This exhibition was on display from June 08, 2019 to January 02, 2022.

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Nature By Design: Plastics

From molded tortoiseshell and vulcanized rubber to bioplastic pellets and semi-synthetic yarn, the beauty of natural plastics and the creativity achieved with these pliable materials are explored in this surprising range of objects from Cooper Hewitts collection. The animal and plant kingdoms were the original sources for materials with a quality known as plasticitythe ability to be bent or molded into virtually any form. Natural thermoplastics like tortoiseshell and horn can be split into thin, translucent sheets that become malleable with heat. Rubber and leather can also be molded with heat, but harden irreversibly to become strong thermoset materials. Semi-synthetics, such as rayon or celluloid, are made from plant materials processed, purified, and reconfigured to change their properties.


Enthusiasm for natural plastics led to the overharvesting of raw materials; some animal species became endangered. To keep pace with consumer and industrial demand, scientists developed synthetic substitutes starting in the late 19th century, going on to create a flood of inexpensive petrochemical plastics in the 20th century. Produced and discarded in vast quantities, these petroleum-based plastics now present a global environmental crisis. In light of their harmful impact, we have come full circle. Designers, manufacturers, and consumers today are exploring traditional and non-traditional natural materials, investigating novel approaches to their use and processing, and creating renewable and biodegradable bioplastics as sustainable solutions for everything from packaging to home goods.

  • Case (Italy)
  • boiled, molded and wax-impregnated leather (cuir bouilli).
  • Gift of Samuel P. Avery.
  • 1898-6-4
  • Box
  • shaped tortoiseshell with silver inlay.
  • Gift of Sarah Cooper Hewitt.
  • 1899-12-1
  • Folding Spoon (Germany)
  • carved, heated and shaped horn, silver (hinge); leather, paper (case).
  • Gift of Samuel P. Avery.
  • 1903-1-39-a/c
  • Brisé Fan (China)
  • carved tortoiseshell sticks, silk ribbon (probably replacement),....
  • Gift of Clarence Hoblitzelle.
  • 1912-10-7
  • This object is part of the Textiles collection.
  • There are 2 images of this object.
  • Birdcage (China)
  • bent buffalo horn (vertical bars), lacquered bamboo (horizontal hoops bracing....
  • Gift of Mrs. Herman Frasch.
  • 1916-12-1-a/f
  • Card Case With Pencil
  • shaped tortoiseshell, ivory, metal; wood and graphite (pencil).
  • Gift of Georgina and Louisa L. Schuyler.
  • 1916-29-56
  • Comb
  • shaped, carved and pierced tortoiseshell.
  • Gift of Georgina and Louisa L. Schuyler.
  • 1916-29-66
  • Locket, ca. 1880
  • formed and carved tortoiseshell, metal (hinge), steel, glass.
  • Gift of Mrs. John Innes Kane.
  • 1920-19-130
  • Writing Kit
  • cut and shaped tortoiseshell on wood core, silver, glass (bottles), textile....
  • Gift of Anonymous Donor.
  • 1926-1-33-a/h
  • Box
  • shaped tortoiseshell.
  • Gift of Anonymous Donor.
  • 1926-1-34-a,b
  • Comb
  • shaped, carved and pierced tortoiseshell.
  • Bequest of Mrs. John Innes Kane.
  • 1926-22-545
  • Box, late 19th century
  • heated, sawn, and flattened horn with inlaid gold, silver.
  • Bequest of Mrs. John Innes Kane.
  • 1926-37-11
  • Buttons (USA)
  • cut and drilled horn.
  • Gift of Norvin Hewitt Green.
  • 1938-58-1293-a,b
  • Parasol Handle
  • shaped and carved tortoiseshell.
  • Gift of Anonymous Donor.
  • 1940-78-2
  • Pair Of Bracelets, ca. 1870
  • shaped tortoiseshell with carved applied tortoiseshell monograms.
  • Gift of the estate and in memory of Robert B. Noyes.
  • 1946-50-75-a,b
  • Casket (Italy)
  • tooled leather over wood, metal, silk (interior).
  • Gift of Mrs. Max Farrand.
  • 1947-16-4-a
  • Brooch, mid 19th century
  • tortoiseshell inlaid with gold and silver.
  • From the collection of Mrs. Lathrop C. Harper.
  • 1957-172-5
  • Box
  • shaped tortoiseshell, ivory, wood, silk (cord) silk velvet (interior).
  • Gift of Estelle S. Frankfurter.
  • 1959-164-1
  • Box
  • molded and carved tortoiseshell inlaid with silver and mother of pearl.
  • Gift of the Estate of Harry G. Friedman.
  • 1966-2-11
  • Clock
  • silver-gilt, shaped tortoiseshell, cut diamonds and rubies, lapis (base);....
  • Gift of George Seligman.
  • 1969-151-2-a,b
  • Matchsafe
  • shaped tortoiseshell, bone, gold, metal.
  • Gift of Stephen W. Brener and Carol B. Brener.
  • 1978-146-304
  • Matchsafe
  • molded rubber or gutta percha.
  • Gift of Stephen W. Brener and Carol B. Brener.
  • 1980-14-530
  • Spoon
  • shaped horn with applied engraved sheet silver.
  • Bequest of Ruth Vollmer.
  • 1982-26-2