Nature by Design: Selections From the permanent collection

To accompany the special exhibition Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, Nature by Design presents nine distinct stories drawn from Cooper Hewitt’s collection of over 210,000 design objects. Throughout history, designers have observed nature, investigated its materials, and imitated and abstracted its patterns and shapes. Textiles, jewelry, furniture, cutlery, and more show how designers have interpreted nature’s rich beauty and astonishing complexity. Across scales from microscopic to monumental, and in forms familiar and unusual, we invite visitors to discover how nature and design have intersected in the past and continue to converge in our world.


Katagami — March 30–Oct. 27

In the galleries of Cooper Hewitt, a blue kimono with a white design of what looks like flowers made of feathers is presented, hanging in a "T" form. In a case nearby, a orange version of the feather-flower design is displayed.

Installation view of Nature by Design: Katagami

Take an interactive tour of The Stencil Dyer’s Workshop.

This exhibition highlights the traditional Japanese craft of katagami: paper stencils carved by master artisans for use in decorating textiles. These stencils often take nature as their subject, and are made from natural materials. Cooper Hewitt’s collection of katagami mostly dates to the late Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) eras, when the craft was at its height. The works on view demonstrate a range of styles and cutting techniques, reflecting the great expressive potential of the medium.

To create the stencils, pounded mulberry bark is treated with fermented persimmon juice, resulting in a paper that is strong, flexible, and waterproof. Once the paper has been cut, thin silk threads are sometimes added in order to reinforce the design. These treatments are necessary because, since at least the 16th century, katagami have been employed in a dyeing technique called katazome. In this method, a highly-skilled dyer places the paper stencil over prepared fabric and applies a dye-resistant rice paste (or “resist”) through the stencil. This process is then repeated along the fabric’s length, creating an unbroken pattern. Later, when the fabric is dyed—usually with natural indigo—the areas protected by the resist remain untouched by the color. Finally, when the resist is washed away, the finished textile retains the stencil’s design.

Embroidered and Embellished — March 30–Oct. 27

A case in the galleries of Cooper Hewitt contains men's white waistcoats with embroidery that have yellowed with age.

Installation view of Nature by Design: Embroidered and Embellished

A fanciful, romantic, and stylized interpretation of nature embellished men’s waistcoats in 18th-century France.  Realistic and exaggerated flowers were the preferred form of decoration and displayed the exceptional skills of France’s embroidery professionals, who employed a painterly approach that required a sophisticated color sense and delicate rendering of light and shadow to amplify the brightness of the florals. A majority of the superb waistcoats and samples in this gallery were bequeathed to Cooper Hewitt by  Richard C. Greenleaf, who in the early 20th century assembled one of the most important collections of European textiles and lace in the United States. The waistcoats, along with embroidery samples and their related designs on paper, illustrate the exquisite artistry and incomparable craftsmanship that made French design the standard for men’s dress across the royal courts of Europe.

Among the most fashionable piece of clothing for a gentleman of the ancien régime, a white silk waistcoat was the perfect canvas for displaying elaborately designed floral frameworks. To set the fashion, a gentleman needed dozens, if not hundreds, of waistcoats festooned not only with beautiful flowers, but clever references that sparked conversation. Faced with a growing demand for novelty, embroidery designers began adding animals, insects, romantic vistas, and even cultural and historical references to heighten the whimsy and topicality of their waistcoat designs. Close examination reveals the gold and silver thread, sequins, seed pearls, faceted glass, and paste beads that elevated men’s clothing to a height of elegance and intricacy rarely seen since.

PaisleY — April 12–Nov. 11

In the Cooper Hewitt galleries, three white mannequins are positioned on a platform. The mannequin the center wears a red gown. The mannequin on the left wears a white silk blouse and white silk pajama pants. The mannequin on the right wears a white gown. To the sides of the mannequins are cases, through which can be seen an enormous red flower fabric hanging.

Installation view of Nature by Design: Paisley

Design’s tear-drop shaped motif popularly known as paisley has persisted, and its timeline of design variations reflect a diversity of natural forms. Everything from a flowering plant with its roots attached to a slender cypress tree with bent tip to a serpentine and elongated scroll have been stylized and expressed in paisley’s ornamental grammar. It is a design that for centuries has evolved with the fashion and interior styles of cultures around the world, with a complex history revealing an amalgamation of influences from Persia, India, and Europe. Integrally tied to the shawls handwoven in Kashmir during the 18th and 19th centuries, paisley derives its name from the Scottish town that became famous for producing imitation Kashmir shawls in the 19th century. Often infilled with flowers, more paisleys, and even jewels, the motif is constantly revisited by designers as we see in this display of over 80 objects from the collection—many shown for the first time. Designers, such as Etro, Zandra Rhodes, and Maharam are drawn to this timeless shape and its inherent vitality. And perhaps the secret to paisley’s immortality is the way its traditions have been adapted to combine conformity with the spirit of a wild child.

Bathing Beautiful — June 8–May 3, 2020

Nature appears throughout Cooper Hewitt’s collection of wallcoverings, which includes designs for the bathroom that beautified the appearance of this everyday domestic space. In the late 19th century, given the concerns for hygiene and running water, ceramic tiles were the preferred wallcovering because of their durability and sanitary nature. For those on a budget, wallpapers imitated this look with varnished tile patterns. Around 1910, bathrooms started moving away from a sterile look to become a more decorative room in harmony with the rest of the home’s décor. In this alcove, an early example of an immersive large-scale scenic design transports the bather into an imaginative underwater scene with fish, shells, coral, and plant life in their natural habitat. The paper’s lithograph printing gives it a very soft appearance, almost like a watercolor and the use of oil-based inks allows it to withstand moisture and the occasional splash from the tub.

PlasticS — June 8–May 3, 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. The animal and plant kingdoms were design’s original sources for materials with a quality known as plasticity— the ability to be bent or molded into virtually any form. Natural thermoplastics like tortoiseshell and horn can be split into thin, translucent sheets that become malleable with heat. Rubber and leather can also be molded, but when treated with heat, harden irreversibly, becoming strong materials known as thermosets. Semi-synthetics, such as rayon or celluloid, are made from plant materials processed in chemical factories where the raw materials are purified and reconfigured to change their properties.

BrisÈ Fan (China), 1850ñ60; Carved tortoiseshell sticks, silk ribbon, tortoiseshell washer, metal loop; H x W (open); 23.5 x 39.4 cm (9 1/4 x 15 1/2 in.); Gift of Clarence Hoblitzelle, 1912-10-7; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum;
Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

The popularity of biologically-derived materials eventually led to the scarcity of some, to the detriment of the species that supplied them. To keep pace with consumer and industrial demand, scientists developed synthetic substitutes starting in the late 19th century, with a proliferation of petrochemical plastics in the 20th century. Produced and discarded in such great quantities, these petroleum-based plastics now present a global environmental crisis. In light of their harmful impact, we have come full circle. Designers, manufacturers, and consumers today are exploring many traditional and non-traditional natural materials, investigating novel approaches to their use and processing, and creating renewable and biodegradable bioplastics as sustainable solutions for everything from packaging to home goods.

Botanical Lessons — June 8–Dec. 2020

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. The models and books facilitated an up-close view of plants to the naked eye, provided a better understanding of the natural world in a time where microscopes and image projection were not widely available. Through these designs, a new way of seeing nature was made possible for students, scientists, and the general public.


Cochineal — Nov. 9–January 3, 2020

Since Pre-Hispanic times the cochineal insect has been used as a natural colorant by indigenous peoples from the Americas. By the sixteenth century the pigment entered the global market and became one of the most coveted and widely traded commodities in the world, a position it would hold for more than 300 years until the advent of synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century. While cochineal was revered for the deeply rich red pigment it produced, this natural resource yielded a wide spectrum of colors that ranged from a light to pink to dark purple. 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.

 After Icebergs — Nov. 16–Sept. 7, 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. This intimate reflection, mounted amidst conversation about the impact of global warming on our ecosystem, brings new perspective to Church’s journey.

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 — DEC. 7–June 14, 2020

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.

Two streamlined red chairs against a white background.
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