Temporarily Displaced, Cooper-Hewitt Reworks Design Awards Gala

For the planners of the Cooper-Hewitt's National Design Awards, a change in location provided an opportunity to rethink the format and decor of the annual event.

Cooper-Hewitt's graphic look

Photo: Alison Whittington for BizBash

As one of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's biggest annual events, the National Design Awards have, for the past nine years, been held at the institution's Upper East Side home. This year's iteration, however, was forced to relocate to a new spot while the museum completes a major renovation and expansion project. Although the move had its challenges, it also had its perks. Serving as the home of the 10th awards gala and its after-party on Thursday night, Cipriani 42nd Street provided an opportunity for the Cooper-Hewitt's planning team—led by National Design Awards manager Jeannie Kim and special events manager Barbara Roan—to change the format and decor.

For the crowd of more than 575 guests—including M.C. Paula Zahn, presenters John Waters and John King, and award recipients Francisco Costa, creative director of Calvin Klein Collection, and Lincoln Center president Reynold Levy—the museum crafted a streamlined design scheme with producer David Stark and expanded the after-party.

“There were definitely some challenges and advantages to having the event off site this year,” Kim said. “For an event our size, there aren't too many venues in the city that would work, and Cipriani was a convenient option for [the event's] demographic, which tends to live near the museum. But we also chose it for its architecture, because it evokes the architecture of the museum—it has this grandiosity.”

Looking for an unfussy aesthetic that would enhance rather than fight with the ornate venue, Kim and Roan relied on Stark to create a look unlike last year's elaborate setup. “In conversations with David, we agreed that the decor couldn't compete with the space, but it could complement it,” Kim said. To that end, the designer devised a custom graphic pattern using the names of all the previous award winners. The blue and white print then covered everything from the vases for each table's floral centerpiece to the enormous lampshade-shaped lighting fixtures that hung from the ceiling. As a result of the graphic concept, the Cooper-Hewitt team was able to unify the look of the program, collateral materials, table numbers, and menu cards—a first.

The new location also allowed other elements to be implemented. “As the Cooper-Hewitt is a Smithsonian Institution and we have a lot of federal regulations, it was actually easier on some level to have our event at an outside venue. Certain things like lighting the chandeliers or even having open votive candles, we never would have been able to do in our space,” Kim said.

However, the biggest change for the gala was the growth of the after-party. At the museum, the after-party is held in a separate space from the award ceremony, which typically has meant that fewer gala guests stay for the late-night cocktail reception. But with the flexibility and size of Cipriani, Kim and Roan were able to utilize the venue's chapel section—a small area adjacent to the main ballroom—for the post-award soiree. To give it some emphasis, the planners added a raffle and expanded the gift bags to include more products, like a fragrance from Viktor & Rolf and toys from Kid Robot.

“We tried to make the after-party more of its own thing this year, and I think we pulled that off. We had a great crowd and it went late, which is always a great thing for a party like that,” Kim said. “I really like that change and it was because of Cipriani's spatial arrangement that we even thought about it in that way. I think we'll definitely, moving forward, try to make the after-party special and not just an afterthought.”

Even with the move and the expansion of the after-party, expenses were kept to a minimum. “We were trying to be sensible with our budget, so we did what we could to lower the cost of everything, but without compromising the significance of the event,” Kim said. ”We ended up spending less money than last year.”

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