Natalie Shook A'06

Natalie Shook, bookshelf

The Cooper Union—specifically the Foundation Building’s round elevator—played an early role in Natalie Shook’s evolution as a furniture designer. When he designed the building, Peter Cooper included a round-shaped shaft for what he assumed would be an inevitable invention for a growing vertical city—the elevator.  And when his prediction came to pass, an elevator —albeit round—was installed in the school’s central building. As she told Surface Magazine in May 2023, Peter Cooper’s elevator taught her that commitment to an idea—even an unpopular or never-before imagined one—is essential to making successful work.

Shook and her design collective, Piscina, was awarded Best New Designer at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in 2022 and the firm’s work was named Best in Show. She exhibited ceramic-and-wood end tables, cast iron candle holders, and a knife block, but the most dramatic piece is a shelving unit she created with her husband and fellow Cooper graduate, the architect Wes Rozen, inspired by columns designed by the 18th-century architect Claude Nicholas LeDoux. In Shook’s iteration, the column acts as a spine to a tall bookcase (height is variable based on orders) with organically shaped shelves that can be fitted into the grooves of the column. It is, to say the least, far more than a bookshelf—more like a life-sized sculpture that happens to double as a functional piece of furniture.

Shook came to Cooper as a painter—she’d committed herself to painting daily since she was 14—but found that she was equally excited by carpentry. “Moving from painting into the applied arts was a big shift,” Shook said in the Surface Magazine interview. “I needed to build a space where I could explore new media. To have the collection percolating and seeing it so well-received was so affirming.”

After graduating from Cooper, Shook started a makerspace in Williamsburg as part of a creative community that shared space and equipment. Then looking to expand, she and her sister Cal, a writer, moved their practice to a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Red Hook, the setting for the launch of Piscina, the Spanish word for “pool.” Shook, who is Cuban-American, sees the collective of artists and designers as a place for artists to pool their work, support each other, and trigger new ideas.

She reflected on her achievements at ICFF. “Moving from painting into the applied arts was a big shift. I needed to build a space where I could explore new media. To have the collection percolating and seeing it so well-received was so affirming.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.