Nature by Design

Discover how nature and design have intersected in the past and continue to converge in our world through selections drawn from Cooper Hewitt’s collection of over 215,000 design objects. Learn how designers across the centuries have observed nature, investigated its materials, and imitated and abstracted its patterns and shapes.

Botanical Lessons
on view through march 31, 2023

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.

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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.

botanical Expressions
on view through september 25, 2022

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.

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Support

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.

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...
Image features the opening spread of William Morris's book, The Wood Beyond the World. The pages include an illustration of a willowy maiden stepping forward in a lush meadow and elaborate ornamentation. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Reclaiming & Enlivening the Book
William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World (1894) relates the adventures of Golden Walter, a man who seeks to escape his mundane life and sets out on a sea voyage, eventually gaining control of the kingdom of Stark-Wall and the love of a beautiful maiden. The book was published by the Kelmscott Press, a private...
Tea of Two Styles: Christopher Dresser’s Kettle and Stand
After American Commodore Matthew C. Perry forcibly opened trade relations with Japan in 1854, a cornucopia of Japanese goods flooded into Western markets. The groundbreaking use of perspective and asymmetry in the prints of Japan influenced artists that included Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh. In decorative arts, imported items like fans, kimonos,...
The Aesthetic Office: Tiffany’s Grapevine Desk Set
The father of the English Arts & Crafts Movement William Morris once stated, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This maxim surely included the office, and Morris would most certainly have approved of this six-piece desk set by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a perfect...