How the Cooper Hewitt Museum and R/GA Are Showing the Evolution of Technology and Design

Bob Greenberg Selects runs through September

Headshot of Marty Swant

On a weekday afternoon this spring, Bob Greenberg stopped in front of a bright red Ducati that he’d recently bought. It was a four-cylinder, with a top speed of 200 mph. Made of titanium and carbon fiber, it’s known as one of the fastest motorcycles on the market. And between its design, materials, high-tech GPS and braking it was also, at least to Greenberg—founder and CEO of the agency R/GA—a work of art.

But the bike wasn’t parked on a street, in a dealership or in the garage of one of the advertising world’s legends. Rather, it was propped up inside of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum as one of many modern examples of what happens when technology and design are combined. In fact, it was the main reason for buying it in the first place. But this fall, when it leaves the ornate confines of the former Carnegie mansion and joins him at his upstate New York home, it will no longer be stationary.

“I’m going to ride it afterwards,” he said.

The motorcycle and a few dozen more items are part of Bob Greenberg Selects, an exhibition that tells the story of disruption and design within the technology that shapes our daily lives over the past 120 years. The show, which began this spring and runs through mid-September, is part of The Cooper Hewitt’s series that invites artists, writers and designers to respond to the culture with a curated selection.

Like any number of successful agency founders, Greenberg can afford to fill his world with costly toys. But unlike them, he’s a self-educated connoisseur of industrial design—and he’s devoted himself to educating the public about their importance.

If a modern-day machine like a Ducati seems out of place in a museum, so might the everything else around it. There’s a set of red, blue and yellow hair dryers from the 1970s, along with a cigarette lighter from 1971, an old Brau ET55 calculator from 1980, a desk fan from 1961 and an electric razor from 1957. All of these might have been household items back in the day. All of them also happened to be designed by Dieter Rams, the esteemed German industrial designer. And then there are newer items as well, including an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, next to the Explorer Edition of Google Glass. There are phones, too, including the original iPhone and Blackberry—which now looks outdated next to the Samsung Note 8.

“When I first got the Blackberry, I had some guys from I think it was Morgan Stanley come by,” Greenberg said. “And the financial industry was the first to adopt it, you know, down on Wall Street. They came by our office on 39th Street. On the corner was a donut shop, and one of them was emailing another one that was in a conference room: ‘What kind of donut would you want?’ It was a very long time ago, but I immediately dropped everything and went out and bought our executive team a Blackberry.”

For each person, the space—the former drawing room and music room of the mansion—becomes as much an exhibit about of the curator as it is of collection. While the illustrator and designer Maira Kalman brought in her own furniture but left the space the same, the fashion designer Tom Brown was curious about the theme of reflectivity, adding mirrored wallpaper to the floors and walls and over every mirror the color of his silver sneakers.

Under Greenberg, the sixteenth curator in the series, the history is gone. Everything has been sterilized white, including the wooden floors, leaving only the ceiling as an ode to the room’s past. Designed by the architect Toshiko Mori—who also designed Greenberg’s house—the space to feel more like an Apple Store, perhaps an ode to the one in Grand Central Station.

“As someone who is so well known by someone who is so cutting edge and forward minded, he was able to put the historical with the contemporary,” said Emily Orr, assistant curator of modern and contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt.

In many ways, the exhibit highlights many “sleepy technologies,” according to Orr. That in some ways parallels other art interests of Greenberg’s, including his massive collection of outsider art—work by those who are often untrained and unconnected from the usual circles by circumstance or style. In fact, a majority of the art he owns is from outsiders, much of which is on display both at R/GA’s office in Manhattan and also inside of his homes. The familiarity of many of the objects also makes the whole show feel more accessible than most museums. (After all, it’s easier to imagine having a drone on your shelf than a Monet on your mantel.)

The exhibit is also in a way an ad for R/GA itself. The agency’s relationship with the Cooper Hewitt began several years ago, when the museum began integrating more technology with digital interfaces. That’s now expanded with the latest show, for which R/GA create an app that allows visitors to scan images with their phone to unlock commentary on the objects from Greenberg and a variety of curators and experts that talk about what the objects meant when they were first invented and how they fit into the historical timeline of innovation.

While many of the objects might be recognizable, there are no labels anywhere in the exhibit—adding both to the sleek nature of the setting but also creating an added incentive to download the app. (R/GA wouldn’t disclose the exact number of downloads so far, but a spokesperson said the app has downloaded on average about 550 times per month.)

The app is also a way to show off the various startups R/GA invests in as part of its incubator programs. For example, one company, Clarifai, uses machine learning to enable image recognition. Another, LISNR, creates inaudible tones that send an audible signal to a phone. (The tech is already in use by sports stadiums to connect what’s on a big screen to what’s in the fan’s hand.)

“It could show you how in the future you would use image recognition,” Greenberg said. “You wouldn’t take a tour the way the old way. You could take it with a list of people, or a family member, or a friend. The next generation might have a way to go to any museum show, photograph it, add the voice and then publish it so it’s both social media in a museum environment.”

Perhaps more subtle is the sense of disruption from device to device—and also the ephemeral fame of the ones who create them. Walking by a Walkman, Greenberg pointed out that Akio Morita, who at the time was the chairman of Sony. He was the “Edison of his day,” according to Greenberg. He added that already, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is being superseded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (“If I walked around our company now with all the millennials, nobody would remember him,” he said of Morita.)

Along with the many objects designed by Rams, another star of the show is Henry Dreyfus, who’s designed the Polaroid camera on display, as well as a circular thermostat, which he helped modernize for Honeywell back in 1953. (It was a “sleeper hit,” Orr said.)

The exhibit is presented in four groups: connected devices, disrupted innovations, measurement and calculation, and finally Dieter Rams Ten Principles for Good Design, in which Greenberg highlights items that embody Rams’ principles.

The exhibit is as much of a history lesson as it is a gallery of past and present innovation. There’s a transistor radio next to a Walkman next to an iPod, showing the transition from wartime communication device to pocket-sized entertainment.

“It may be a small show,” Greenberg said. “But it’s telling a story, in a very small space, how technology has disrupted and changed products over time. And there are the well-designed products, but nonetheless, technology continuously moves forward.”

That raises a question: When does technology become art? Is the beauty of innovation, like a painting, in the eye of the beholder, or is it more universal, permeating not just the walls of quiet hallways and instead in our kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms?

The other day, a man and woman walked through the exhibit shortly before closing time, stopping in front of the iPod. The man mentioned how music streaming services now have rooms with tools to demo various ideas and devices. Meanwhile, the woman was more fixed on the cameras nearby.

“I miss Polaroids,” she said.

“You miss them?” the man replied. “They’re back.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.