The Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design was established in 1896 as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. Its parent organization, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, was founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper as a free school for the working classes of New York City. In his original plans for Cooper Union, Peter Cooper made provisions for a museum, but these plans were not immediately carried out.
In 1895, Peter Cooper's granddaughters, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt, Sarah Cooper Hewitt, and Amy Hewitt Green, asked the trustees of the Cooper Union for room in which to install a Museum for Arts of Decoration, modeled after the Musee des Arts Decoratifs of Paris. The purpose of the museum was to provide the art students of Cooper Union, students of design, and working designers with study collections of the decorative arts. The trustees assigned the fourth floor of the Cooper Union's Foundation Building to the sisters, and the Museum was opened to the public in 1897.
Until the death of Sarah Cooper Hewitt, the management of the Museum was essentially in the hands of the Hewitt sisters as directors. Following Sarah's death in 1930, the trustees of the Cooper Union appointed a board of four directors, with Constance P. Hare as chairman, to administer the Museum. When Edwin S. Burdell became director of the Cooper Union in 1938, the Museum was made part of his administrative responsibility, the Board of Directors was abolished, and an Advisory Council on the Museum, responsible for matters relating to the Museum's collections, was set up. Curators and custodians of the Museum included Mary A. Peoli, 1898-1904; Mary S. M. Gibson, 1904-1945; and Calvin S. Hathaway, 1946-1963 (curator, 1946-1951, and director, 1951-1963).
In 1963, the Cooper Union began consideration of plans to discontinue the Museum because of the financial demands of the other divisions of the Union and the absence of a close relationship between the programs of the Museum and the Art School. The announcement of the plans led to a considerable public outcry, and a Committee to Save the Cooper Union Museum, headed by Henry F. duPont, was established. Negotiations among the Committee, the Cooper Union, and the Smithsonian Institution led to the Museum's transfer to the Smithsonian on July 1, 1968. The Museum was renamed the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design and in 1969 acquired its present name. In 1970, the Museum moved into its present home, the Carnegie Mansion, which was renovated and reopened to the public in 1976. Heads of the Museum since 1963 have been H. Christian Rohlfing, acting administrator, 1963-1968; Richard P. Wunder, director 1968-1969; and Lisa Taylor, director, 1969- .