By Karen Parr-Moody
Summer is the perfect season for adding sea creature motifs to a home, from coral to crustaceans to fish. It so happens that currently there is rage for all things under the sea in home décor. But such decorative motifs have their roots in history. During the Renaissance, for example, the art of Venice, Italy teemed with sea monsters, among them mermaids and mermen, dolphins, and sea serpents. Sea creature motifs were found in Venetian book decoration, on tomb monuments, in church decoration, in civic buildings and palaces, and even in private homes. In fact, their descendents still glide through the canals, where brass seahorse oar mounts are seen on gondolas.
For a little whiff of the salt air of Venice, GasLamp has the glossy aqua seahorse tray that anchors the vignette in the photo at right ($16; B-129). Seahorse décor can be a wonderful theme for any room, and can range from the statement making to that of a more diminutive scale, such as small seahorses displayed in clear apothecary containers.
In the United States, coastal areas of great wealth such as Palm Beach, New Orleans, and Rhode Island's Newport have a history of decorative objects graced by sea creatures. One only needs comb the antique stores of Royal Street in New Orleans to find examples such as might be seen in few places in the country. Easily found are items an 19th-century hostesses required for serving luscious bivalves, such as majolica oyster plates matched with dainty oyster forks (Victorians devoured oysters by the bushel full).
Sea creatures have been showing up in the last couple of years in wallpaper and textiles. The Thomas Paul signature fabric prints from Duralee include the popular Oceana fabric, which comes in an aqua-and-white color way and a chocolate-and-white color way (photo, left). They represent a current trend in the way sea creatures are represented. Rather than being bold and splashy, these creatures are inspired by the historical prints of sea life seen in lithographs, wood engravings and copper etchings from the 1700s and 1800s.
The pillows, right, feature the amazing octopus ($95, B-1006). These skelelon-less creatures are quite the wonder: They have three hearts, can open jar lids, are known to use tools, and have both short- and long-term memory. These pillows feature the octopus as an embroidered motif waving its willowy tentacles. The colors of these pillows, in lovely coastal blue and rich chocolate, make them perfect for a beach house or for city digs.
Since it is an antique, this huge and intricate piece of coral in the photo, left, has all of the beauty and none of the destruction of a coral reef (S-544; $165). Its natural coloring is elegant; so many of these pieces have been bleached snowy white. Untreated, real coral is not only disappearing from the market, it is considered unethical by some to remove it from the ocean. So it is refreshing to find such a large piece. This coral would act beautifully as a centerpiece, summoning the salt air of the sea into the home.
Tales of mermaids date back to Assyria of 1000 B.C. Since then these finned beauties have been discussed by seaman and novelists alike. Mermaids were mentioned twice in the tales of Arabian Nights. They swam into the design scene hundreds of years ago, in coastal towns such as Venice. The fabulous mermaid figure, right, will bring a lucky pearl to someone's beach cottage décor ($34.50; Booth B-118). While she doesn't have a crown of barnacles on her head, she does have starfish and seashells strewn through her hair. What's so wonderful about this little stature -- besides the great price -- is that it is a bit distressed, which gives it an earthy appeal. And the base is sprinkled with a sand, making it seem as though this well-finned lady is right at home.
These darling koi pendants, upper left, are articulated so that they "swim" like real fish when moved. The Victorians called these fish pendants “wiggle fish”; they were given as good luck tokens. These would be lovely as a pair of earrings or as a nice necklace drop. The enameling on them is so bright and shiny, it is reminiscent of the koi fish in real life. These come in three prices: $5 for the tiniest koi, $9 for the medium-sized one, and $18 for the large koi (Showcase S-522). The antiques dealer who is selling these fish offers them in many colors and sizes.
Decorating with sea creatures is a dreamy way to float blissfully in a sea of style. So whether it is a motif inspired by a classic reference lithograph, an ethereal mermaid figure, or a whimsical seahorse in a bright pop of color, it is easy to get hooked on these creatures of the sea and go completely coastal.