Drawing from Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection, this exhibition explores the unprecedented circulation of labor, skills, aesthetics, and luxury goods across international borders in the 18th century. It traces the movement of people, ideas, and objects across borders, challenging notions of foreign and domestic, community member and outcast, and national style.

The desire for luxury goods in Europe—from wallcoverings, furniture, and textiles to silver, glass, and porcelain—reached a peak at this time. The extensive network of overseas trading posts, established in Asia by the Dutch East India company and the British East India Company starting in 1602, brought new objects, new colors, and an inexhaustible array of patterns and finishes to European marketplaces. Translucent Chinese porcelain, gleaming Japanese lacquer, and brightly colored, hand-painted Chinese papers—all made for export and appealing to Western tastes—were highly sought for elite interiors across Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Germany to signal a homeowner’s wealth and impeccable taste.

Exhibition highlights

Curatorial statement

“A naturalized US citizen from Taiwan, I have crossed borders all my life, having lived in four countries and five states. This exhibition in three galleries was conceived partly when I was packing up my life in Detroit to relocate to New York at the end of 2018, around when the Trump administration’s efforts to build a wall along the US–Mexico border intensified debates over immigration in America. This made me want to celebrate the historical benefits of migration and immigration, particularly the cultural and economic contributions immigrants bring to host countries.”

—Yao-Fen You, Senior Curator and Head of Product Design and Decorative Arts


Foreign Exchange: 18th-Century Design on the Move is made possible with generous support from the Esme Usdan Exhibition Endowment Fund. Additional support is provided by the Cooper Hewitt Master’s Program Fund.


Featured Image: Installation view of "Foreign Exchange: 18th-Century Design on the Move" exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Photo Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution