Program Launch: National Design Awards, Smithsonian Institution

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian Institution is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. The Museum presents compelling perspectives on the impact of design on daily life through active educational and curatorial programming. It is the mission of Cooper-Hewitt’s staff and Board of Trustees to advance the public understanding of design across the twenty-four centuries of human creativity represented by the Museum’s collection.

The Challenge

In the early 1990s, The Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s director and Board envisioned the idea for an awards program to celebrate the best in American design and to increase national awareness of design by educating the public and promoting excellence, innovation, and lasting achievement. By 1997, the Museum had received sponsorship commitments from major corporations, including Ford and Xerox, to launch The National Design Awards; however, the Museum was in danger of losing these sponsorships because it lacked leadership and staff capacity to move the initiative forward. The Director and Board needed an experienced professional to spearhead the project by raising additional funds, developing the details of the program, and providing marketing and PR expertise.


In 1997, The Cooper-Hewitt Museum retained Buff Kavelman to spearhead program development and fundraising initiatives to ensure that the vision for National Design Awards would come to fruition. Working directly with the Museum’s Director and Board Members for over two years to launch the Awards in 2000, Ms. Kavelman helped create what the Wall Street Journal called “one of the most prestigious awards in the country” in only their second year.

From the start, the goal was to create a high-profile Awards program that would increase awareness about design and also raise the profile of The Cooper-Hewitt Museum. To achieve these goals, Ms. Kavelman worked with the Board to establish a Design Awards advisory group whose members included distinguished leaders from the design world, corporate leaders and philanthropists. In less than two years the program and national nominating process were created, the inaugural jury was secured, the remaining funds were raised, and public relations goals were established.

Ms. Kavelman worked closely with Board Member Kay Allaire to position the Design Awards to be selected as an official project by the White House Millennium Council. The Awards received this endorsement and within weeks, the initial three-year budget for the program was raised, exceeding the Museum’s goal by over 150%. Following the inaugural year, the Design Awards operations were designed to not only support the Awards, but also to generate the largest source of operating funds for Museum.

The National Design Awards launched at the White House in 2000, with Hillary Clinton serving as the project’s Honorary Patron. The White House inaugural event included a private ceremony and reception and full tour of the State Floor. Laura Bush continued the tradition at the White House, and, as envisioned, the Awards continue to be held at the White House today, with Michelle Obama now serving as Honorary Patron.

The creation of the National Design Awards has raised the profile of The Cooper-Hewitt Museum significantly. The annual Awards have received more press coverage nationally and internationally than any other program sponsored by the Museum. The success of the Awards program has also helped recruit new board members who have helped the Museum financially, some of whom have contributed as much as $1 million annually. The annual gala dinners, held at the Museum each fall, has become a highly popular New York tradition that generates the largest source of unrestricted operating support for the Museum.