Inspiring editorial from MIX Magazine


Part of the forecaster’s remit is to sense what is rising and what is falling, acknowledging ebbs and flows in popularity. When it comes to trends, what goes around nearly always comes back around.

People have always loved shells. Maybe it’s to do with the way they are washed up on beaches, or the mathematical perfection of certain shapes, Fibonacci sequences expressed in nature.



Whatever the reason, there have always been enthusiasts; Aristotle and Pliny the Elder were fans, and ancient collections have been found as far afield as Pompeii in Italy and the Mayan site of Ceibal. Here, shells may have played a role in religious ceremonies.


The Met | Manuscript Leaf Book of Hours c 1500


Cowrie shells were used as a currency for centuries in Africa and China; they appear on everything from helmet masks to bronzes. European medieval pilgrims followed the scallop shell on pilgrimages, taking shells home as proof they had completed their journeys. These morphed into little pilgrim badges made typically from lead alloy.


The Met | Helmet Mask | Bamum Kingdom before 1880


Renaissance aristocracy were fascinated by nautilus shells, transformed by silversmiths into extraordinary cups with bird legs and dragon mouths or supported by dolphins and mythological creatures. By the 17th century, increased global trade fuelled a brisk business in shell collecting, with new specimens brought from the Pacific and China.


The Met | Choix de Coquillages et de Crustacés | Franz Michael Regenfuss 1758 


The shell as a motif went into overdrive for aficionados of Rococo; the name itself even derives from a hybrid of rocaille (rock) and coquille (shell). Even the walls of grottos in aristocratic gardens were thickly embossed with shells.



Shell fever reached its apogee in the mid 19th century. In Japan, Ukiyo-e art often features studies of shells; exquisite examples can be found in the work of artist Totoya Hokkei. In the West, they appeared on china (complete with scalloped edges of course), as decorative flourishes for silverware (tureens are littered with shells), candlesticks and of course women’s dress textiles.


The Met | Bowl with Black Shells and Udo Plant anon 18-19 century


A brief resurgence was powered by Art Deco boudoir furniture and a renewed flirtation with Rococo, where the highly padded bedroom chair, mimicking once again the scallop shell was transformed by silk and velvet. Deco shells also riffed on wall lights and wallpaper.



However, by the 1950s shells had become a sort of mass-market shorthand for breezy seaside holiday prints, cheap lawn chairs and small souvenir ceramic items like ashtrays and decorative plates. Their cachet was over.



Yet despite this, and while nowhere near as popular as in its Rococo heyday, designers continue to be drawn to shells as a source of inspiration. In 2002 Patricia Urquiola was inspired by a broken piece of seashell to create her Fjord H chair for Moroso. Brodie Neill’s 2015 Cowrie chair abstracts the concave lines of shells in bent plywood, while Samuel Accoceberry's seating was inspired by conch shells for Bosc.


Brodie Neill | Cowrie Chair and Rocker


Shells also continue to act as inspiration for architecture. Penda China recently built a road tunnel featuring two white canopies at each entrance in a distinctive seashell shape. A tower in Singapore designed by Heatherwick Studio features little shell-like balconies scaling the face. In the UK, Grimshaw has proposed pavilions inspired by mussel shells for the Eden Project North, located in Lancashire.



There are signs then that shells are throwing off their kitsch associations. This may have something to do with an acute awareness of the fragility of our oceans. As plastic outweighs fish and coral and oceans die, our perception of shells shifts from a familiar decorative object steeped in history to an endangered and precious symbol of sustainability.



Whether we will notice more shell motifs remains to be seen, but future iterations of shells should be very interesting indeed.



MIX Magazine is a quarterly print and digital publication by our creative agency, Colour Hive and is available as part of Colour Hive membership.

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