Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards Ceremony

September 20, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you all. (Applause.) Thanks so much. Good afternoon, everyone. (Applause.) Please rest. (Laughter.)

Welcome to the White House once again. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you once again today as we honor this year's National Design Award winners. Now, let me just say off the cuff -- and my staff doesn't like it when I talk off the cuff because they never know -- (laughter) -- the President is so jealous right now, because I always get to host this. (Laughter.) And every year, when I'm going over my briefing, he's like, "You're doing that again?" (Laughter.) He's like, "Well, who's there?" Because really, deep down, he would have been an architect had he been as talented and creative as all of you. (Laughter.) So from the President to you, he loves you all, he loves your work, he loves everything about every ounce of who you are, and so it is a delight to have you here. I always look forward to this event because it's a chance to celebrate some of our country's finest innovators and most creative minds.

As the website of one of our honorees -- NewDealDesign -- declares, "We bring the unknown to life, delightfully. Sparking life to dreams, crafting visions into reality, we move fast and act bravely to do good." And that's a constant theme that runs through the lives and careers of all of today's honorees. These men and women aren't simply designing beautiful buildings and parks and products, they're also thinking about how they can work to help create more sustainable environments, more vibrant cities, and a more active and participatory society.

Just listen to a sampling of the work that we honor today as an example: a series of 18-minute talks that found a way to penetrate through the fog of today's 140-character discourse; a giant, green, living sculpture in the middle of a Manhattan skyscraper; a museum that tells its stories not through a curator's lecture, but through the memories and oral histories of more than 100,000 people from around the world.

So these designers aren't just making a fleeting, momentary impact on our lives when we happen to glimpse their work. Instead, they're leaving a lasting impression on our hearts, in our minds, and in the way we see the world. They're inviting us to push our boundaries, to stretch our imaginations. And they're showing us that it's okay to have a little fun, too. And as Paula Scher put it, one of today's winners -- she said, "You have to misbehave to make breakthroughs." (Laughter.)

And let me clarify, to all of the young people here -- (laughter) -- our future designers and inventors -- what Paula is talking about is taking risks, not breaking laws. So let's be clear. (Laughter.) But for our young people, I wanted to bring all of our young people here today to meet all of you amazing individuals in part because I think it's important for all of our young people to see firsthand that in order to achieve your dreams, you've got to be willing to take some risks and to put yourself in a position where you might fail.

That's the story of anybody who's ever been successful. Take me, for example. When I was in high school, I dreamed of going to a college that a lot of folks thought was a bit beyond my ability. So they said I should set my sights lower. But I ignored them and I applied anyway. And guess what? I got in.

And then there's my husband, a guy you know, Barack Obama. (Laughter.) He lost his first race for Congress, and he lost by a lot -- I mean a whole lot. It wasn't even close. (Laughter.) But he learned from that experience and went on to win a Senate seat four years later and a few other things. (Laughter.)

So I know that young people -- the young people here today are interested in careers in design. And as today's honorees will tell you, that means constantly taking risks. It means constantly overcoming hurdles, brushing aside folks who tell you that your ideas are too ambitious or too unrealistic or too "out there." But if you can ignore the naysayers, if you can keep going back to the drawing board again and again and again, you too can come up with ideas that maybe even rival any of those of our -- that we're honoring today.

And that's why I am so thankful for all of the work that Cooper-Hewitt does to help our young people see the possibilities in front of them. For example, this morning, more than 300 budding designers from D.C. had a chance to get advice and feedback from some of today's winners at the Teen Design Fair at the Smithsonian. And I heard everything was as wonderful as always. And I also want to applaud Cooper-Hewitt's incredible DesignPrep Scholars program, which introduces New York high school students to college and career opportunities in design.

It's through these kind of efforts, and so many others, that so many of you, our awardees, are reaching back and lifting up those who will build a better world for all of us in the years ahead. And I believe that it's those achievements, more than anything else, that are just as important probably, if not more important, than the achievements that you're being honored for today.

So congratulations to all of you. Congratulations to our young people for being here. Thank you for taking the time. Thank you for wanting to even dream this big. And that's why being here, having you all here at the White House, is an important part of this day for me. Because I want you to bask in the glow of this room and feel the power and the potential of what you can be just by sitting in these chairs, by walking through these doors; to know that this is the bar you set for yourself; you set your bar high. You set your bar high and you don't let anyone pull it down for you.

So it is truly an honor to have all of you here at the White House to show our gratitude for the important contributions that you all make to our world. So thank you all. (Applause.)

And now it is my pleasure to introduce someone who is doing that kind of important work for our next generation every day at the Smithsonian. Under his leadership, the Smithsonian Institution has used technology and educational programming to open up the museums, exhibitions and artifacts to more Americans than ever before, with a special focus on reaching out to our young people.

And that's why I was a little sad to learn that this gentleman, who is standing by me, will be stepping down as Secretary of the Smithsonian. But on the bright side, we will have him for at least one more year. One more year.

So ladies and gentlemen, let's give a very warm welcome to our visionary leader, and someone I'm proud to call a friend, Dr. Wayne Clough. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards Ceremony Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320132

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