Cellulose-based materials have been and continue to be exceptionally important for humankind. Considering the bioavailability and societal relevance of cellulose, turning this renewable resource into an active material is a vital step towards sustainability. Herein we report a new form of cellulose-derived material that combines tunable photonic properties with a unique mesoporous structure resulting from a new supramolecular cotemplating method. A composite of cellulose nanocrystals and a urea–formaldehyde resin organizes into a chiral nematic assembly, which yields a chiral nematic mesoporous continuum of desulfated cellulose nanocrystals after alkaline treatment. The mesoporous photonic cellulose (MPC) films undergo rapid and reversible changes in color upon swelling, and can be used for pressure sensing. These new active mesoporous cellulosic materials have potential applications in biosensing, optics, functional membranes, chiral separation, and tissue engineering.