Shell game

No longer considered kitsch, waves of seashells are washing over home decor.



In the annals of design, seashells have a great pedigree.

They inspired ancient architects to add those graceful spiral flourishes to the tops of their Grecian columns. The nautilus shell influenced Leonardo da Vinci's invention of the spiral staircase. And in the 18th century, the rococo style of art and architecture got its name from a French word used to describe shell grottoes -- then wildly popular among the wealthy.

So it should be no surprise that shells are emerging once again as a high-style design element. No longer banished to beach houses or seen as strictly kitsch, shells are all over the pages of shelter magazines and catalogs lately, showing up in textile designs and pillows, displayed as eye-catching home accents.

In a revival of an 18th-century fashion, they are even being applied by the thousand to chests, mirrors and lighting fixtures to create shell-encrusted home furnishings.

"Shells are a fabulous way of bringing Mother Nature into your home," said Christopher Gow, whose New York shop Ruzzetti & Gow ( sells silver-coated shells, as well as custom-made shell furniture and mirrors. He got the idea for the furniture after he bought a cache of 1930s and '40s shell-covered pieces in France.

"People laughed when I consigned them to Sotheby's in 1996," Gow said. "They said, 'That's what Sotheby's has been reduced to, selling shell-encrusted furniture.' But the prices went through the roof. A chest I thought would sell for $10,000 went for $36,000."

Christa Wilm, a West Palm Beach, Fla., antiques-store owner, started creating shell-bedecked furniture six years ago.

"I made myself a mirror for my powder room, and people just loved it," she said. "Then I did a pair of round mirrors and put them in my shop, and a couple of designers from New York bought them right up."

Now Wilm's company, Christa's South Seashells (, offers everything from shell-covered consoles and coffee tables to chandeliers, which start at $4,000.

Many observers credit the 2002 book Shell Chic: The Ultimate Guide to Decorating Your Home With Shells (Storey Publishing, $35) with helping to bring shells back into design consciousness. Author Marlene Hurley Marshall offers shell decor history, shell craft projects, and a glimpse of contemporary homes that use shells.

Among them: the New York apartment of former Elle Decor and House Beautiful editor Marian McEvoy, who glue-gunned fantastic shell patterns to walls, fireplace mantels, even ceilings. (For details, see McEvoy's own book, Glue Gun Decor, Stewart Tabori & Chang, $19.95)

Shell Chic also devoted a chapter to sailors' valentines. The Victorian-era mementos, sold by tourist shops in Barbados, have become valuable collector's items, and contemporary versions have been fetching high prices as well.

Though the originals typically featured mottos such as "Think of Me" and shells arranged into hearts and flowers, newer versions often drop the motto and feature more abstract, geometric patterns.

Eils Lotozo writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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