PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAUREY W. GLENN; STYLING BY KENDRA SURFACE Dawn Nakamura Interiors’ millwork bookcase
Coastal living is just a dream for some, but coastal decor is for everybody. A conch here and a whelk there can add subtle style to any home, no matter the location. From the shores of the Atlantic to the South’s landlocked states, using seashells as home furnishings is a trend riding the high wave that we can get behind.
“I don’t think it needs to be just for coastal homes. Nature is always a good choice to have for decor,” says interior designer Dawn Nakamura on the trend. “I love bringing nature into the home so that you have the outside connected to the inside. Shells and corals are different from what you’d use for your other accessories like pillows. It’s not as knick-knack-ish. It’s more elegant. “
Not only is living by the beach a non-requisite for seashell decor, but neither is a traditionally nautical home style. “Every piece is different and there’s such a wide variety of colors in nature, so bringing them into the home works with a lot of different interiors. It adds warmth and grounds the area where you’re using them,” says Nakamura. “The nautical [style] is what’s expected to have shells in but I think that anybody can bring in shells. It just brings the outside in, like a sanctuary. It makes that space alive.”
How To Get On Board
Just as she did when incorporating shells into our 2022 Idea House, Nakamura recommends beginning your maritime decor journey by focusing on color palettes. Take stock of the colors already in your room and choose shells that suit what you already have. Because shells come in so many different colors, from oranges to pinks, blues, and even darker tones.
For an urban home, Nakamura recommends adding a mix of natural elements—her favorite is butterfly wings—to amp up the intrigue of natural decor without stepping into a fixed coastal theme. Another way to shift the attitude of a shell-infused home is to use darker colored seashells for a moodier, but still au-naturale, motif.
Once you’ve set your sights on the color or theme of shells that would best fit your home, one way to begin your seashell decor journey is by adding in individual pieces. “I would start with accessories first,” says Nakamura, “Placing them on bookcases is a good place to start and inside cabinets.” Other places to lay down your shelly framework include bedside tables, shelves, and even showers.
From there, “the possibilities are endless,” says Nakamura. “Mirrors are always a good choice.” So are fireplace mantels, bar surround, plant stands, wall panels, headboard or bookcase perimeters, and glass hurricanes which she says are beautiful when filled with shells and an elegant candle.
This is certainly a trend with a treasure trove of DIY potential. Shells for your home can be curated in a multitude of ways including ones picked up on a trip to the beach. “People fill bags full of cockle shells because they love to put them in their garden as decorative borders,” says Captain Darryl Marsh who hosts shelling adventures around Swansboro and Emerald Isle, North Carolina, including to Bear Island. Along the way, he’s picked up an impressive collection of shells to decorate his home, including a decorative jar full of lettered olive shells and a wooden bowl full of sand dollars that acts as his dining room table centerpiece. In addition to shells, Marsh reports the popularity of assimilating other beach finds into home decor—particularly driftwood, which Marsh sees mainly used as garden accents, but he is experimenting with it as a foundation for wall art.
By decorating your home with souvenirs from the beach, you’re also integrating memories into your decor. After a family foray to the shore, Nakamura says that her kids give her shells which she proudly displays as both a trendy decorative feature and a sentimental memento. “I put them in my bathroom so I see them every day or on the bedside table,” she says. “It just reminds me of them which I think is a sweet token.”
Seashells for the home can also be sourced from antique purveyors who can offer shells much grander than what you’ll likely find on a casual walk along the coast, as well as being more accessible in-land. Based in McKinney, Texas, but sourced from Key West, Florida, East End Salvage is offering a collection of large queen conch shells steeped in character. They’re a century old, charmingly weathered and with rustic barnacles and fossils to prove it. Owner and curator Kaci Lyford displays them in curiosity cabinets, on shelves, in bookshelves as bookends, placed on top of stacked coffee table books, and on metal stands. “It makes the shell feel like a work of art,” says Lyford. “Each one is unique and there’s never two alike.”
Likewise, artisans like Christa’s South Seashells in West Palm Beach, Florida, offer unique seashell decor and furnishings for those who love the shell look but don’t want to take the DIY route and want a larger-scale effect rather than decorating with individual pieces. “It’s such a powerful means of decoration whether you do it all beige with a very subtle background or whether you do a really neat 25-foot shell fireplace in every color,” says shell enthusiast and designer Christa Wilm. “It can go so many different directions—that’s one of the reasons I love it.” Her seashell-centric designs, like mirrors, wall panels, fireplace mantels, and chandeliers, have made their way into many home improvement projects as well as stylish hotels including the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach, and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
Shells can also be added to the home for festive, seasonal flare—not just for summer either. “A lady here, local in Swansboro, painted Grinch faces on sand dollars for Christmas ornaments and it was the greatest thing,” says Marsh. From elegant home accessories, to busy furnishings, and creative DIYs, this shell trend is smooth sailing.
Courtesy Darryl Marsh Sand dollar Grinch ornaments made by Joan Gerdsen.
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