Maria Nicanor, an architecture and design historian and curator, is the new director of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Nicanor brings a rich background in architecture and design to the role and has an established career in museum and curatorial work, having held positions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and most recently, at the Rice Design Alliance at Rice University’s School of Architecture in Houston.

Photo of Maria Nicanor.

Maria Nicanor, Director of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Photo: Christine McLaren

How did you become interested in architecture and design and in a career in museums?

I’ve always been drawn to the ways in which things are made. I am genuinely curious to learn how everything around us comes to be, how it functions, what it took to get it done, and why it was done in the first place. I like to observe, and I’ve learned to find much pleasure in revealing those invisible stories that aren’t apparent when you see the final product. Whether it be a single object or a larger system, we experience so many different design systems every day, and sometimes don’t even notice.

What’s new that excites you in the museum world (besides becoming a director of one!)?

We are living a moment of extreme change for museums and cultural organizations in general. Emerging from the pandemic coupled with the troubled times that we are going through globally, demands that we look at things in new ways. I think this opportunity is extremely exciting, and we happen to have a very particular DNA at Cooper Hewitt to give us a head start on that – because of the Hewitt Sisters who founded what is today Cooper Hewitt.

Their concept of a practical working laboratory for design was truly visionary for its time, and we are uniquely positioned for a contemporary iteration. That desire and feeling of experimentation, translated to our current moment, is an important character trait of Cooper Hewitt that I would like to see us push to its limits in every aspect of what we do.

You’ve lived in Madrid, New York, and Houston. How are they alike and different?

Yes! Such different cities with such different characters. Madrid is my hometown, where I grew up and went to school. It’s undergone a great transformation and is now truly a creative capital. I have roots in the northern, Celtic area of Spain – Galicia – but was born in Barcelona, which experienced an enormous resurgence after the 1992 Olympics, and has a true Mediterranean character. I have a deep connection with all of these cities and regions, they have shaped who I am. So has London, where our daughter was born, and New York, where I studied and went to graduate school and started my career. I benefited from the mad energy of New York in those early days, but have learned also to value quietness. If you look closely, particularly with a post-pandemic eye, all these buzzing cities provide moments of respite that should be equally celebrated.

Madrid, Barcelona, New York are of course all distinctively walkable perhaps superficially the most notable difference with Houston, where I’ve lived for the past few years. I understand Houston only now that I’ve lived in it and I fear it might be somewhat misunderstood. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things that could be improved: it’s the fourth largest and most diverse city in the country with basically no zoning rules, which results in very direct inequities and inconveniences (no continuous sidewalks, developer-led construction, disposable architecture, all due to market forces that have led to rapid growth at the expense of quality design). But there is a community of people involved and engaged with the need to be active in the creation of their city, their surroundings. People care and will change things. It would be unfair to judge Houston by comparison because the model it’s based upon is entirely different it’s a great case study of the American city and a powerful reminder that the way we design our cities has a direct and profound impact on our quality of life. I am leaving lifelong friends behind in this crazy city where our son was born during the pandemic. And we survived with only one car!

What do you want the experience of Cooper Hewitt to be?

I hope that everyone that experiences Cooper Hewitt, whether by coming to visit us in person, or by exploring our online offerings, will be introduced to the idea that design is everywhere around them. Everywhere you go throughout your day, has been touched by many design systems that are directly affecting your experience of the world around you. I hope visitors are also introduced to new ideas through our shows and programs and that they have a fun experience so you can leave with the simple notion that this is YOUR museum. We are a national, public museum, which means that we are everyone’s museum.

How does one become acquainted with one’s inner designer?

Once you realize that everything around you is design and is designed, it’s hard to look at things in any other way. We all constantly make design decisions every second of our day. I came to it because my parents fostered an atmosphere of making, fixing, and building things at home as a fundamental way of existing and looking at the world around you. There are many other ways to unlock everyone’s inner designer. I hope visiting Cooper Hewitt will be one path to that realization for many in our community as well.

One thought on “Five Questions with Maria Nicanor

Our new Director sounds to be a wonderful addition to the staff of Cooper Hewitt!
She comes with an excellent background for this position and will continue to bring new ideas for the public to enjoy and support.
With very best wishes from a long-time member …
Elizabeth C. Jones

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