The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration

What was this museum?

The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration was the first home of what is now Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection. Founded by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt in the 1890s, it was located on the fourth floor of the Foundation Building of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and open to students and the general public. Modeled after the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the museum functioned as a laboratory, aiming to inspire visitors in their own work and to pursue careers in design.

Return to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum history.

The Sisters Form a Plan: Paris, 1890s

A historic plan view of the fourth floor of the Cooper Union building, the Museum for the Arts of Decoration, depicting a horizontal, architectural layout for an angular built structure with four main straight sides.

Sarah and Eleanor began devising their plan for a decorative arts museum in the early 1890s. On their frequent trips to Paris, they visited the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, meeting with that institution’s leadership and gaining inspiration and guidance for their own work.

Godmothers and Miracles: 1897–1920

Faded photograph of a gallery space that has rows of chairs and sculptures of cherubs and urns on the right, on the left is a paneled storage wall with a panel containing two fans pulled out.

After the opening of the museum galleries in the late 1890s, the sisters continued to build the museum’s collection, soliciting gifts from family friends and strategically pursuing important collectors.

Sarah & Eleanor Hewitt: Designing a Modern Museum

A museum gallery with cases of objects and wall graphics of a family tree and a textile pattern.
February 4–October 10, 2022

Staged in 2022 in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the inauguration of the galleries at The Cooper Union Museum, the exhibition Sarah & Eleanor Hewitt takes a look at the lives and legacy of the sisters, presenting archival photographs and documents that have never before been on public display.

“Beauty Pays”: Au Panier Fleuri

Design of a set of flowers in a basket with text below it, all printed in blue.

Au Panier Fleuri, possibly the first museum shop in the United States, sold artistic gifts and decor for the home. Selling designs by students, it provided them with an early path to income and a career in design.

Student Work from The Cooper Union

Black and white photograph of a group of students in a room studying different parts of a collection of art.

Meet some students of the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union through a brief survey of their work in the Drawing, Prints & Graphic Design collection of Cooper Hewitt.