Nature by Design: Selections From the permanent collection

Discover how nature and design have intersected in the past and continue to converge in our world. Complementing the special exhibition Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, this presentation transforms the second floor of Carnegie Mansion into a treasure trove of textiles, jewelry, furniture, cutlery, and more drawn from Cooper Hewitt’s collection of over 210,000 design objects. Learn how designers across the centuries have observed nature, investigated its materials, and imitated and abstracted its patterns and shapes.

Plastics

From molded tortoiseshell and vulcanized rubber to bioplastic pellets and semi-synthetic yarn, the beauty of natural plastics and design’s achievements with these pliable materials are explored in this fascinating range of objects from Cooper Hewitt’s collection.

Botanical Lessons

Botanical Lessons explores nature in the Smithsonian collections through thirteen botanical models on loan from the National Museum of American History, and a selection of illustrated books and periodicals from Smithsonian Libraries, all of which served as teaching aids in a nineteenth-century period marked by a growing interest in science and education.

Cochineal 

Since Pre-Hispanic times the cochineal insect has been used as a natural colorant by indigenous peoples from the Americas. This installation explores the enduring legacy of cochineal and its innovative use among contemporary designers from across the Americas through a variety of medium including lacquered furniture, textiles, and works on paper.

Cochineal on view at Cooper Hewitt. Pink and purple tones abound in this exhibition of design objects set in an all-white domestic interior in Carnegie Mansion. The objects on view include a pink wallpaper with continent-like black forms mounted on top, a quilt, and a lamp that looks like it's wearing a bubblegum pink wig.

 After Icebergs

In 1859, the American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church traveled by ship to Newfoundland to observe icebergs. On the 160th anniversary of his expedition, After Icebergs will present a selection of sketches and studies made by Church that document his first-hand impressions of these majestic forms of floating ice.

Colorful drawing with a pointy iceberg. The sea is dark brown. The sky is a gradient from light green to peach. To the left of the glacier is a small flower-formed perfusion of ice.

Drawing, Iceberg and Ice Flower, 1859; Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900); Brush and oil, graphite on paperboard; 30.6 × 51 cm (12 1/16 × 20 1/16 in.); Gift of Louis P. Church, 1917-4-296-b; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Botanical Expressions 

Interpretations of botanical forms wind their way through the decorative arts of the late 18th through the early 20th centuries. Botanical Expressions focuses on key figures—Christopher Dresser, Emile Gallé, William Morris, and Louis Comfort Tiffany—whose knowledge of the natural sciences and personal practices of gardening enriched their creative output as designers. A timeline of objects reflects botanicals in form and pattern, highlighting shifting styles across geography and media in textiles, ceramics, glass, wallcoverings, and more. Significant loans from Smithsonian Libraries include illustrated guidebooks that designers used for natural research and drawing instruction.

Nature by Design is made possible by major support from Amita and Purnendu Chatterjee. Additional support is provided by the Cooper Hewitt Master’s Program Fund.

Image features a circular white plate with a wavy, brown-edged rim surrounding colorful painted decoration of a branch of bocconia/parrot weed (Bocconia frutescens) leaves, various sprigs, a caterpillar, and two winged insects. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Natural History for Dinner
To celebrate the opening of Nature by Design: Botanical Expressions (December 7, 2019-January 10, 2021), Object of the Day this week will feature objects from the exhibition. The creation of what has come to be known as Hans Sloane plates derived from an increased interest in natural history in the eighteenth century, which led to...
Image features a silver-plated toast rack with seven square dividers composed of vertical posts and horizontal rods connected by ball joints, the center one with an extra raised section to serve as a handle, all on a curved base resting on four bun feet. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
The Geometry of Nature
To celebrate the opening of Nature by Design: Botanical Expressions (December 7, 2019-January 10, 2021), Object of the Day this week will feature objects from the exhibition. Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) is often described as the first independent industrial designer because of his belief in machine production, his ability to create beautiful and functional objects in...
Image features
Beyond the Crystal Palace
To celebrate the opening of Nature by Design: Botanical Expressions (December 7, 2019-January 10, 2021), Object of the Day this week will feature objects from the exhibition. Sir Joseph Paxton’s name may sound familiar to architecture enthusiasts, as he was responsible for designing the famous Crystal Palace of 1851 in London. The construction, which housed...
Image features a tall conical vase with a narrow neck and flaring mouth, the opaque glass body showing peach- and amber-colored flowers on a yellow to deep crimson background. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Vitrified Nature
To celebrate the opening of Nature by Design: Botanical Expressions (December 7, 2019-January 10, 2021), Object of the Day this week will feature objects from the exhibition. Growing up in Nancy, France, in the 1850s, Emile Gallé liked going to the city’s botanical gardens and walking the surrounding countryside of Lorraine. His interest in nature...
This object features: Small, square weaving with a grid of stepped motifs alternating off-white with a palette of soft shades: violet, blue-green, brown, terra cotta, and yellow. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
James Bassler, Thread by Thread
Paired sets of stepped blocks in harmony and balance echo an ancient process. James Bassler (American, b. 1933), in his work Six by Four II, incorporates an aesthetic of pure color through the interlacing of warps and wefts in a special way. By changing the colors of each block, linked one to the other, thread...
Image features a large, mottled-blue irregularly shaped plastic vessel tapering to a narrow neck with a circular mouth. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Big, Blue, and Bioplastic
Designers Rutger de Regt and Marlies van Putten, the principals of Handmade Industrials, are both inspired and concerned by today’s production processes that are increasingly driven by computers. They ask, are we reducing or removing the presence of human experience and experimentation in manufacturing? Are we losing touch with our environment—is it becoming increasingly artificial?...
Two streamlined red chairs against a white background.
Hero to Zero: A History of Plastics
Design scholar Penny Sparke traces the history of plastic since the nineteenth century and through modern design of the twentieth century—and notes how the material became one of the largest challenges facing the world's environment today.
Image features a large armchair, the frame made of multiple curved, twisted, and joined Longhorn steer horns comprising a bow-shaped back and arms surrounding a rectangular seat upholstered in modern metalic-toned leather on curved horn supports and legs terminating in feet with small brass casters. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Wenzel Friedrich’s Longhorn Furniture
Trained as a cabinetmaker in his native Bohemia, Wenzel Friedrich immigrated to the United States in 1853, settling in San Antonio, Texas, and opening a revival-style furniture business. In 1880, he became more innovative, realizing the potential of the Texan stockyards’ abundant supply of Texas Longhorn cattle horns as a material for use in furniture...
Image features a decorative comb of triangular form, made of mottled, translucent brown tortoiseshell. The edges with intricate pierced scrollwork surrounding a solid section with a V-shape cut in the center; five long teeth at bottom, to fix the comb in the wearer's hair. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
The Tortoise in the Hair
A version of this post was originally published on September 22, 2015. Some combs are used to groom hair, others to embellish and hold it in place. This decorative lady’s hair comb dates from the nineteenth century. By the 1830s, the austere, classically inspired Empire or Regency fashions popular since about 1795 had been supplanted...