Museum of the City of New York Rebranding

Star Bright

As part of a major renovation, the venerable Museum of the City of New Yorks gets fresh new public spaces, including a dazzling icon for a new age.

The Museum of the City of New York is undergoing a decade-long, multi-phase renovation of its historic East Harlem building. Designed by Ennead Architects, the renovation includes a three-level addition, redesigned terrace, and library for the landmark neo-Georgia mansion it calls home.

With its new interiors, the museum saw the need for a layer of interventions that would completely redefine the visitor experience, enlivening the new public spaces and engaging visitors with its new features.  

Museum Director Susan Henshaw Jones asked Cooper Joseph Studio to create a bold, unified experience that would draw visitors up the museum’s central circular stair to the galleries and gathering spaces above. Cooper Joseph focused its efforts on the rotunda, entry, and second-floor central open space.

“It was primarily a matter of accentuating the vertical access and giving people a reason to go up the grand stairs and explore the spaces above,” says Wendy Evans Joseph, studio principal.

Nouveau iconic

Cooper Joseph’s solution was the insertion of a sparkling new icon for the museum, an expansive light sculpture that fills the upper half of the rotunda and draws visitors up the stairs to see it from new angles.

Starlight consists of 5,243 double-sided pixels hung on 210 tri-partite strands in a circular form 15 feet in diameter and 42 inches deep. Designed in a uniform three-dimensional grid pattern, its geometry seems to change as visitors ascend the stairs. Bursts of star patterns change the viewers’ perception, forming perforated veils over the classical architecture. Instead of taking the elevator, visitors are drawn up the stair and congregate on the bench below the light sculpture.

“We had explored the optical effects of these kinds of uniform grids in a project for the same client, but in a different location,” says Joseph. “We were fascinated with what happens when people move through these geometric frameworks. You get these beautiful moire patterns and a visual effect that constantly changes.”

Her team explored several options for the LED sculpture, looking at how they would appear in both plan and elevation views. “What drew us to this solution was the fact that when you first enter the rotunda, you see half of it, but until you get to the top of the stairs you don’t realize it’s a full circle. At the top, you can see the top of the sun shape reflected in the marble. It’s very dramatic.”

Starlight replaces an existing chandelier, and Joseph likes the fact that it fills multiple roles, providing a light source as well as an iconic placemaking feature for the new museum.

Studio 1Thousand helped with the technical aspects, and Cooper Joseph worked with the museum staff and structural engineers on hanging the piece. “It had to be hung very precisely to achieve the intended optical effects,” notes Joseph. In particular the team spent a lot of time determining how much weight to add to the end of each strand to ensure they would fall taut and wouldn’t bump into each other.

In keeping with the building’s character, the LEDs are dimmable, but not programmable. “So the lights don’t flash,” says Joseph. “They create this beautiful, elegant white light that is in keeping with the museum interiors.

Gathering spots

In addition to Starlight, Cooper Joseph created placemaking elements for the museum’s relocated café and temporary wayfinding for the ongoing construction. In a separate contract, Pentagram created a graphic intervention for the museum’s back stairs, to encourage visitors up and to the exhibits.

In the relocated café, Cooper Joseph used a black-and-white color palette to echo the building’s historic marble interior. It created a new “hero shot” for the café by pixelating a famous New York City skyline photo by Samuel H. Gottscho.

Full Point Graphics created a reverse print of the NYC nighttime scene in vinyl. The café identifier consists of large white letters made up of dots that recall the light points in the Starlight sculpture.

To help visitors through the ongoing construction zone, Cooper Joseph intervened with bold black arrows that show the way. Barriers are erected and moved often, so the Cooper Joseph team used arrows and playful wordplay to make it easier to find the way.  

Destination: back stairs

A separate project by Pentagram makes the museum’s back stairwells a destination as well as encouraging visitors up to the exhibits. The idea was to aid circulation by turning the secondary staircases into destinations on par with the historic curving stair in the lobby.

Pentagram Partner Michael Bierut created an interior tower of words and pictures celebrating New York. Nearly every inch of wall space in Stairwell B has been filled with carefully typeset quotations about New York (from John Adams, Walt Whitman, and E.B. White, among others) and photographs of the city and its people.

Carefully selected from the museum’s collection, the historic images include vertiginous views of New York and its landmarks as seen from above and below, and most appropriately, photos of famous New York staircases, including a 1955 image of the vast sea of humanity on the Port Authority Bus Terminal’s escalators and a 1946 photo of a snuggling couple on a fire escape, taken by Stanley Kubrick.

Rebranding the core

Joseph says the interventions have created new conversations about the museum while still respecting its venerable past. Fresh and unexpected, the site-specific light sculpture accomplishes multiple tasks and has become a catalyst for the museum.

“The bottom line for us is creating a new dialogue for a new time,” she adds. “We do that by respecting the past, but looking forward.”

By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 10, 2014

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Jury comments

“The Starlight installation is a superb use of LED technology. Both atmospheric and visually powerful, it serves as an excellent centerpiece for the central lobby. Today, it is quite expected that LED installations are ‘animated.’ But here, the designers have deftly taken advantage of the natural movement of ascending the stairs to give the visitor a constantly changing perspective of this suspended device. 

“In contrast to this delicate device, the wayfinding and graphics are bold, black, and architectural in scale. With black and white being the dominant graphic statement, this overall program is a very contemporary expression in an historic building. I love everything about this project.”


Client:  Museum of the City of New York

Location:  New York  

Budget:  $130,000

Project Area:  2,800 sq. ft.

Open Date:  February 2013

Design:  Cooper Joseph Studio

Design Team:  Chris Cooper, Wendy Evans Joseph, (principals in charge); Chris Good, Wonwoo Park, Greg Evans (design team)

Fabrication:  RUSH Design (lighting installation), Make Product Development Inc. (café), Full Point Graphics (vinyl graphics)

Consultants:  Studio 1Thousand (lighting)

Photos:  Eduard Hueber/ArchPhoto



Budget:  $43,000

Project Area:  34,000 sq. ft.

Open Date:  October 2013

Design:  Pentagram

Design Team:  Michael Bierut (art director, designer), Britt Cobb (designer)

Fabrication:  Mega Media Concepts (primary fabricator), 3M (vinyl film)

Consultants:  Ennead Architects (architects), Brandston Partnership (lighting)

Photos:  Peter Mauss/Esto

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