Antiques Obsession: Coquillage

Whether the real thing or an imitation, shells have had an enduring influence on design for centuries.

Text: Jennifer Boles
Design: Alcott Interiors
Photos: Emily Followill

In some areas of the world, seashells have long been used for jewelry, decorative adornment, and even currency, but in much of Europe, they remained something of a rarity until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when European explorers and merchants began traveling the globe and later returning home bearing caches of them. Initially prized as scientific curiosities, shells eventually became commonplace enough that by the eighteenth century, they were being used as decoration, when shells and, more often, the shell motif became defining features of the playful and highly ornamental rococo style, whose name, in fact, was derived from rocaille, a type of decorative formation comprised of rocks and shells. In the rococo spirit, a whole host of objects began to imitate shells, a type of decoration often known by its French name, coquillage.

Porcelain table objects were frequently made to mimic marine life, such as sweetmeats, saltcellars, and sauceboats that suggested scallop shells or coral. One of Wedgwood’s most enduring designs, a china pattern whose pieces are molded in the shapes of scallop and nautilus shells, actually dates back to the rococo era, when the factory’s founder, the enterprising English potter Josiah Wedgwood, became an amateur student of conchology, an interest which prompted his use of shell forms. Shells even inspired leading furniture makers of the era. In his catalogue The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, Thomas Chippendale featured a design for a garden chair whose back and seat were carved to look like shells, while in America, esteemed Newport, Rhode Island, cabinetmaker John Townsend made his mark with chests of drawers whose fronts were carved with both raised and recessed half shells.

The dominance of the rococo style, coupled with burgeoning imports of shells in a variety of shapes and sizes, also helped to popularize shellwork, especially among English gentlewomen, who added the handi work to their repertoire of needlework and japanning. The art of encrusting an object, such as a mirror or small decorative object, in a multitude of shells that are laid out in a well-designed rather than haphazard way, shellwork also played a role in another eighteenth-century fad: architectural follies, specifically, grottoes that were decorated almost entirely in shells and, sometimes, even accompanied by water features. In France, Château de Rambouillet boasted a shell cottage whose interior walls and ceiling were entirely layered in shellwork that mimicked paneling, molding, and niches, while in England, Goodwood House’s Shell House was also appointed in architecturally elaborate shellwork, including a shell-smothered tympanum arch. While these two examples still survive, most eighteenth-century shell rooms and shellwork did not due to their fragile materials.

Even though the rococo style was out of fashion by the late eighteenth century, the shell remained popular in Victorian-era decorative arts, including a myriad of majolica tableware, vases, and planters whose shapes suggested shells. Shellwork also remained relevant, especially in the form of Sailor’s Valentines, which originated in Barbados. Charmingly sentimental shell mosaics that were usually housed in octagonal cases, Sailor’s Valentines were purchased by sailors as souvenirs for their wives and sweethearts. The late-nineteenth century also marked the emergence of one of the most curious forms of furniture perhaps ever produced: grotto furniture. Crafted mainly in Venice, these marine-life chairs and tables, meant to imitate shells, mussels, and sometimes even dolphins and seahorses, were typically lacquered in a shimmery, silver finish that was intended to imitate nacre, a shell’s iridescent-like interior.

In the 1920s and ’30s, yet another wave of shell-form designs swept in, but this time, they were highly stylized, courtesy of a cadre of French Modernist designers. Serge Roche, for example, was responsible for popularizing plaster chandeliers and wall sconces reminiscent of shells and snails, while André Groult became known for his chairs whose backs were shell-shaped. Even now, when obtaining exotic shells is as easy as surfing the web, their beauty is such that no matter how they’re used, shells will remain one of nature’s most versatile gifts.

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