I Love Decorating with (Legal) Seashells Even If It’s Controversial, and Here’s Why

published Apr 5, 2021
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I have mixed opinions when it comes to celebrating my Florida upbringing. While I was certainly spoiled with warm weather, beaches, flora, fauna, and everything that makes it one of the most ideal retirement destinations in the country, I know Sunshine State style can be a little polarizing, at least when it comes to the over-the-top beachy decor that it can sometimes call to mind. That said, I’ll be damned if that stops me from decorating my New York City apartment with seashells.

For me, shells are all about celebrating my hometown’s natural beauty and fond memories of childhood oceanside strolls. They’re a wonderful way to add texture and a natural touch to a space without investing in a bunch of plants. They’re calming and fun to look at. So I’m not going to let anyone’s perceptions, namely that seashells are super ’90s or cheesy when the coast isn’t close, get in my way.

Interior designer Diane Torrisi of Diane Torrisi Designs thinks shells can be done in decor and done well, too. “There are ways to bring the ‘wow factor’ into your home with seashells,” she says. “And there are some amazing artists doing some amazing things [with shells].” I caught up with the Naples, Florida-based designer for tips and tricks to enhance my own use of seashells in my studio. Turns out it’s not so hard to step up my shell-style game, which currently amounts to a clear glass vase I’ve filled with my collection and placed on a side table. Here are four easy ways to work shells into your home’s decor.

Look to seashell artists for unique pieces

Leave seashell decor to the experts by commissioning local artists — or finding an an artist that showcases shells in an interesting way. “People forget that seashells are fragile and delicate, making them difficult to work with,” says Torrisi. “There are many artists who are creating exquisite pieces like mirrors and chandeliers. Buying their creations is an easy way to support the local economy. You can also work with them to create beautiful and modern custom pieces.”

Patina Collection is one of her favorite stores, boasting jaw-dropping, intricately-designed shell-adorned furniture like the floral lamp above. “The beauty is in the details,” adds Torrisi. “Especially if the concept is timeless.” You could also attempt a shell DIY project with your collection, but it’s probably best to start small, maybe with a shell-covered frame, for example. Complicated shell objects, again, are best left to the pros.

Credit: Minette Hand

Find the shells that speak to you

It’s completely legal to pick up and take home abandoned seashells in Florida, unless otherwise stated. Obviously, the keyword here is “abandoned,” as live shelling is not only harmful to the environment but an offense that will land you in jail and with a hefty fine. This law also applies to starfish, sand dollars, sea horses, and practically anything that is still breathing and washes ashore. 

Sanibel Island, just an hour north of Naples, is known as one of the world’s best shelling beaches. “The best time of the day to search for that rare beauty is at low tide,” says Torrisi, adding that harvesting your favorites will make that DIY design idea you have in mind all the more special. “The origin of each shell carries a bit of magic. I like to ask how far it traveled before it rested on a beach near my bare feet.”

Collecting your own shells allows you to focus entirely on one color, shape, or design pattern to keep your vision and decorative goals consistent. “It’s easier to go into shelling with a purpose,” says Torrisi. “It’s also more fun since you’ve created a scavenger hunt of sorts.” Think outside the box with how you choose to display your shells; this clever renter took a striking, fairly large shell from her childhood and suspended it from the ceiling in her bathroom in lieu of a light. Large collections might seem like your best bet for decorating, but all you really need is one stunning shell to create an heirloom-worthy piece.

Don’t go overboard with shell-themed merch

A few decorative shell touches can go a long way; everything in your house doesn’t have to have a shell glued to it or embroidered on it. Instead, look for more subtle ways to reference the shell shape and seashore vibe, like the pairing of these sculptural Tamar Mogendorff velvet shell pillows with a light and airy rattan bed frame. You can also find artful ways to integrate shells on accent pieces like picture frames, trays, and candles. “It’s also important to keep shells in their natural colors,” Torrisi advises. Painting over their natural beauty and shade variation kind of defeats the purpose of showcasing them.

One of Torrisi’s favorite designers, Judith Auclair, runs an antique shop called Maison Auclair that houses “Little Mermaid” inspired gadgets and gizmos aplenty. Some of its shell art is available online on Chairish, including tiny treasures like soap dishes, tea baskets, and abalone jewelry boxes. “These are the types of smaller pieces that can bring a big wow factor into any room,” says Torrisi. “It’s just about finding the ones that match your personality and style.” 

Credit: Monica Wang

Ditch the literal shells altogether

Other decorative motifs speak to coastal style without being super obvious. For example, a faux coral sculpture, starfish tea light holder, or capiz chandelier like what’s shown above can distract from the sights and sounds of living in a major city, while nautical stripes, abstract blue artwork, and seagrass rugs can subtly channel the beach. “Think outside of the sea,” suggests Torrisi. “Perhaps utilize boat materials, dried indigenous plants, and even sand to achieve the look and feel you want in your living space.” 

Needless to say, this Floridian is now more excited than ever to ditch my boring (and overflowing) vase of beach memories and bring a little more strategic seashell style into my tiny Manhattan studio.