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.  Nature by Design 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.


Through May 25, 2020

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

Through April 10, 2022

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.


Through May 25, 2020

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

Through April 27, 2020

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 

Through Jan. 10, 2021

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.

In the galleries of Cooper Hewitt is displayed a large, old fashioned book with its pages open. Behind the book is a case with a set of 12 porcelain plates with botanical models painted on them. Behind the case, printed in jumbo scale on the wall, is a botanical illustration of a flowering plant with pink flowers. Two butterflies with black and yellow wings flutter around the flower.

Bathing Beautiful

Through May 25, 2020

A delightful 20th-century wallpaper with a watercolor-like illustration would imaginatively transport a bather under the sea.

Scenic wallpaper, Sea Beauties, 1920-1935. Made by Ideal Wall Decoration (Germany), distributed by The Prager Company (Worcester, Massachusetts, USA). Lithograph print on paper, 169.2 x 105.7 cm (66 5/8 x 41 5/8 in.) each panel, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of the family of Victor S. Robinson, Salem, New Jersey, 2004-16-1/3. Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

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.

Gallery view showing a selection of textiles and objects on display, with pink variegated wallpaper surrounding the room.
Experiments in Digital Manufacturing with Cochineal
This project summary was compiled by José de la O (Studio José de la O) and Christina De León, Associate Curator of Latino Design at Cooper Hewitt. Grana vs. La Máquina, or “Cochineal vs. The Machine,” was an academic project initiated by the School of Architecture, Art, and Design at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City,...
This image features Arctic inspired water service that includes a serving tray, water pitcher, cups, ice bowl. Reed & Barton, artistic workers in silver & gold plate. 1884.
On a Hot Summer’s Night….Icy Cold Silver
Does the frozen scenery on this Reed & Barton beverage set make you feel like the ice water is really icy?   More refreshing? Are you transported to frostier climes in faraway places? Icebergs “startle, frighten, awe; they astonish, excite, amuse, delight and fascinate”[1].   Depending on where you live, icebergs and polar bears can be as...
Image features: Brisé fan with pierced sticks. Moire effect produced by darker brown color swirling through tan color. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Ivory Substitute
This fan is in “good” condition for cellulose nitrate and therefore a rarity. Cellulose nitrate is an early plastic polymer invented in the mid-nineteenth century and derived from cellulose that is treated with nitric acid. The material gradually degrades, releasing nitric acid. This fan documents a time of experimentation when substitutions for costly natural materials,...
Image features a large scale model of the Ricinus communis (also called the castor bean, or castor oil) plant with red stigma rising from a green spiny capsule and long green leaves on a thick green stem, mounted on a black turned-wood base. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Botanical Lessons
This Object of the Day post celebrates the opening of Nature by Design: Botanical Expressions, on view from December 7, 2019-January 10, 2021. In the rapidly changing world of the nineteenth century, the expansion of industrialization was accompanied by an increased interest in science. Alongside major discoveries such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, Mendeleev’s periodic table,...
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...
Textile with step motif in reds, oranges, and natural colors shown next to an ancient clay pot depicted wearing a tunic with the same motif.
Multiband Imaging of Cochineal-dyed textiles
by Jessica Walthew (objects conservator), Kira Eng-Wilmot (textile conservator),  and Pauline Nguyen (conservation intern) Several contemporary designers featured in our current exhibition Nature by Design: Cochineal (November 16, 2019–May 25, 2020) were inspired by historic materials and chose this fascinating cochineal dyestuff for their work. James Bassler’s textile Six X Four II is made with discontinuous warps...