Ellen LuptonCan you explain a little bit about the type of work you do here at Cooper-Hewitt?
As Senior Curator of Contemporary Design, I organize exhibitions and contribute to the museum's publications and public programs. Sometimes I come up with ideas for new exhibitions, and sometimes I'm asked to work with a team of other curators on a collaborative endeavor. Curating is exciting, creative work. It involves constant research—staying aware of what's going on in the world of design—as well as the ability to stop and synthesize the flood of information into coherent stories about the process and practice of design.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
A curator is part of a big team, including exhibition managers, registrars, designers, editors, development professionals, press liaisons, educators, and more. Often, people need information from me in order to do their jobs, so that's a lot of pressure. If I fall behind on a project, then the rest of the team does, too. An exhibition has a lot of  moving parts! Objects have to be shipped, displayed, protected, and documented, and the curator has to help keep track of that process.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love the creative aspect of organizing exhibitions. I like telling a story with objects. I love seeing how objects communicate with each other in space. I love writing, and every exhibition requires a lot of writing, from wall labels to catalog essays to press materials and public lectures. The most satisfying moment is when you get to see the public walk through an exhibition. Then it's real.

How would you describe design? What is good design? Bad design?
The value of design depends on its context. Some design needs to function flawlessly in order to be "good." Think about a computer interface or a traffic sign, whose beauty appears at the moment you make use of it. Other design tells a story (film titles or an ad campaign), engaging users on an emotional level by drawing them into an experience and keeping them there for a while. Other design explores an idea or provokes a conversation—some of the most famous chairs of the 20th century weren't comfortable to sit on, but they expanded our understanding of space, form, and materials. We can't reduce "good design" to cost or functionality or a narrow set of aesthetic criteria.

How has the renovation either opened new doors or posed new challenges for you?
I'm very excited to be working on a series of exhibitions about the design process which will appear on the first floor of the museum. We are focusing on creating new visitor experiences and engaging people actively in the design process. This is an amazing time to be at Cooper-Hewitt!

Looking forward, what are you most excited about once the museum reopens?
It will be thrilling to see our galleries full of people again. Our beautiful mansion will be accessible to the public in ways that have never been possible before.

What is your favorite Cooper-Hewitt exhibition to date? Why?
It's hard for me to pick a favorite. I loved our show on "Felt," because it took a narrow focus on a fascinating material in order to tell a global, trans-historical story about design. I also loved shows that illuminate a particular artist, such as Sonia Delaunay, Henry Dreyfuss, or Ingo Mauer.

What was the most memorable moment for you at Cooper-Hewitt?
The first show I organized at Cooper-Hewitt was called "Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office," back in 1993. Coming from a job in a small college gallery, I had never created a full-on museum exhibition before. Despite the rocky road to getting the show open, however, the project was a big success with the public, and I had great fun learning to work with the museum's diverse staff to produce an exhibition at that scale.

What is the future of design?
Design is broadening and expanding. I'm fascinated with the new field of "service design," which involves analyzing the user's interactions with a product or institution to create memorable and humane experiences. Design isn't just about producing artifacts anymore. It's about the whole process of production and the life of objects and places—the ecological life, the social life, the personal life.

Finally, if you could redesign anything, what would it be?
This is terribly mundane, but I'm always in search of the perfect purse for my stuff. I need a bag that's fairly small, but still has room for the seemingly unlimited equipment that the modern woman's wants to carry around. A bag is a functional object but it's also very personal and expressive of who we are. When I buy a purse, it's a relationship that lasts for a few years. I associate whole stretches of my life with the bag I was carrying around at the time, and none of them have been perfect. Some day, I'd like to design exactly what I need.

5 thoughts on “Meet the Staff: Ellen Lupton

Greetings Ellen,
I’m pretty sure I bought a copy of your book in a bookstore in China. I can’t seem to find it, though, and I’m heading over there this weekend to teach. Any idea how I can buy it (again) online? I’ve tried amazon at various top level domains, so far no luck.

] jr [
Mobile: +49 151 58 81 60 01
Skype: jayrutherford

Deputy Chairman, Pavillon-Presse Weimar

Prof. (emer.) Jay Rutherford
Visual Communications
Faculty of Art and Design
Bauhaus University Weimar
Room 205, Marienstr. 1a
99421 Weimar

Hi Ellen!This is Clara from International Youth Fellowship. I am a volunteer for the IYF World Camp – Innovation Academy. The Innovation Academy is a workshop opportunity during the IYF World Camp where students meet, connect with, and learn from professionals like yourself. We would like to ask whether you would be interested in volunteering and teaching a four-day Drawing Academy during our seventh IYF World Camp this August.

Dear Ellen
Your panel at the Bard Grad Center tonight was lively and interesting. I enjoyed chatting with you afterwards, and look forward to your Bayer exhibition in the fall.

Katherine J. Michaelsen
Prof. History of Art

I would like to speak with someone regarding a possible donation of my fathers work. Please let me know who is the proper contact and an email or telephone number.
Thank you
Andrea Jovine

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