeset in it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s hot. But it might grow tiresome (and dull) after a while for both visitors and in-house designers. The good thing is that the identity can always evolve and rely more or less on this typographic foundation. For the time being, it’s a great new statement from the Cooper Hewitt that gives it a fresh and contemporary voice.