In January, the Smithsonian Institution chose Bill Moggridge to run the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, as it undertakes a major renovation and expansion of its premises, a mansion built by Andrew Carnegie on New York’s Upper East Side. British-born Moggridge wasn’t plucked from the international carousel of roving museum curators and directors; rather, he is known as a working designer and as a talker about design. He designed the first laptop computer, the Grid Compass, in the early 1980s, and co-founded the design firm IDEO in 1991.
architect recently caught up with Moggridge and with associate director Caroline Baumann, who was the museum’s acting director after Paul Thompson’s departure last year for the Royal College of Art in London. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.
What intrigues you about running the Cooper-Hewitt, and what has best prepared you for working in the Smithsonian bureaucracy?
Moggridge: For me it feels like a natural next step. Since 2000, when Tim Brown took over IDEO as president, I haven’t had to worry about running a design firm. And I’ve been trying to tell stories and write books about design. When I heard about this opportunity, I thought, “Aha, national!” The museum is not just interested in being a museum but in being a national design resource. I don’t know what [working with the Smithsonian] is going to be like. From my point of view, the Smithsonian does have a very powerful brand.
Baumann: Working within the Smithsonian is excellent. We [have programs that] go into small towns and neighborhoods. The name “Cooper-Hewitt” does not resonate, but the Smithsonian brand opens people’s eyes about the impact of design.
You [Moggridge] have said you enjoy explaining design. What needs explaining, and to whom?
Moggridge: Design is so much a tacit, learning-by-experience type of activity. A lot of designers are not good at explaining design, are they? “Could you just explain design?” You get a kind of embarrassed silence. [But] when you ask them about the work they’ve done, they can explain it in a very engaging way.
I’d like to see every child in America know what design is before they have to choose a career. And at the other end of the scale, it would be wonderful if all the leadership of all the companies knew. I don’t think we’ve got to the point where every CEO understands how to use design.
You’re known as a guru of next-wave technology, but there you’ll be, presiding over a huge collection of decorative arts collected by a set of Victorian sisters. How can those collections be presented to 21st century visitors?
Moggridge: On the first floor, we’re thinking of a permanent collection, “What Is Design?,” to answer that question, using parts of our collection which are historic with things that are contemporary.
Baumann: The galleries are not solidified yet, so Bill’s expertise is invaluable. [The first-floor] galleries will be showing design-thinking and managing the design process. The second and third floors will be temporary exhibitions.
Recently, the museum got $600,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue its “Design for the Other 90%” series. There’s been a groundswell in the past few years in the design world’s awareness around social and economic betterment. What do you make of that?
Moggridge: I think of design in three concentric circles: stuff for individual humans; then the environment they live in, the built environment; and then the planet. There seems to be a big expansion in the ways designers are thinking. We used to think of a beautiful iPhone. Now we’re thinking more about health and well-being. It used to be about architecture, and now people are thinking about it in terms of social innovation.