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.

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.

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.

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.