Patterns Inconceivable : the History and Influence of the Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab

The 2017-2018 academic year marks the 80th anniversary of the Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design. During her 50+ year tenure, Edna Lawrence’s collection and her drawing courses introduced students to a way of seeing nature, and its details, as fundamental forms and patterns in art and design. While her shells, insects, plants, animals, bones, textiles, ceramics, wood, and more have catalyzed creativity for students each year, Edna Lawrence’s lifelong endeavor resulted in a significant resource for the RISD community.

Edna Lawrence developed her collection to be more than just a record of nature. She valued object-based learning, close-looking, and interdisciplinary thought. It could be said that she was ahead of her time. Her legacy continues to grow and evolve within the Nature Lab today. Since her retirement, the Lab has built on Lawrence’s ideas, incorporating new technologies, living systems and collections, and biophilic design into its mission and operations.

Combining collections from the Nature Lab with records from RISD’s Archives, the Patterns Inconceivable : the History and Influence of the Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab exhibition traced Lawrence’s development of the Lab, from her idiosyncratic acquisition records to her extensive travels. The exhibition presented the variety of collections that have become part of the Nature Lab over the years, the Edna W. Lawrence Natural History Collection, Micropolis, Tiny Town, and the Arthur Loeb Design Science Teaching Collection, and made connections between Lawrence’s ideas and the Lab’s advancements in recent years.

In 1971, nearing the end of her career at RISD, Edna Lawrence shared a prophetic statement regarding the Nature Lab:

"RISD is the only college I know of that has a large collection of nature material for the students use and inspiration. It could become a very important part of the college and make a tremendous impact."

Curatorial text by Sarah Dylla, Collections Specialist at RISD Library

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