Laptop designer Bill Moggridge will head the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt museum

DESIGN PLANS: Bill Moggridge will start as director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York in March.
DESIGN PLANS: Bill Moggridge will start as director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York in March. (Nicolas Zurcher - Courtesy Of Ideo)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Bill Moggridge, a leading industrial designer who is credited with designing the first laptop computer, was named Wednesday to lead the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Moggridge, 66, takes over the New York institution, which is part of the Smithsonian, at a critical time. The Cooper-Hewitt is in the midst of a major transition, one that promises to change both its focus and physical surroundings. And it needs to raise the last few million dollars of a $64 million capital campaign.

"For the last decade I have explained design," Moggridge said Wednesday in a telephone conversation. "When I saw this opportunity open up at the Cooper-Hewitt, I thought I would be able to continue on a national scale. This is the same thing, explaining design, helping people understand design."

The Smithsonian itself is undergoing retooling of its focus as the museum implements a strategic plan, and one of the goals is a better melding of arts and science.

"Bill Moggridge is an entrepreneur, innovator and visionary leader in the design world," Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said in a statement. "The Smithsonian and Cooper-Hewitt are poised on the edge of a new era and having Bill Moggridge as director of our national design museum offers exciting prospects for the future."

Moggridge, who is British, started a design firm in London in 1969 and expanded it to an international business. He is currently a consulting associate professor of design at Stanford University.

The design for the laptop, named the Grid Compass, remains one of his best-known achievements, Moggridge said. "An entrepreneur had the idea to put the computer in a briefcase. At this time, in the late 1970s, the computer was the size of a sewing machine. We ended up with the display screen folding down over the keyboard. In terms of innovation, it was an amazing opportunity." The unit, first sold in 1982, was used on early space shuttle flights.

For the past decade, Moggridge has been producing books and videos, overseeing conferences and teaching -- all to get people to understand not only the preponderance but also the ethics/ethos of design in our daily lives.

"Design has become much better recognized," Moggridge said. "We have simple design awareness but are lacking education about it. In professional practice, design makes a contribution that is widely recognized. The personal thing has been the iPod, but we need to expand that to health and well-being. We know about the design of a building, but we have to expand that to social well-being. And in the larger context, we have recognized sustainability, but now we have to expand sustainability into a global sense."

Moggridge starts in late March.

The Cooper-Hewitt is housed in a sprawling 64-room mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and has been part of the Smithsonian since 1967, with origins dating from 1897 and the family of industrialist Peter Cooper. The mansion was once the home of Andrew Carnegie.

For several years the Cooper-Hewitt has been planning an expansion, part of a $64 million capital campaign (of which $53 million has been raised), starting with the renovation of two townhouses on East 90th Street that will serve as administrative space.

Once that phase is completed, the main building will close for two years, starting in spring 2011. Moggridge said that was a welcome challenge. "There's a bright side to that, being able to create traveling exhibitions and virtual exhibitions," he said. "It gives me time to catch up and to be able to contribute to the questions of how can we benefit from the closure, how can we do exhibits that travel."

While the museum is closed, officials plan to employ temporary space around New York. Once it reopens, the museum will have a new 7,000-square-foot gallery, resulting in 70 percent more exhibition space, a new library and classroom space.

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