Woman with black mid-length hair stands outdoors in textured blouse. Wearing glasses and looking into the camera, she looks distinguished.

Yao-Fen You, photo by Brian Fraser

Yao-Fen You is Senior Curator at Cooper Hewitt and head of Product Design and Decorative Arts. She is also Acting Deputy Director of Curatorial. As a curator, Yao-Fen is a champion of the collection and works hard researching, writing, and presenting our permanent collection, while also finding new design treasures for acquisition. We at Cooper Hewitt have gotten to know her well over the two years since she joined the museum in February 2019, but like our vast collection, there’s always more to discover!

Did you know?

  • Yao-Fen was born in Taipei, Taiwan. Her family moved to New Jersey when she was four years old before relocating to sunny Southern California to enjoy the warmer climate. These days, she lives on the upper east side of Manhattan.
  • She has a PhD and master’s degree in the history of art from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a bachelor’s degree in the history of art from the University of California, Berkeley.
  • She is an expert in polychrome sculpture, the history of collecting and art markets, the art of dining, early modern textiles and fashion, and Northern European decorative arts!
  • In addition to all the amazing work she does for Cooper Hewitt she also served on committees for the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) and Curators of Dutch and Flemish Art (CODART) and has served on the board of the Historians of Netherlandish Art (HNA).
  • She is a current board member of the Decorative Arts Trust, American Ceramic Circle, and American Friends of the Mauritshuis.


Hello Yao-Fen, first question:

What was an early pivotal moment in your curatorial career?

In the summer of 1995, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, I was fortunate to be a Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in the Paintings department of the J. Paul Getty Museum. This was back when the museum was still in its original location in Malibu. I was part of a cohort of around 12 BIPOC (back then we were called “multicultural”) students either enrolled in a California university or originally from California and we had such adventures together! There was a reception almost every week with people coming and going. Now called the Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internship, this 10-week paid internship was the first of its kind and is now entering its 28th year.The internship did not necessarily make me want to be a curator, but I continue to draw from that experience and the professional contacts I made.

Do you collect anything yourself?

I have a collection of Russel Wright American Modern dishware that I use daily.

Green-blue teardrop-like pitcher with graceful tulip-leaf spout that curves into a handle low on it's body.

American Modern Pitcher, ca. 1939; Designed by Russel Wright (American, 1904–1976); USA; glazed, molded earthenware; H x W x D: 26 x 19 x 16 cm (10 1/4 x 7 1/2 x 6 5/16 in.); Gift of Paul F. Walter; 1991-30-39

How do you start your day?

No day is the same, but it always starts with a strong cup of coffee brewed in my Aeropress. Since April, my go-to bean has been a shade-grown organic medium roast coffee cultivated by a cooperative of Mayan Indian farmers in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico and distributed by Ruta Maya Coffee. I love that I can buy it at Costco.

If you weren’t a curator, what job would you do?

Something that involved making food and feeding people.

And lastly, what superpower would be most useful to a curator?

X-ray vision!


If you enjoyed this exclusive curatorial interview, get to know Yao-Fen even more at the upcoming members-only event on January 28th: Curatorial Conversation with Yao-Fen You.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *