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.