The Immersion Room on the museum’s second floor features more than 200 examples of the Cooper Hewitt’s collection of wallcoverings, and allows visitors to select their favorites or draw their own designs, and then project them onto the gallery walls.

There are “super-high-definition smart tables”—glass touchscreens mounted on aluminum pedestals—throughout the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan. By running their fingers across the tables, visitors make shapes that are then displayed as hats, lamps, tables, vases, chairs, or buildings. During the museum’s opening week earlier this month, the system attracted the attention of everyone from a 4-year-old California boy to the 79-year-old architect Ricardo Scofidio. A few journalists debated whether the message—that anyone can be a designer—is the right one for a design museum to send. But slightly more troubling, for architects, is another message: that the way to design a building is to start with a shape. Here, form precedes function.

However, these are quibbles. The Cooper Hewitt is now a far better place to view design than it was before its three-year, $81 million renovation. Since 1976, the museum has occupied a spectacular Fifth Avenue mansion, built by Andrew Carnegie in 1902 and itself a decorative-arts showcase. But the American equivalent of Downton Abbey, even as renovated by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates 40 years ago, wasn’t a great place to exhibit new design. The galleries (landmarked spaces that cannot be altered) outwitted curators’ attempts to make shows legible against their dark and ornate surfaces. For years, there was talk of creating new galleries under the lawn behind the mansion. Then Gluckman Mayner Architects came up with a more realistic plan, which involved making better use of the existing building.

A former library on the third floor became a 6,000-square-foot gallery, perfect for large shows like the current Tools: Extending Our Reach. But the space, with characterless white walls and ceilings, feels divorced from the rest of the institution. (It doesn’t help that it is reached by a somewhat utilitarian stairway, or that the windows are covered in nearly opaque screens, inducing claustrophobia.) 

The galleries on the first and second floors are much more beautiful; the Gluckman Mayner team, headed by David Mayner, with Beyer Blinder Belle serving as preservation expert and executive architect, worked around the Gilded Age details, inserting new amenities almost invisibly. In one instance, surgically precise cuts turned a large section of wainscoted wall into a pivoting panel—a kind of secret passageway to back-of-the-house spaces. The display cases (except for those on the third floor) were designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), which came to the job late but took it as seriously as any ground-up building, Scofidio said. (He recalled viewing the original Hewitt design collection at the Cooper Union during his days as a student there.) Diller Scofidio + Renfro also designed the new gift shop; a dropped ceiling with a large opening in its center turns a double-height space into an intimate room with a bit of James Turrell–like drama overhead. DS+R also created LED beacons on the Fifth Avenue side of the property and a new portal through which visitors can enter the garden, even when the museum is closed. That garden is being subtly updated by Hood Design (with completion scheduled for July).

There was no apparent tension between the three prominent architecture firms and the 10 other designers who took part in the project. They included four winners of the museum’s National Design Award: DS+R, Hood, Pentagram (which created the museum’s graphic identity), and the interactive designers Local Projects. One of that firm’s creations is the Immersion Room, where patterns from the museum’s large wallpaper collection (always tricky to display effectively) can be projected onto two adjoining walls. Naturally, there’s also a feature allowing visitors to create their own wallpaper patterns. Coming next year will be digital pens that will let visitors “collect” favorite museum objects and save them to a website for later retrieval.

The Cooper Hewitt is hoping to double attendance from pre-renovation levels, and some of the interactive features are meant to make visiting more fun. But if museumgoers these days have short attention spans, the Cooper Hewitt, to its credit, has taken the long view. Its new galleries, updated with taste and restraint by some of the best minds available, should serve the design-loving public for decades. With this renovation, America’s design museum practices what it preaches.