Home & Garden

Bringing the sea inside: Undersea decor moves front and center

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 enchanting images of sea critters on pillows, plates, napkins, fabrics and even wallcovering may be equally tempting to the landlocked.

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. Then we saw the glorious under-the-sea themed fabrics in Paris showrooms.

“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 shine in coastal style, which has been morphing to less cluttered looks that are more sophisticated than kitschy, and quite evocative graphically. This is where under-the-sea themes are particularly sparkling, with amazing graphics aided by digital technology.

If you’ve never imagined an octopus as a focal point, 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, with colors 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 as well as color. 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 (a 3-pound bag sells for $8.99 at 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:


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