Perhaps it's the mystery of the sea that captures the imagination. And how can we not be drawn in by the beauty of the color alone, starting with the glorious blues, from inky indigo to aquamarine? Whether it's the Caribbean or the Aegean, the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, Lake Michigan or Lake Como, the water -- and the life within -- most definitely informs the interiors of the homes near them.
But you don't have to live on the water to reap the benefits of the design. Especially this year.
Coastal decor, like Southwest and other region-specific styles, always has an audience. But page through summer catalogs and you can't help but notice enchanting images of sea critters on pillows, plates, napkins, fabrics and even wallcovering that may be equally tempting to the landlocked.
Even before we saw the glorious under-the-sea themed fabrics in Paris showrooms in January, we knew this was more than a passing fancy when we spotted a particular shop window in the Place du Faubourg Saint Honore. It was filled with an entire tableau of sea creatures: fish, anemones, coral -- all crafted from passementerie and elegant upholstery and drapery trims.
"We all are drawn to the sea," says Chris Sotz, a home decor buyer at Anthropologie. "The ocean provides inherent muses and models. The fantasy about the sea translates to painting, watercolors."
Italian designer Paola Navone says that her Fish collection of tableware for Crate and Barrel was "happily inspired by the Mediterranean sea ... the fish and all their beauty, curious shapes and personalities."
For the Anthropologie team, it was a concept trip to Sardinia that generated a sea of ideas. Sardines and octopi especially struck a chord because artists had fun graphically laying them up end to end or superimposing images on disparate prints such as florals.
Decorative artists long have been fascinated with aquatic life. Captivating naturalist vintage hand-colored lithographs from the 18th and 19th centuries depicting fish, coral, anemones, urchins and nautilus are popular collectibles, beautifully displayed in traditional or modern decor. So are typical Japanese woodblock prints of carp.
The freshest images today also transition well even as they shine in coastal style, which has been morphing to less cluttered, more streamlined looks that are more sophisticated than kitschy, and quite evocative graphically. This is where under-the-sea themes are particularly sparkling, with amazing graphics, digital technology paving the way after the initial artwork is executed. If you've never imagined an octopus as a focal point (other than on a plate doused with lemon and olive oil on a beach in Santorini), there are plenty of them on pillows and dinnerware this year -- and some are so stylized that you get lost in the shapes.
Playful, fanciful images are like screen grabs from "The Little Mermaid" -- except that the colors, while vivid, are dialed down a bit to blend. And not all of the sea motifs are in Technicolor, either. Shades of gray or sand on white as in a series of pillows at West Elm grab attention in a stunning modern setting with a blue-painted barn-planking background and modern gray sectional. One other interesting note: the pillows are screenprinted on raw silk and adorned with beads and sequins, a wonderful study in contrasts that lends edginess.
So what elements can be woven into sea themes?
Sea creatures, of course. Coral has become iconic, the equivalent of the nautical anchor emblem. We love the patterning of its intricate branching and variety in type (wrinkled brains, cabbages, antlers and polyps), as well as color (not just red, but brilliant blues, lavender, yellow and black). There are lacey as well as very bold interpretations.
Natural materials, such as shells, mother of pearl and woven sea grass, are organic elements that bridge coastal and other styles of decor.
Shapes also play a role. For example, naturally curvy sea horses can be a prime design element. A simple metal tub on stand from Frontgate is distinguished by sea horses that form its handles; it's constructed of powder-coated aluminum with a painted, antiqued white finish. It's the kind of versatile piece that can be filled with ice for beverages on the deck or with greenery or ornaments for a holiday centerpiece. Another curvy sea horse with scrolled tail is flattened out, with hooks added for use as a caddy for beach towels or as a drying rack for swimsuits.
All shades of blue also are essential ingredients, which is one reason for the appeal of sea or beach glass as an accessory. The smooth, weathered shards in shades of blue and green are especially beautiful in a clear vessel. (One source: Bed, Bath & Beyond, where a 3-pound bag sells for $8.99; www.bedbathandbeyond.com)
Appliques, embroidery or beading in pillows or table runners introduce texture, which can be smooth as well, with mother of pearl or other shell motifs used on placemats or trims or as inlays in furniture. Rougher surfaces are suggested by synthetic corals, as in a column lamp from The Natural Light, with its intriguing arrangement of stacked barnacles.
For summer entertaining outdoors, the aquatic designs seem to work especially well. But they can be effortlessly integrated into existing decor:
-- Pillows are an easy way to introduce sea critters, which can be front and center on neutral ground or part of an overall pattern. Pillows on a sofa designed by Barclay Butera for Highland House, for example, feature a fish reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints in a blue-on-white pattern that doesn't jump out. Even subtler is a print made up of sea anemones that you really can't make out unless you look closely.
-- Neutral additions can be furnishings such as tables made out of driftwood, whose natural shapes are incorporated into the design. Or go bold with a single chair that looks like it's made out of real coral. The design by Marjorie Skouras for Currey & Co. is crafted from powder-coated aluminum and can be used indoors or out on the deck.
-- A piece of art can create a dramatic focal point. A supersized framed print of blue coral from Williams-Sonoma Home grounds a living space and echoes a blue and white palette punched up with coral accents. The modern water color-y feel lends modernity as well as softness. Smaller prints of coral can be grouped together. And you might consider a feature wall with wallcovering in a sea theme: fish or coral. Anthropologie and Sanderson are among possible sources.
-- Look to lighting as a possible option. At Currey & Co., there are chandeliers with real shells. A lovely, white lamp with white shade at Pottery Barn has a columnar base that is studded with flowers crafted from shells.
-- Dinnerware and serveware are rich in marine themes, and you'll find the designs on ceramic, metal and melamine. -- Coral reefs and sea life are popular themes on bedding. Choose from duvet covers and shams with solid sheets or simply accent with pillows, which can be quite dramatic with red coral branches on all white.
-- Coral branching lends itself well to tree-like designs that can be utilitarian, say for jewelry, such as one white enamel-coated metal model on a marble stand at West Elm.
-- Faux white shells decoratively placed on a grapevine wreath with a burlap ribbon from Pottery Barn (or do it yourself with real souvenir shells) create a handsome decorative accent, which can be used year-round, adding a bit of coastal cheer during the holidays. Besides, a little year-round beachy style is relaxed, feel-good decor.
"Think about the ease with being at the beach and the calm when you're near water," says Sotz. "Many of us have memories of being by the sea as a child. This is a nice way to bring that feeling home."
-- Anthropologie, 800-309-2500, www.anthropologie.com
-- CB2, 800-606-6252, www.cb2.com
-- Crate and Barrel, 800-967-6696, www.crateandbarrel.com
-- Frontgate, 888-263-9850, www.frontgate.com
-- Garnet Hill, 800-870-3513, www.garnethill.com
-- Highland House, 336-889-5600, www.highlandhousefurniture.com
-- Pottery Barn, 888-779-5176, www.potterybarn.com
-- West Elm, 888-922-4119, www.westelm.com
-- Williams-Sonoma Home, 877-812-6235, www.williams-sonoma.com
SEA LIFE AT THE TABLE
From playful to elegant, under-the-sea themes are riding a wave of popularity indoors and out. From fun and beautifully evocative images on plates -- such as sardines swimming alone or in schools, a striking vertical banding, or octopi showing off their tentacles and stretching their bodies over platters or the sides of bowls -- the selection may have you humming the contagious, island-y tune.
A WATER LIFESTYLE
Accessories can introduce a bit of seaside flavor to every room of the house. From patterned pillows and throws to lamps and planters, the selection of aquatic life is as engaging, colorful and whimsical as you like. There are so many options you can easily jump in -- even if you don't live near the water.
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