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Shell shaped bench in garden

Shell Motifs - A Perennial Favourite in Design

Throughout history, the natural world has inspired artists and designers alike. One such motif that has captured human imagination for centuries is the shell. Found in diverse cultures, art forms, and architectural styles, the shell motif has transcended time, carrying profound symbolism and beauty. The last big resurgence of shell shaped decor was during the '80s but it has been seen throughout history, it was also popular during the Art Deco period, the 18th century in French Rococo art and in Greco-Roman times. Shell motifs are a perennial favourite in design not only to be used in coastal themes

Shell building, San Francisco

“Seashells were money before coin, jewellery before gems, art before canvas.” ― Cynthia Barnett, The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

Shell shape table in study with books and art
The birth of Venus Sandro Botticelli1483 - 1485

History, Symbolism and Art of the Shell Motif

The fascination with shells in design can be traced back to ancient civilisations. In primitive civilisations seashells were used as money, in ancient Egypt, they were considered sacred and symbolised rebirth and life. The Egyptians used them as offerings in religious ceremonies and as decorative elements in jewellery and artefacts. Similarly, in ancient Greece, shells were associated with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite.

The shell motif found its way into various art forms, including architecture, sculpture, and painting during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. From elaborate shell-shaped grottos in palaces to shell-adorned ceilings in cathedrals, the motif became synonymous with opulence and luxury. One shell in particular, the scallop shell, became particularly popular in design because of its symmetry and pleasing arched form, it could be found carved into mirrors, chairs and in plaster reliefs.

The shell motif holds profound symbolism across cultures and time, evoking a sense of wonder and connection to the natural world. It's hard, protective exterior symbolises resilience and safeguarding, while the process of shedding and renewal brings forth a powerful message of rebirth and transformation. Furthermore, it is associated with the female, fertility and creation. Beyond its earthly attributes, the shell motif's oceanic origin establishes a strong bond with the sea, inspiring feelings of calmness and serenity. Embracing this symbol in modern home design allows us to incorporate not just an aesthetic element but also the enduring spirit of the shell—strength, renewal, and the eternal beauty of nature—into our living spaces.


shell shaped plaster arch in Nanushka store
bathroom vanity with mirrors and glass shell shaped wall lights

Shells in Art and Decor Today

During the 19th century, travel to seaside resorts gained popularity and the trend of using seashells as decorative objects and souvenirs left a lasting impact on design and art. The Art Deco period saw the shell motif being used in repeat fabric and wallpaper patterns, lighting, pottery and architecture, the Shell building in San Francisco built in 1929 has imposing shells on its facade. Designers in the '60s were also captivated with shells, using the motif to produce Murano glass shell-shaped lighting which are highly sought after today, often being used in powder rooms or in alcoves.  

From Victorian-era fascination to present-day appreciation, seashells continue to captivate hearts and homes alike, serving as sentimental reminders of coastal holidays and a medium for contemporary artistic expression. Their timeless allure reminds us of the beauty of the natural world and the joy of incorporating a piece of the ocean into our daily lives. 


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