The Senses—Design Beyond Vision Both a Feat and a Feast

Curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (New York) enlisted the help of Studio Joseph to create an exhibition that goes beyond the visual to deliver a uniquely accessible sensorial feast.

There is an undulating wall of thick synthetic black fur—a look more Halloween costume than haute couture—and when a person strokes it, the sound of a violin is heard; when multiple people engage the strange furry instrument, a full composition mysteriously emerges. Translucent pillars printed with text such as “a moment of collective déjà vu” entreat visitors to press a button that emits a fragrance explicitly designed to create linguistic connections to scent.

A soundscape of alarm noises, city sounds, and a curious fountain of airborne feathers continue the introduction to this unique experience, which includes works by more than 65 artists and designers. The show continues with all manner of experiential objects imbued with scent, color, light, images, textures, and sounds. With such a wide variation in objects and aesthetics, how would one design an exhibition that ties them all together?

The exhibition entitled “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision,” opened April 13, 2018.

For the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, accessibility is a high priority, so when Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, senior and assistant curators of contemporary design, began expressing interest in non-ocular-centric and multi-sensory design, the concept for a show was born. The exhibition’s goals were to showcase how designers are exploring materials, technology and multi-sensory experiences to the benefit of all people, including those with sensory difficulties or disabilities, and to invite visitors to explore design through the use of all of their senses.

“Across all industries and disciplines, designers are avidly seeking ways to stimulate our sensory responses to solve problems of access and enrich our interactions with the world,” said Cooper Hewitt Director Caroline Baumann in a statement to the press. “‘The Senses’ shares their discoveries and invites personal revelation of the extraordinary capacity of the senses to inform and delight. Within the inclusive environment created for the exhibition, there will be over 40 touchable objects, as well as services, such as audio and visual descriptions of the works on view, to ensure the exhibition will be welcoming to visitors of all abilities, an important step forward in our ongoing commitment to making Cooper Hewitt accessible to everyone.”

The museum team consulted with both accessibility and sensory experts, completing research that would influence both the objects displayed and the exhibition design. In addition to Braille implementations and twice-weekly descriptive tours of The Senses, Cooper Hewitt has created a smartphone app that provides text and audio descriptions and has prepared audio descriptions for T-coil–enabled devices.

The show also includes many objects and experiences specifically designed for a diverse and differently-abled audience; there are maps that can be seen, felt and heard as well as audio that is sensed through the skin and everyday goods that help those with vision loss or dementia through the use of color and form. An entire section of the show is devoted to inclusive environments, addressing topics like architecture for the blind and DeafSpace principles.

Exhibition design experts Studio Joseph (New York) were brought in by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum to help bring the show to life.

“We worked with the curators to develop both how the pieces themselves could be arranged in conversation with each other and what the form is that holds the show together,” explains Monica Coghlan, Associate at Studio Joseph. “One of the things that was very clear from the beginning was that the premise was how the senses influence each other, not as separate experiences.”

The conversation was influenced by concepts of high versus low frequency, coolness versus bright or warm and how the combinations of all of these with texture and transparency translated into the physical environment. Ultimately Studio Joseph determined that an armature was needed that could singly work throughout to embrace the huge variety of work allowing for sound and sensory isolation.

“This is the ultimate group show in the sense that there were so many different things [that could] pull apart the overall curatorial narrative,” says Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA, LEED AP, principal of Studio Joseph. “We were determined to create a complementary embrace that gives each piece both its ‘day in the sun’ and demonstrate= its relationship to other objects.” That process led them to the idea of an undulating series of screens, to both define each space but also encourage movement through one themed area to another by utilizing of partial transparency and the use of color and mood—and without the use of hard angles, enclosures or opaque walls.

Designing the system of screens was a sizable challenge for the Studio Joseph team, in part due to restrictions put on the space: The ceilings are low, and attachments to the floor or the ceiling are prohibited, therefore the screens needed to be self-supporting. A material breakthrough came during a visit to flooring manufacturer, Bolon’s showroom. “We went to the showroom to look at flooring and saw on display spools of the vinyl yarn used to weave their flooring,” recounts Coghlan. “We had been looking for something durable that could create a level of transparency, considering that this was a show where we were actually encouraging people to touch.”

It was the perfect material to use for the screening system as it is durable, tactile and provides varying degrees of opacity depending on how it is woven or hung. The range of bright hues allowed the team to create niches that fade into each other as the weave transitions across a gradient. This nuance between color shifts and two different types of transparency was a very important part of the design strategy. For Lupton, this part of the exhibition design plays a key role in this experience: “The beautiful, tactile curving walls shimmer and move as they offer visitors a journey of discovery as they encounter the work.”

Another critical part of the exhibition design process was the placement of the objects.

The Studio Joseph team worked with the curators on a very detailed level to ensure all of the relationships between objects would support the narrative. Given the large range of audio, visual and experiential displays, they were careful to avoid conflicting or overlapping sound systems or odors, places where adjacencies between objects could affect the reading of each.

The show was segmented into 11 themes that wound through the 6,400-square-foot space: introducing the senses, sensory city, tactile library, shaping sound, sensory materials, tactile expression, sensory appetites, the sensory table, senses and cognition, inclusive environments and sensory theater. “As curators, we grouped projects into main themes,” Lupton says of the show. “The team at Studio Joseph took our themes and made them real in spatial terms, finding the best way to present each project and artifact, down to the very last spoon.”

The commissioned works were influenced by the exhibition design, and vice versa, affording certain artistic opportunities and choices. “Many of the pieces were commissioned specifically for the show and we were working on the exhibition in tandem,” states Evans Joseph. “We feel the design enhanced the experience of some of these pieces.” For example, with the fur wall that plays music, ‘Tactile Orchestra,’ an undulating curve was something the exhibition design team suggested to the artist, who incorporated it.

Consistent throughout is the use of text and Braille labeling. Working with graphic designer David Genco, who also designed the identity and show catalogue, the exhibition design team ensured that the Braille was placed at an angle and always at the same height so that the labels are easy to find throughout. The team found purpose in looking beyond accessibility regulations and requirements and striving to make the museum experience more inclusive.

“This process has begun to influence and inform our other projects in interesting ways,” expresses Coghlan with passion. “It has influenced us to look for opportunities where we can engage multiple senses, creating more experiential and encompassing environments that are also more accessible.”

This sentiment is mirrored in the design team’s belief that no visitor will come away from The Senses without an improved understanding of others’ struggles with varying levels of sensory impairment. They also anticipate multi-sensory design becoming a growing trend in the museum world as it has in the corporate world, where scent and sound environments are already being used to evoke a feeling or experience in ways that a visual experience alone cannot.

The Senses is a singular experience for visitors.

The exhibition creates an environment that is especially engaging on every level, not only encouraging natural interaction between guests and the show, but also between each other. “I love that to experience the exhibition fully, you have to let your guard down a bit,” beams Joseph. “It’s wonderful to interact with these objects, but also to share it. ‘Have you smelled this one?’”

“People are getting excited and conversing with strangers in a way we haven’t seen in other shows,” adds Coghlan. “But my favorite interaction was when I noticed a visitor try to ‘play’ one of the screens like an instrument—to me it was so great because it meant that the exhibition design was so integrated with the pieces that people were expecting something from it.”

For Joseph, the most compelling part of the design is its sense of authenticity and lack of pretense. It’s straightforward and simple in its minimal use of design devices to achieve multiple effects and its ability to display varied content.


The Senses: Design Beyond Vision will run through October 28, 2018.

Project Name: The Senses: Design Beyond Vision
Client: Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
Location: New York
Open Date: April 2018
Project Area: 6,400 sq ft
Architect: Studio Joseph
Exhibition Design: Studio Joseph
Placemaking and Identity Design: David Genco (identity and graphics)
Collaborators: Ellen Lupton (senior curator), Andrea Lipps (assistant curator)
Fabrication: Capitol Museum Services
Photos: Thomas Loof, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

For full artist and designer show credits and information, please visit the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum website.

To see the show catalogue, visit the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum store site.