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.


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.


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.

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.

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

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.

Bent into Shape
This chair was made in about 1900 in Catskill, New York, the region that inspired some of America’s greatest landscape painting. In the nineteenth century, artists, writers, and tourists travelled to the Catskills in awe of the falls, mountains, and landscape views, which Frederick Church among others so famously depicted. The rapid development of the...
Rustic Rocker
This rocking chair was made in Indiana, where Amish first settled in the 1840s, and boasts hickory twigs bent to form its symmetrical sides and oak slats evenly arranged to form its seat. The dramatic contours of this chair ensure that it is at once attractive and comfortable. This graceful form is achieved by bending...
Textile Design of Petunias, Honeysuckle, and Berries
Natural Beauty
At the time of Alphonse Mucha’s birth in present day Czech Republic, the struggle for independence from the Hapsburg Empire was reaching a boiling point. The people in this region had a strong nationalist consciousness and were fighting for greater political and cultural freedom. The heavily political atmosphere in which Mucha grew up continued to...
Piece of printed velvet with a young woman in medieval dress with flowing hair, holding a daisy and standing amidst a swirling profusion of branches and flowers, in shades of brown, rust, green and yellow on a pale pink ground.
Velvet Lady
“Femme à Marguerite” or “Woman with a Daisy” was designed by Alphonse Maria Mucha, a fin-de-siecle artist perhaps most famous for his works on paper. Mucha was born in Moravia in 1860 and died in Czechoslovakia in 1939, however like a majority of his works, this fabric was designed in France around the turn of...
A wallpaper that looks like a watercolor painting shows cute pink fish fluttering under the sea among sea weed, rocks, coral, and starfish. The sea is pale green. The sky is pale yellow.
Transform Your Bathing Experience
This is a scenic wallpaper designed for your bathroom. Called Sea Beauties, this was lithograph printed in Germany around 1930. The lithograph printing gives it a very soft look, almost like a watercolor, and because it is printed with oils is water resistant. Washable wallpapers as we know them today were not developed until 1934...
Tiffany Chrysanthemum silver tea set
Chrysanthemum Tea Set
This tea set, comprised of a kettle on a stand, coffee pot, tea pot, sugar bowl, and waste bowl, was given to the museum by Mrs. Roswell A. Miller, formerly Margaret Carnegie. The initials “RMA” are engraved on the pieces, signifying the owner of the elaborately decorated set. Margaret and Roswell were married on April...