Emily M. Orr is the assistant curator of modern and contemporary American design at Cooper Hewitt. Her exhibitions at the museum include Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer (2021), Botanical Expressions (2019–21), and Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s (2017)Her exhibition experience gives her a unique perspective on Cooper Hewitt’s collection that we are excited to share with you. 

Photo portrait of woman with brown, curly, shoulder length hair wearing a dark, gray-blue shirt

Emily M. Orr is the assistant curator of modern and contemporary American design at Cooper Hewitt.

Did you know?  

  • She holds a PhD in the History of Design from the Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum.  
  • Her specialty is American decorative arts and design 1850 to the present. 
  • Emily has written articles and essays on a range of design history topics and is the author of the book, Designing the Department Store: Display and Retail at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019). 
  • Emily’s motto is “follow your joy!”

Emily, you’re currently planning the upcoming Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer exhibition, is there anything surprising you’ve found in your research? 

It has been amazing to learn how E. McKnight Kauffer broke new ground in so many sectors of design  from posters and theatrical costumes to book illustrations and carpets. I was thrilled to discover that he also worked in retail and display, one of my favorite design areasKauffer produced at least one window display design and number of promotional brochures for London department stores.  

Booklet cover design on black with white strip running from top to bottom left with measuring increments on the strip. In the bottom right corner a box with brown, grey, and yellow color swatches with 'Fortnum and Mason ltd, 182 piccadilly, london. w. 1'

Booklet cover, Fortnum & Mason, ca.  1931;  Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Lithograph; E. McKnight Kauffer Archive, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum; Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

As a curator are there challenges that you’ve had to learn to overcome? 

Working with the historic architecture of Cooper Hewitt’s Carnegie Mansion is both a challenge and an opportunity. I have curated a number of exhibitions in the former family library on the second floor, where the room’s original carved teak and stenciled decoration by Lockwood de Forest (American, 1850–1932) are a strong and unique backdrop for the objects on view. 

Photo of intricate floral details. Carved, and painted vines with flowers fill the expansive geometric zones of the gold and brown ceiling

Image Caption: Teak Room Ceiling, 2015; Photo by Ellen McDermott © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

 Based on your experience, what would you tell a student interested in studying design? 

You are a user of design. Consider how design could change your experience in your community and what tools, graphics, objects and more could contribute to a better environment for you and those around you. 


How do you like to treat yourself?  

Travel! I can’t wait to be able to travel again and experience new places, visit friends abroad, and enjoy the comfort of returning home to New York again at the end of a trip. 

Travel poster with geometric bird with navy blue body and sky blue wings. Tilted text reads 'American Airlines...' then below 'To europe' with a small American Airlines insignia at the bottom of the poster

Image Caption: Poster,  American Airlines to Europe, 1948; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Lithograph; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer, 1963-39-138; Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

What do you consider your greatest career achievement?  

I really enjoy the chance to teach and mentor students by encouraging them to dig for untold stories in design history and propose new ways to interpret our collection.



Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer is made possible with support from the Barbara and Morton Mandel Design Gallery Endowment Fund and the Esme Usdan Exhibition Endowment Fund.

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