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The Cooper Hewitt Comes to Its Senses

At the New York museum, an exhibition titled The Senses: Design Beyond Vision experiments with the way touch, smell, taste and sound can affect the perception of an object

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Text by Rab Messina
Photography by Scott Rudd

You won’t see a single “PLEASE, DO NOT TOUCH” sign at the newest exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt. Quite the contrary: the New York institution would be very happy if visitors touched, tasted, heard and smelled the installations on display.

And there’s quite a lot to experience. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision features the work of 65 designers, from bird songs that turn into bursts of colour to a scent inspired by winter and furry walls with digital sensors.

The furry wall, for example, is the work Studio Roos Meerman and KunstLAB Arnhem. Touching the Tactile Orchestra, as the piece is called, triggers a recording of an instrument to play. Get enough people to play with it at once, and collaborative music emerges. The installation is part of Introducing the Senses, the section that opens the exhibition. Another section, called Sensory City, features a collection of urban soundscapes, a sample of sonic environments made for hospitals and a group of airborne feathers. There are 10 sections in total in the comprehensive exhibition, exploring subjects from material sourcing to appetite.

Apart from the 40 touchable objects, The Senses includes audio and visual descriptions of the works on display. As director Caroline Baumann explains, this is “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.” That includes a set of wearable devices that turn audio into vibrations that can be felt on the skin and T-coil enabled descriptions, as well as a custom smartphone app that provides full-length content via text or audio.

The Senses is open until October 28

cooper hewitt senses
CHRISTOPHER BROSIUS
Snow Storm, a special commission, features pale blue balls of felted wool hanging from above, infused with a scent inspired by winter.
cooper hewitt senses
STUDIO ROOS MEERMAN and KUNSTLAB ARNHEM
Tactile Orchestra consists of a “musical” wall covered in synthetic fur.
cooper hewitt senses
SOSOLIMITED
The Seated Catalogue of Feelings sends patterns of vibration through the seat and back of a chair, to evoke sensations such as “falling backwards into a tub of jello.”
cooper hewitt senses
MICHAEL ANGELO
The Cherry Forever Sidewall, designed for Flavor Paper, is actually a large scratch-and-sniff surface.
cooper hewitt senses
DANIEL WURTZEL
The Feather Fountain uses aerodynamic principles to create a continuous flow of airborne feathers.
cooper hewitt senses
VIRGINIA SAN FRATELLO and RONALD RAEL
The architect duo created Emerging Objects and Loopy Tiles, 3D-printed vessels sourced from coffee, tea, sugar, curry and the skins of Chardonnay grapes, which visitors can smell through special glass vitrines.
cooper hewitt senses
EMILIE BALTZ
The food artist and designer produced the FlavorFactory, an installation that uses interactive video to play with perceptions of sweetness and disgust.
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