With a collection of over 210,000 design objects spanning thirty centuries, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum possesses one of the most diverse and comprehensive collections of design works in existence and is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Collectively, the objects are a tribute to the remarkable plurality of design: its objects, processes, techniques, and makers. The design works of African Americans are a significant and continually expanding contributor to the collection’s mission to both represent the extraordinary achievements of American design and to create provocative dialogues between the historic and the contemporary, the past and the future, the global and the local. These design objects created by prominent African American designers and selected from the museum’s permanent collection date back to 1950. Currently, the museum’s collecting efforts are focused on the acquisition of contemporary American holdings, including many works by African American National Design Award winners, such as Walter Hood, Stephen Burks, and Charles Harrison.
Cheryl R. Riley
Born in Houston, Texas, Riley earned an associate arts degree from Columbia College in Missouri. After working in the women's apparel and advertising industries, Riley began to design furniture. She formed Right Angle Designs in 1988, which produces furniture, lighting, public art murals, and sculpture.
Riley's furniture is in major museum collections and she has also created public art installations for several cities across the United States.
Cheryle Dent and Kim Bressant-Kibwe
Cheryle Dent and Kim Bressant-Kibwe established their Brooklyn-based design firm African Home, Inc. in 1989. Benin was inspired by West African textile designs.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Phyllis Bowdwin is an activist, writer, mixed-media artist, and designer. This brooch depicts in diagrammatic form the hull of a slave ship and the arrangement of its tightly packed human cargo during the Middle Passage, the slaves' horrific voyage from Africa to the colonies. The facial images of five slaves hang from metal nooses.
THE MIDDLE PASSAGE - AFRICAN HOLOCAUST, "MAAFA" ("TERRIBLE THING" IN SWAHILI) BROOCH (1993/1996) by Phyllis BowdwinCooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Bowdwin's pin commemorates the 400 years of slavery and the deaths of millions of Africans in the slave trade. This image of the slave ship was first seen in "The Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament," a book by Thomas Clarkson that was published in 1808.
Five cowrie shells hang from the bottom of the pin. The number five is a symbol of justice in African lore.
Born to Jamaican parents in Cuba in 1917 and raised in Brooklyn, Art Smith received a scholarship to attend Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Smith’s teachers encouraged him to study architecture and seek work in the civil sector. However, Smith chose to major in sculpture. After graduation, Smith took a night course in jewelry making at New York University. He also became friends with the pioneering African American jewelry designer Winifred Mason, who became his mentor. After working for Mason in her studio and store in Greenwich Village, Smith opened his first store on Cornelia Street in 1946.Smith became an integral part of New York City’s post-war community of African American artists that included the writer James Baldwin, composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn, singers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, actor Brock Peters, and expressionist painter Charles Sebree. By the mid-1950s, Smith’s career was flourishing and he received coverage in both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue for his biomorphic, modernist designs. Smith’s jewelry has been the subject of several major museum exhibitions and monographs.
Trained at Cooper Union, Art Smith opened his first shop on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village in 1946.
Visual resonance can be detected between Smith’s designs and the works of artists associated with modernist abstraction, such as Jean Arp and Alexander Calder.
Special thanks to Emily Orr, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design, Andrew Gardner, Curatorial Assistant, and Matthew Kennedy, Publishing and Image Rights Associate, of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.