Designers are collaborating with nature, forging meaningful connections between humanity and the Earth. Their work is inspired by and intertwined with nature like never before, reflective of our transforming relationship to the natural world. Compelled by a sense of urgency, designers look to nature as a guide and partner. With projects ranging from experimental prototypes to consumer products, immersive installations, and architectural constructions, Nature-Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, co-organized with Cube design museum, presents the work of sixty-two international design teams. Collaborations involve scientists, engineers, advocates for social and environmental justice, artists, and philosophers. They are engaging with nature in innovative and ground-breaking ways, driven by a profound awareness of climate change and ecological crises as much as advances in science and technology. The exhibition themes explore seven strategies that designers are using to collaborate with nature - to understand, remediate, simulate, salvage, nurture, augment, and facilitate. The outcomes are speculative or practical and reveal new material, creative methods, and inventive technologies. These provocations and solutions put forth by today's extraordinary design teams serve as encouragement for an enduring and more respectful partnership with nature.
Each bulb in this immersive installation contains a hand-fabricated replica of a different insect, many from New York and the surrounding area. Some species are found commonly in nature, others are endangered or extinct, and still others are invasive. Curiosity Cloud unites species of insects that would never coexist in the natural world. Moving through the installation activates the insects to flutter within their bulbs, facilitating a dialogue with nature.
An essential component of life, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is used to move energy within cells. This film depicts the enzyme ATP synthase harvesting metabolic energy stored within the bonds of ATP. The film presents a biological narrative where each atom attracts and repels its neighbors, develops relationships and communities, and ultimately reveals the full mechanical motion of ATP synthase. Here we see approximately 500,000 atoms, moving at a rate of femtoseconds (1 millionth of 1 billionth of a second).
James C. Weaver produces electron micrographs using a customized multi-detector scanning electron microscope, which scans the surface of a sample using a focused beam of high-energy electrons. The signals from each of the detectors are color-coded and subsequently recombined, creating a polychromatic electron micrograph. Unique to this process, color information is automatically generated during image acquisition, and not through manual post-processing. Variability in surface topography is revealed in a dazzling array of hues. The images shown here, of farmed coral specimens from the tropical Indo-Pacific, demonstrate the skeletal complexity of these incredibly diverse and ecologically important marine invertebrates.
This proposed museum is designed, in part, by millions of years of geologic processes. Architects surveyed the initial “trunk” of the cave using 3D-scanning technology, mapping the 2.5 million-year-old space for the first time. Visitors will experience the natural architecture as a space to reflect on the Anthropocene—the current geological age, in which humans exert a dominant influence on the environment.
This data visualization offers a holistic method for understanding the impact of a child’s illness. Musician Kaki King charted the clinical data of her daughter’s experience with the autoimmune disease idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, as well as observations of her own emotions during the terrifying 4 months after diagnosis. King and Giorgia Lupi transformed these data into a visualization that correlates the clinical and the emotional, accompanied by a “musical map.”
Petrified River is a site-specific installation for the museum’s garden that represents the transformation of Manhattan from wild nature to urbanized landscape. Three natural elements—hill, river, and pond—are the main components and are metaphors for “Mannahatta” or “island of many hills.” The installation continues Ensamble Studio’s fascination with structures in the landscape begun at Tippet Rise Art Center (Fishtail, Montana, USA).
This single-player video game is based on the experience of living at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century as recorded by Henry David Thoreau. Players navigate and survive the challenges of each season. The goal is to maintain balance with nature. Players can turn their gaze to flora and fauna for inspiration, which is as essential for survival as food or shelter.
Aliki van der Kruijs uses 2 techniques for drawing with rain on silk. In one, inked film is placed under the textile. As rain falls, ink seeps onto the surface of the textile, recording the raindrops. In the other, the textile is first printed with a layer of ink, which bleeds upon contact with the raindrops. The textile is silkscreened with the location, date, time interval, and millimeters of rainfall.
Thomas Thwaites conducted research for over a year before setting out to live as a goat for 3 days in the Swiss Alps. He constructed an exoskeleton that adapted his biped body into that of a quadruped, and created an artificial prosthetic rumen to enable him to live on a goat’s grassy diet. He lived successfully amongst a goat herd, observing distinctions in the natural world that he had not perceived before.
These visualizations are produced by software designed for studying microbiomes through metagenomics, a method that identifies every organism in an environment at the time a sample is taken. DNA sequences of organisms found in an infant’s gut are displayed in different ways. A color-coded bar chart shows which genes are most expressive. A parallel coordinates graph facilitates comparisons of different taxonomic variables.
To develop hypotheses about the structure of the cosmic web, researchers gathered data from 24,000 galaxies and applied algorithms to the data set. Kim Albrecht built a simulation that explores 3 models of the cosmic web using fixed length (based on distance), varying length (based on size), and nearest neighbor. Researchers compared observable data with his simulation and concluded that the nearest-neighbor model offers the best correlations between physical characteristics in nearby galaxies. Albrecht’s research tool is available on the internet, allowing users to toggle between and explore the 3 models.
The TetraPOT is an artificial shoreline defense that works with the surrounding ecosystem. Sheng-Hung Lee designed a 3-part mold with holes and a central chamber to contain a mangrove seedling. As the mangrove matures, its root system seeks out the holes and connects to adjacent seeded pods, creating an interlocking root system.
Totomoxtle means “corn husk” and refers to the brilliantly colored veneers made from native Mexican corn by designer Fernando Laposse. Once ubiquitous in the farming community of Tonahuixtla, Mexico where Laposse visited as a child, native corn was decimated by industrial farming. Since 2017, he has worked with farmers, agronomists, and scientists to reintroduce native varieties and restore an important local economy.
BabyLegs is an open-source, affordable monitoring tool to study marine microplastic pollution, a danger to all marine life and to communities who rely on fishing for livelihood. Created by Max Liboiron, director of CLEAR, a feminist, decolonial marine science laboratory in Newfoundland and Labrador, the trawler can be attached to a boat and dragged along the water’s surface to collect microplastics for study and identification.
This glove represents a new area of soft robotics in assistive devices, using flexible and lightweight materials for functionality. The glove assists individuals with limited motor skills caused by stroke, injury, or other illness. Sensors control actuators that, when activated, inflate bladders, causing the gloved hand to open, close, grasp, pinch, and hold an object.
These biodegradable funerary urns are comprised of cremation ashes and a biodegradable plastic known as PHA, which helps regulate the disintegration process of the ashes. This allows toxins in the ashes to break down gradually into less impactful components that can then be absorbed into the soil and water. Nienke Hoogvliet collaborated with the Dutch Water Authority to produce the bioplastic.
Jae Rhim Lee’s design for a customized cotton burial suit is an alternative to current funerary options such as cremation and casket burial. The suit contains a built-in mix of proprietary materials and mycelia (fungal threads) that fruit into mushrooms. This “biomix” absorbs and eliminates toxins that are emitted from the body into the soil and aids in decomposition.
For this raincoat, Charlotte McCurdy created a petroleum-free, algae-based plastic that is carbon negative. Currently, the majority of plastic materials are made from fossil fuels, or stores of carbon created by "ancient sunlight." Instead, McCurdy encourages the use of new materials that metabolize atmospheric carbon, such as quickly grown plant matter. The accompanying book and infographics document her research into the reservoirs of earth's carbon and the potential for harnessing photosynthetic productivity or "young sunlight" for meeting our material needs.
To make a living plant emit sustained visible light, the Strano Lab at MIT infuses it with chemically interacting nanoparticles including luciferin, luciferase (an enzyme that modifies luciferin so it will glow), and coenzyme A (which enhances the activity of luciferase). The metabolism of the plant then powers the light emission, which can be experienced in this model by looking through the peepholes.
The population of the beloved monarch butterfly has drastically depleted due to susceptibility to agricultural pesticides, temperature changes, and land development. Terreform ONE’s proposed 30,000-square-foot sanctuary is a vertical meadow behind a glass façade with highly regulated temperature and humidity. The model shows how the façade can provide a temporary habitat for wild monarchs.
Personal Food Computers (PFC_EDUs) pair controlled-environment agriculture with open-source data sharing. The growth chambers are inexpensive and easily deployed, ideal for educators and makers. Users control conditions in the chamber, developing and sharing “climate recipes” to optimize growth conditions for a desired phenotype (the unique physical characteristics of growing plants). The PFC_EDUs can then be programmed to run a climate recipe, allowing users around the world to grow plants to their preferences.
The Aguahoja project consists of biocomposite materials derived from shrimp shells and fallen leaves, which are augmented with natural pigments. The materials can be 3D printed and programmed to varied mechanical, optical, and olfactory properties. The structure demonstrates an architectural-scale iteration of the skin-and-shell composite. The artifacts illustrate continued research into the optical and mechanical properties of the biocomposites. The degraded samples illustrate the materials’ life cycle, ultimately returning to the ecosystem. Through life and programmed decomposition, shelter-becomes-organism, providing nutrients for “growing” buildings.
To create Fantasma, design studio AnotherFarm collaborated with scientists who make transgenic glowing silk, engineered by injecting silkworm eggs with coral DNA to glow red. Japan’s Hosoo textile manufactory wove the transgenic silk into a textile, which was used by the designers to create this garment. Put on the glasses to enhance the color of the glowing silk.
Hair-like structures in and on bodies are some of the most multifunctional devices across the animal kingdom, providing warmth, acting as sensors, and even aiding movement. Working with a computational method that approximates the geometry of natural hair, researchers from MIT Media Lab have developed a way of 3D printing hair structures, called Cilllia, and programming them to control functionality.
Made from a mineral known as hydroxyapatite, a form of calcium found in bones, this 3D-printed, customizable material mimics the strength of bone while retaining flexibility and porousness. Ultimately, the Hyperplastic Bone may be used both inside and outside the body to regenerate bones and integrate existing tissues without the inflammation or immune responses often associated with implants.
Responding to the pollution in cities caused by carbon emissions from vehicles, Graviky Labs founder Anirudh Sharma has developed a device that can be attached to exhaust pipes to capture the tiny particles in exhaust. Once captured, this fine particulate matter can be converted into water-resistant ink, a nearly pure carbon pigment.
As natural resources diminish and, with them, many media-specific crafting processes, Shahar Livne reframes the material impact of the 20th century’s reliance on petrol-based plastics. Plastic waste, which clogs land and sea, has been undergoing geologic processes, compounding and morphing into a clay-like substance that Livne molds and shapes using traditional methods.
This project approximates the smell of an extinct flower. Researchers extracted DNA sequences from historic samples of the extinct flower and inserted the sequences into yeast cells, cultured them, and extracted molecules to approximate the flower’s scent. The project raises probing questions about the implications of loss, centered on the sensory experience of extinction. Stand under the hood (to your right) to smell the released scent.
Nacadia is an active research- and therapy-based garden that promotes mental health rehabilitation for patients, specifically individuals living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Designed by landscape architect Ulrika Stigsdotter, with input from researchers in medicine, psychology, and architecture, the 2-acre garden is open year-round and contains 5 distinct outdoor rooms with fluctuating content that relates to a patient’s needs and abilities. Scroll around the 360-degree experience on this tablet.
Parley’s 3-pronged AIR strategy, Avoid—Intercept—Redesign, starts with the premise that plastic is a design failure and must be replaced. AIR is a call to action to deal with the saturation of plastic clogging the oceans. It is at the heart of Parley’s collaboration with global sports manufacturer adidas, who has taken up the challenge of redesigning shoes using existing marine plastic waste and, ultimately, shoes that can be recycled and remade without any additional materials.
Julia Lohmann founded the Department of Seaweed in 2013, which brings together experts in design, science, and craft to experiment with the fabrication processes and material properties of seaweed. For the mask and sculpture, Lohmann stretched seaweed and combined it with rattan and aluminum rings for structural support. The woven textile and knit top by designer Violaine Buet demonstrate knitting and fringe techniques on sugar kelp. The process samples on the table show further experiments with seaweed such as lamination, pleating, gold-plating, laser cutting, dying, or embroidery, as well as combinations of seaweed with mohair, cotton thread or lurex yarn. The Department of Seaweed elevates the humble material to reshape our thinking about its possibilities.
Embracing the native environment of the salt flats in Arles, France, the interdisciplinary team behind Algae Lab has successfully cultivated microorganisms, such as those found in some algae, to create a biopolymer that can be used instead of plastic. Easy to produce at both small and large scales, the material is a local, renewable resource that also lends itself to 3D printing.
Porcelain is a kaolin-based ceramic celebrated for its fragile yet hard surface and iconic, milky color, ideally suited for painted decoration. Embracing the clay that is typically discarded in traditional porcelain-making processes, Kirstie Van Noort’s line of porcelain tableware is distinguished by darker hues, challenging the historic emphasis on the material’s light color while minimizing waste.
Connections across geography and geology are at the heart of the ongoing project A World of Sand. Inviting people to share samples of sand from all over the world, Atelier NL creates a compendium of linked objects—from glass vessels made by firing the sand to careful recordings of sand and glass samples—uniting objects, people, places, and materials via an interactive website.
Guided by an interest in the energy of natural forms, fashion designers threeASFOUR, in collaboration with Travis Fitch, have examined geometries rooted in nature to find new ways to wrap the human body. In translating these complex patterns into garments, the designers have used 3D printing to achieve new material possibilities in their clothing.
Ants communicate and organize challenging, shared tasks while behaving independently. This behavior is an impressive natural model for the coordination of goals. Festo’s BionicANTs, robots designed to make autonomous decisions in conjunction with each other, explore a technological version of ant behavior that could be implemented on a larger scale in manufacturing, especially robotic production sectors.
With a form and internal structure based on coral growth, Michelin’s Visionary Concept tire combines nature-inspired design with technological innovation to offer a strong, flexible, airless tire that is 3D printed and made from biologically sourced, biodegradable materials. Michelin uses nature as a model and environmental impact as a leading consideration for mobility solutions.
Zoa biofabricated materials are inspired by leather and will release the designer from the material constraints of traditional leather. Future Zoa™ biofabricated materials will be made at scale by engineering yeast cells to produce collagen protein, the main building block of skin. This prototype suggests new possibilities for the production, performance, and function of material alternatives.
Two nature-informed algorithms underlie the design and manufacturing of an essential airplane part: the partition separating the cabin from the galley. One mimics the growth of slime mold, an organism that efficiently connects disparate points; the other replicates the growth properties of mammal bones by removing mass where strength is not needed. The resulting partition is lightweight, strong, and made with very little waste.
On March 19, 2018, the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died, bringing his subspecies to the brink of extinction. As scientists work to resurrect the rhino through experimental and controversial biotechnologies, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg “brings back to life” a male northern white rhino using data generated by artificial intelligence to ask the question “what errors in reproduction may arise as we recreate life artificially?” Confined to a virtual room, the artificial rhino begins its life with no grid cells—specialized brain cells in mammals that help them navigate space. The rhino develops grid-cell representations as it moves around the confined space and calibrates to it, becoming increasingly intelligent. As it habituates to its environment, the rhino’s form and sound toggle from pixelated to lifelike—reminding us that this rhino, coming to life without its natural context, is entirely artificial.
Focusing on the ways changing land use affects geography, Alexandra Kehayoglou weaves monumental landscapes out of wool. She begins with drone photography, site analysis, and sketching, then utilizes discarded threads from her family’s textile factory, which she dyes and weaves upon vertical frames. This carpet depicts Argentina’s last free-flowing wild river, where planned hydroelectric dams may change the ecosystem irrevocably.
Hiroshi Sambuichi considers sun, water, and air to be “moving materials” that he uses to create architecture adapted to a specific site. For this installation, Sambuichi reopened the ground covering a series of cisterns, reconnecting sun and water. Visitors stroll through the cisterns on wooden platforms, walking above the water, listening to the water, and feeling the air, facilitating a meditation on the changing states of water.
An iceberg glistening in the sun reveals itself to be a discarded plastic bag floating just below the ocean’s surface. This metaphorical image has resonated across communities and has been reproduced around the globe. Transcending linguistic boundaries, the graphic draws attention to the harsh reality that millions of tons of plastic pollute our world’s water sources every year.
Embracing the tension between solid and liquid states in nature, Mathieu Lehanneur’s Ocean Memories series consists of benches and tables made of sturdy marble or heavy brass with the dynamism of the oceans’ surface as its subject. Using CGI software to render lifelike undulations of waves, his pieces are machine-carved and hand-polished, reminiscent of a moment frozen in time.
Inspired by the Dusky Arion slug’s incredible defense mechanism—the secretion of a sticky mucus some 2 to 5 times stronger than Super Glue—researchers from the Mooney Lab for Cell and Tissue Engineering have developed a bandage that emulates some of a slug’s natural advantages. Flexible, biocompatible, and super adhesive, these bandages may be able to assist with human tissue repair both inside and outside the body.
This lamp is powered by electrochemically active bacteria that require regular feeding of acetate and water to survive. Inside a microbial fuel cell, bacteria emit electrical currents and exchange electrons with an electrode. The electrode powers 3 light-emitting diodes that produce a sustained, dim glow. The living lamp and its owner have a symbiotic relationship in which the lamp provides illumination, but only if the bacteria are nurtured.
These concrete panels are designed to encourage the growth of mosses, lichens, and algae—all resilient organisms that conduct photosynthesis and absorb air pollution. The concrete is milled to produce fissures and depressions in geometries that are optimized to be bioreceptive. The panels are then seeded, creating a favorable environment for biocolonization when they are installed as architectural façades.
Rapid urban development in Vietnamese cities has eclipsed urban greenways. Designed to suggest a growing mountain, this university building features staggered floors enclosing a park filled with trees and plants. These green elements extend from the central courtyard to the balconies, terraces, and circulation wells. The trees facilitate shade and cooling, improve air quality, and reduce the need for energy-consuming air conditioning.
RICA will train the next generation of leaders in conservation agriculture to adopt and promote sustainable food independence production in Rwanda. The concept of the campus design was inspired by the One Health approach to interlink ecological, animal, and human health into all aspects of the project. The architectural and landscape plan focuses on nurturing social cohesion, providing spaces for hands-on learning, and restoring biodiversity to the landscape. Facilities are built with locally sourced, low-carbon materials and techniques.
Gene engineering is the modification of an organism’s characteristics by manipulating its DNA. The DIY CRISPR Kit enables users to conduct up to 5 gene engineering experiments aimed at modifying Escherichia coli DNA using the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which is briefly explained in the graphic to the left. CRISPR-Cas9 enables scientists to alter the DNA of almost any organism with incredible precision, potentially ending disease and hunger. The kit is intended as an educational tool to improve DNA literacy, expanding the number of people equipped to conduct personalized experiments. While the therapeutic results of CRISPR-Cas9 are promising, the possibilities for unintended consequences are vast.
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr probe the fetishization of technological approaches to life. BioMess is composed of 2 parts, presented in luxury display cases. The first consists of natural history specimens, illustrating adaptations that evolve in response to the environment and demonstrating that life is context dependent. The second presents a semi-living organism, designed by humans and dependent on technology—the bioreactor—for its survival. As humans engineer living systems, life forms are isolated and reduced to their component parts, in essence privileging information over context. As Catts asserts, “it is DNA chauvinism.”
Sam Van Aken uses centuries-old grafting techniques to combine multiple fruit varietals in a single tree. Grafting is the fusion of plant parts. He puts delicate stone fruits such as cherries and apricots in the center of the tree, surrounded by vigorous fruit such as plums and peaches, which blossom in a gradient of crimson, pink, and white. A hand-drawn sketch maps a tree’s grafts and is color coded to the blossom seasons. The tree in the Cooper Hewitt garden arrived in April, and Van Aken will continue to add five grafts biannually through 2020. Metal tags on the tree branches indicate the varietals, which are each fruits originating or historically grown in New York. Van Aken has a nursery of these trees in upstate New York, preserving heirloom and rare fruit varietals. The project collapses an orchard of fruit trees into a single tree.
Researchers in the Living Materials Silklab are exploring how fibroin (the structural protein found in silkworm cocoons) extracted from silk enables the material to perform in unexpected ways, bridging technological and biological applications. The team has made solid silk screws for use in reconstructive surgeries, biosensors from liquid silk pigments, and optical lenses. More than a material, silk becomes “a collection of functions."
Scientists at the Wyss Institute are developing an origami-based system for engineered organs. The inflatable origami structure is made of membranes filled with hydrogels that contain organ cells. When the membranes’ panels are inflated with gel, the device collapses into a folded structure without damaging the biological material inside. The team is testing this with kidney cells, for use outside the body as a portable dialysis device.
Xu Tiantian’s Bamboo Theater is a living structure in a rural Chinese village. The open-air theatre consists entirely of living bamboo stalks bent and woven into a domed shape. The structure is maintained by the villagers, who remove dead bamboo and weave in young shoots as they grow.
To create the Bleached stool, Erez Nevi Pana crafts a wooden structure, covers it in loofah, and submerges it in the Dead Sea, which cannot support many life forms due to extreme salinity. Salt from the sea crystallizes and solidifies around the structure. The crystalline totem imbues salt—once a revered mineral that now amasses in neglected white mountains in the desert—with ornamental value.
For gt2P’s Santiago-based studio, Chile’s volcanoes provide inspiration. The Remolten series of stools and pots are covered in a glaze made from pulverized volcanic stone that, when kiln-fired and cooled at a range of temperatures, results in various textures and colors. The Less CPP lighting series anchors the delicacy of porcelain with the resilience of dark lava. The materials’ close firing temperatures bond them together.
Amy Congdon applies techniques such as embroidery and crochet to the creation of diminutive but precise physical structures that can be used to help grow living cells. These textile scaffolds facilitate tissue regeneration and have applications from fashion to medicine. Congdon is also developing new tools for use in the laboratory, like those on view here. These tools are intended to suggest alternative ways of making and enable the growth of new biological materials.
Existing seawall barriers tend to be smooth, flat surfaces that do not foster biodiversity. Reef Design Lab’s patterned seawall tiles, made for application onto existing structures, encourage colonization and growth via undulating surface patterns, helping to reestablish species and promote biodiversity. The projection mapping shows species’ colonization of the tiles in three phases: early colonizers (such as barnacles and algae), mid-growth colonizers (such as sea stars and sea anemones), and late colonizers (such as oysters and fish).
Made of bamboo, mesh netting, and rope, the Warka Water Tower collects potable water from dew, fog, and rain. Water accumulates on a hydrophobic mesh textile, is funneled into a holding tank, and is accessed via a tap and hose. A canopy provides shade for community gatherings. The tower is intended for use in remote areas with limited access to potable water.
Natsai Audrey Chieza dyes textiles with pigment-producing microbes, including Streptomyces coelicolor, found in plant roots. These bacteria-dyed silks range in color from red to purple and blue, controlled through variables such as time and acidity. The amount of oxygen impacts color proliferation. Chieza’s continued research looks at increased scalability in the process, offering an alternative to traditional textile dyeing, which is water intensive and highly polluting.
Biocement bricks are made by mixing sand with nutrients and microorganisms. The bricks harden in a few days at room temperature, an ecologically sensitive solution to the intensive firing and carbon emissions released in traditional brick production. The biocement bricks are grown in molds in various shapes, textures, and colors, and perform like traditional bricks. bioMASON developed the process based on research into how seashells and coral grow underwater into hard, durable organisms.