Models & Prototypes is a gallery devoted to exhibiting three-dimensional representations of ideas that demonstrate the design process; test concepts and resolve problems; enhance presentations; and display complex technical skills. The models displayed in this presentation represent a range of styles and techniques most are staircases from the compagnonnage (group of companions) movement in France dating from the Middle Ages, while others are architectural models of buildings.

Compagnonnage, a merit-based alternative to restrictive apprenticeships in traditional European guilds, featured a combination of formal study along with the opportunity to teach craft and design skills. Stages of exams in design and execution included modelmaking for carpentry, joinery, cabinetry, and metalwork. Apprentices (compagnons) honed skills in masters' workshops by day, with evening courses in the art of geometrical design drawing. A compagnon made an acceptance model after basic training.

Acceptance led to the "tour de France;' during which the compagnon traveled to different masters in various cities, over several years, to learn essential disciplines. After a successful tour, the compagnon produced a reception piece to demonstrate competence. He became a completed companion when he produced a masterwork, which required a very high level of design, craftsmanship, and technical virtuosity in a harmonious whole. This magnificent collection, given to Cooper Hewitt in 2007 by Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw, contains examples of each stage, with masterworks in both staircase and architectural design.