Nature by Design: Cochineal

Publication Date


Document Type


Exhibition/Performance Dates

November 16, 2019 - January 2, 2022

Publication Title

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Conference Location

New York, NY


American cochineal [Dactylopius coccus], a small parasitic insect that feeds on the prickly pear cactus, was for centuries the source of the most coveted red pigment in the world. Imbued with profound artistic, cultural, and economic significance for indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Andean highlands of South America, cochineal was transformed into a widely traded global commodity upon European contact in the 16th century. For more than 300 years it was used around the world to impart color onto a variety of goods, most commonly textiles, until the advent of synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century caused its usage and value to decline. While historically it was favored for its ability to produce a highly desirable crimson red, here, contemporary designers consider the ways in which the insect's red carminic acid can yield shades ranging from soft pink to deep purple. Continuing to inspire innovation and creativity among today's makers, cochineal remains an inimitable material for the 21st-century designer.


Pieces included in exhibition: Candied Apple, Crimson Clay, Brick Amaranth and Carmine Damask.