Pattern from the Past
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William De Morgan’s ceramic decoration was often inspired by the medieval world, similar to the practice of his dear friends William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. De Morgan’s vases and tiles were frequently adorned with fantastical animals, beasts, and grotesques. On this vase, two stylized fish recall the designs found in illuminated manuscripts. Their bodies gently follow the curve of the vase—an inverted pear shape with two looped handles—a shape that the designer often used. This vase shows De Morgan’s keen sensitivity towards the visual power in a strong relationship between shape and painted decoration.

De Morgan’s highly stylized floral and foliate patterns were influenced by the ornate and colorful designs of 16th and 17th century Iznik pottery. The term “Iznik” refers to ancient Nicaea in western Anatolia (now Turkey), which was once a large center for tin-glazed earthenware. The decoration of Iznik pottery was originally inspired by the blue and white designs found on Chinese porcelain from the Ming dynasty. By the middle of the 16th century however, a more colorful palette was beginning to be used, which included various shades of blue and green. De Morgan adopted a similar color palette and his colors have been described as “Persian,” like the blues and greens seen on this vase.

The fishes’ scales elegantly mimic this vase’s floral background. Stylistically, this patterning recalls the flat floral designs of Hispano-Moresque ware, the name for tin-glazed earthenware made in Spain. The best examples of this type were made in Spain during the Moorish occupation, beginning in the 8th century and ending in the 15th century. Additionally, Hispano-Moresque ware inspired the popular tin-glazed earthenware of Renaissance Europe, from maiolica in Italy to faience in France to delftware in the Netherlands.

Incorporating all of these cross-cultural influences, De Morgan’s decoration was highly expressive. Browsing through the V&A’s extensive collection of design drawings by De Morgan one can observe how the designer created his own contemporary style that draws from the past for its inspiration.

Catherine Acosta is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a Fellow in the museum’s Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

This looks like a stack of books, but it’s really for holding cookies. Sneaky. 

This 1906 British biscuit (aka cookie) tin protected treats for travelers on bumpy roads, but also proved to be a valuable marketing tool for the company.

This one tin speaks volumes about turn-of-the-century manufacturing, packaging design, rail and steamship travel, and the British Empire. And now it’s in our design museum, @cooperhewitt​.


In celebration of David Bowie’s birthday, we share this poster from cooperhewitt. Design duo Non-Format were inspired by legendary producer (and Bowie collaborator) Brian Eno’s idea of “axis thinking,” a concept that all things lie on a continuum between extremes. They created this visual by categorizing Bowie albums against a pair of extremes.

More on their blog


Patent models for a clothespin, 1864-1873.

The earliest American patent was granted in 1832, though designs for hanging one’s laundry were likely known in England before then. In 1853, Vermont inventor David M. Smith patented a groundbreaking version of the device that employed two hinged arms, a design that more closely resembles today’s clothespin. These models represent some of the 146 patents between 1852 and 1887.

From the Cooper Hewitt exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach, until May 25, 2015


Les faïences anciennes & modernes by Auguste Alexandre Mareschal (1874) is one of many books donated by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt to form the library in the newly created Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, which is now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Faience is a type of ceramics that include majolica and Delftware.

Want to know more about the Hewitt sisters? There’s a two part series on the history of the sisters who founded the first museum dedicated to decorative arts in the United States.

This book is part of a collection of public domain works in our digital library dedicated to hallmarks, factory marks, and other production marks on pottery, silverware, and porcelain.

How does your garden grow? 

Not very tall, if it’s full of dachshunds.

This peculiar illustration comes from the guest book of the Hewitt family, the founders of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The book spanned more than 50 years and included signatures and more involved artwork and poems.

Lacking context or explanation, “Dachshund Nursery” was probably done by Caroline King Duer, a frequent visitor to the Hewitt’s Ringwood Manor, in 1896. Learn more from cooperhewitt‘s blog.

This wallpaper’s like polka dots. With six legs. 

This design from our @cooperhewitt features a rose chafer beetle, magnified and multiplied for your viewing pleasure. These insects can be toxic to birds and your garden, but Don Flood’s 2016 paper gives them an artistic treatment with Mylar, a mirror-like substance that mimics their naturally iridescent bodies.

While the background is an opaque white, the beetles are printed in translucent color that gives the viewer a hint of the shiny Mylar beneath.


Connecting Collections: Cooper Hewitt

Through March 8th, we will be featuring items from the Vignelli papers that are also in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum. We are very excited to have the museum director, Caroline Baumann, as our next Design Conversations speaker and wanted to highlight the Vignelli collections connections.

This Knoll Poster designed by Massimo Vignelli has been collected by museums all over the world, including the Vignelli Center for Design Studies and the Cooper-Hewitt. 

See this on the Cooper-Hewitt website:

Because we are home to the Vignellis’ entire professional archives, we have many unique items such as hand drawn sketches, as well as the final pieces. Researchers often come to our archives if they want to learn the story and process behind the designs. Unfortunately we haven’t found any process sketches related to the creation of this poster, but here you can see a sketch of the poster for the book layout for design: Vignelli

Details about Caroline Baumann’s Design Conversations lecture on our website:

Note: This poster is also on view in our galleries!

Knoll International poster
47 1/2” x 32”
FF K, Massimo and Lella Vignelli Papers
Vignelli Center for Design Studies
Rochester, New York

Sketches for design: Vignelli book (circa 1981)
pencil and crayon on paper
14” x 17”
Box 454, Massimo and Lella Vignelli Papers
Vignelli Center for Design Studies
Rochester, New York