Living by the sea is a dream for many people—and a few are
lucky enough to have a first or second home near a beachfront. Many
others relish the thought of spending a leisurely vacation at a
resort near the water, then taking home memories that invariably
include the aura of interiors with thematic decorating. Interior
design with a coastal theme is one of the most delightful imaginable
because there is both romance and adventure inherent in any by-the-sea
interior. And for the professional, it’s a theme that is fun
to immerse oneself in (pun intended).
Beginning this kind of project, either for a home or a vacation interior, must start with a clear idea of which coast inspires the design. A few major themes that we will explore here include:
• The New England Coast
• The Mid- to South-Atlantic Seaboard Coast
• The Caribbean Coasts
• The Southern California Coast
• The Northern California and Northwest Region Coast
• The Islands of the Pacific Ocean
• Far, Far Away Coasts
THE NEW ENGLAND COAST
The coasts of New England are historically based. They have a heritage of lighthouses and fishing boats, of life near and on an often-tempestuous sea. There is a rugged yet charming atmosphere along the New England coast—sometimes gentle and entrancing, other times threatening and dangerous. Wind-swept and occupied with sandpiper birds and lobster traps and lined with picket fences, these elements provide artistic license to the interior designer.
Rocky coastal vistas interspersed with coved beaches, blue-and-white striped or New England check curtains fluttering in the crisp salty air and whitewashed, sometimes weather-worn but wistfully charming fences and floorboards. Use fishing nets, glass floats, buoys and indigenous seashells to enhance this look. White blinds or shutters, cottage curtains (tabbed, shirred or inverted pleats for example) as top treatments or long flowing informal curtains are traditional window treatments.
These interiors often feel as though they have evolved over a few hundred years so that antique furniture and accessory items found at second-hand stores and garage sales bring a sense of connection to the past. Rag rugs on the floor, lantern-like lighting fixtures and an honesty in design, simple and unassuming, is descriptive of the New England Coastal design.
New England colors are earthy. With plenty of neutral backgrounds from tan to gray to whitewashed antique, the colors for interiors are mainly seen in fabrics and accessory items such as pottery and rugs. These include madder and cranberry reds, goldenrod yellow, Colonial green (grayed) and a host of blues from indigo (rich navy) to a variety of Colonial and Federal blues (grayed to light and clear). Contemporary schemes are often taken from a focal point fabric, artwork or the surrounding landscape.
THE MID- TO SOUTH ATLANTIC SEABOARD COAST
Here, wealth has long been a determining factor in who can live by or vacation by the sea in style. Hence, these interiors often (though not exclusively) feel more upscale and indulgent.
Fine furnishings may be upholstered with fabrics sporting oceanic or beach-like motifs or a manicured golf course theme. Tile floors and custom-designed, high-quality carpeting are both cool underfoot and comforting. Lighting fixtures often sparkle amidst the mellow quality of the historic Mid-Atlantic and revered Old South. Polished wood furniture and flooring may coexist with more casual or masculine textured elements including antique accessories or collections of seashells and stone used as walls or flooring. Art prints of botanical design or seascape art are also an elegant approach to beautiful interiors.
These interiors may also have more refinement, hence at the window we may select durable and water-resistant versions of wood-like blinds and shutters and perhaps no fabric treatment, except in more indulging interiors where fabric’s role is to provide quietude and the elegance inherent in upscale retreat interiors. In these cases, valances and lined draperies may be seen over the wood-toned or white undertreatments, which may also include fused polyester shadings and custom Roman shades, for example.
Interior colors may also reflect richness and elegance. Darker colors such as blackened accents with rich coral and sage green, or gold and red families as fabrics, area rugs and accents, may give depth to the otherwise neutral schemes normally associated with coastal interiors.
THE CARIBBEAN COASTS
A favored vacation destination from the Florida Keys to the Cayman Islands to the coast of Mexico, these interiors are truly more island décor.
The fishing boat motifs vary from tiny hand-made crafts to luxury cruise ships carrying hundreds of pleasure-seeking tourists who want to carry home a taste of the Caribbean in fine food, spirits, T-shirts, sunglasses and trinkets. They want to remember the fish and seafood—live, painted or succulent—the music of steel drums or the let-loose local music. Hence, the interior theme may be far more colorful. The intensity of jungle colors, including green, red and yellow, blue and turquoise, are used in smaller, splashy placement such as on rattan furniture or as artwork, or possibly a window valance. Invariable damage from salt air and occasional hurricanes make a lot of fabric impractical, so the idea of smaller applications in brighter colors also makes sense.
Another approach to color is truly neutral, such as described under the Southern California Coast to follow. Flooring is hard—generally tile—that will hold up well to the tracking in of sand. Furniture is quaint, but natural. The influence of British occupation, which still continues to charm and endear tourists, gives the impression of a well-to-do plantation house with its luxuries amidst the intense sun and poverty of harsh indigenous island existence. Hence, interiors may sport an upscale luxury based on fine furnishings and durable quality.
Colors are generally lighter than described in the Old South coastal design above—which, conversely, may also impact that interior. Light colors are appropriate in any coastal décor because they are resistant to fading.
THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COAST
This look came into its own in the 1970s when it received much attention as a trendsetter of a new style. Southern California is still associated with expansive beaches and a casual, earth-connected lifestyle, combined with a light to heavy influence from Spanish Colonial interiors seen as tile floors and stucco walls with some dark accents in wood. The result is a look that has neither pretense nor historic significance (aside from Hollywood or Beaux Arts era architecture).
The colors are neutral-based and clean. Indeed, little in the contemporary Southern California look moves the viewer to emotion. Rather, it calms and cleanses the soul as it respects the ocean and embraces its form—horizontal and natural.
Modern furnishings and cleanly inspired décors are in keeping with expansive windows treated, if at all, with window film, solar, woven wood, polyester-fused shades or blinds, either horizontal or vertical. Smaller windows may be shuttered or covered with blinds.
The use of smooth and rough stones and stucco combine to give emphasis to materials rather than to decorative décor. The building materials sometimes become the furnishing elements and are often based on a uniquely modern interpretation of nature. This means architecture that may be free flowing and innovative, impacting interior design through its drama and sweeping design.
THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA AND NORTHWEST REGION COAST
Wood is the byword of Northern California and the Northwest Region coastlines. Rocky coasts and forests often meet near the sea, and the result is an interior style that is based on elements from nature in a more natural setting. Although any coastal design may be seen here, the indigenous look is based on natural materials and may incorporate a rugged quality from raging sea and rivers to secluded rocky islands and even pine trees.
Here the influence of Japan is unmistakable as seen in carefully joined wooden ceiling beams, paneled walls, wood flooring, finely worked stone elements such as floors, countertops and generally smaller windows. Privacy, where possible, is preferred and views of natural landscape bring nature indoors.
As the sun is not a given element, lighting is critical to the Northwest interior, making up for the lack of sun in the many rainy and overcast days. The result is an interior that has a richness of high quality plus a cozy warmth and, at the same time, a cleanliness in the emphasis of native and natural materials.
THE ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN
Kontiki huts may come to mind here if the image conjures up the South Pacific, with its woven grass walls and sand floors, tapa cloth on the walls and sea breezes flowing cleanly through the interior. Ceremonial masks and Polynesian totem poles or houses built on stilts may also come to mind. These are native elements that are often used as décor elements today.
However, the look that may also come to mind is that of Hawaii with its hibiscus flowers and lush vegetation, the Polynesian Culture Center and the pineapple plantations, or the white beaches and loads of seashells. A mixture of cultures gives the viewer a rich heritage of the Pacific that can be used as interior furnishing influences. Likewise, surfing, sailing, snorkeling and diving among the coral and tropical fish are appealing elements.
Others visit the islands to golf and stroll the beaches and enjoy the succulent and indulging atmosphere of a luau. Grass skirts, bronze skin and beautiful people bedecked with leis and shell necklaces intrigue and fill the landlubber with a healthy dose of envy. Paradise, with tile floors, lanai openings, rattan or other weather-resistant and classy furniture, beautiful fabrics and ceiling fans above the beach and seashells is the perfect retreat.
FAR, FAR AWAY COASTS
Coastal décor is not limited to these decisive looks. From Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean and Africa, from India to Australia, coastlines are filled with natural and man-made elements that bespeak the culture of those who have made each area their home for generations. Sometimes this influence will be very primitive and at other times very modern.
Learning about cultures, customs and beliefs is often the basis for great interior design. The elements in common are sun, sky and coastline, seashells and sand or rocks plus the need to be sheltered from these elements. Let it be your inspiration!
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including Win- dow Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.