Once you start looking for seashells, you find them everywhere. Especially scallops. That symmetrical shell form, ribbed and rounded, is a recurrent element in interiors.
It was used in Ancient Greek and Roman architecture and popularised in the Renaissance, when Sandro Botticelli painted the new born Venus rising from a scallop shell.
The painting was brilliantly spoofed in Miss Piggy’s Art Masterpiece Calendar 1984: Treasures from the Kermitage Collection, with Miss Piggy as Venus.
Scallop shells were carved into Georgian furniture and all its imitators; and printed onto wallpaper and fabrics. Other shells, like the spiral-shaped nautilus, are much less ubiquitous. The scallop is interesting because it can be used as both a symbol and a shape. Lots of things can be scalloped, from chair-backs to headboards; from fluted china to curtain valances.
Not all of them are desirable. The Art Deco movement made scalloping look edgy but it can also be naff as a net curtain. Still, it’s impressive that one little mollusc gave rise to all those interior forms.
“A lot of the sea shell motifs that you see in interiors look like they’ve been drawn by someone who has never spent time looking at an actual shell,” says Jo Anne Butler. “I think that my seashell prints come from a little bit of frustration with that.”
Butler is one half of Superfolk, a design studio that she runs with her husband Gearoid Muldowney in County Mayo.
The print series – a mussel, a scallop, a cockle and a limpet – are drawn with the care and attention of a naturalist, cut into a lino block, then hand-printed on Japanese washi paper. The paper, like the seashells, has a translucent quality.
“It all began with trips to the beach with our daughter. We’d come back with our pockets full of sea shells.” Butler began to pay attention to the shells.
“There’s a whole world within them!” Each shell has a subtly different form and their colours vary according to the geology of the nearby landscape. “There’s a beach near Belmullet where you get the most amazing colours,” she says.
“Around Newport the tones are warmer and there are some beaches where the shells are almost white.”
She brings this level of attention to her art work, along with a desire to show people the difference between a scallop and a clam. “They are a little bit like identification charts – it came from teaching our daughter which shell is which.”
The seashell prints (52 x 43 cm) sell for €100 each unframed and fits their magnetic hanging frame (€30). A bundle of four prints costs €360.
Also in Mayo, a shell print duvet set from Foxford currently costs €23.60 for a single duvet cover and one pillowcase, up to €44 for a superking size.
The design is based on the scallop shell motif, stylised and repeated in small multiples. With a colourway of soft brown against a pale pearly background, it’s an example of how subtle seashell patterns can work in soft furnishings.
In wallpaper, the far-from-subtle Coquillage print from Mind the Gap shows lines of shells of various types, bordered by seaweed motifs and stripes.
The pattern is reminiscent of 19th century conchology plates, where drawings of shells were arranged systematically to help identification, but the colours are full-on nautical deep blue and crimson red. The wallpaper is made in Transylvania comes in a box of 3 rolls each 52 cm wide and 300 cm long (€195 plus €18.57 delivery).
“You’d see that shell motif a good bit,” says Joanne Condon, an upcycler and furniture artist who lives on the border between Waterford and Tipperary.
“Once you start looking for it you spot it everywhere! You’d often find it carved into old chairs, sometimes combined with scrolling, or woven into the backs of wicker chairs, but you’d also find drawers with shell-shaped brass cup handles.
“It can be subtle in the handles, but you can bring out the shape in the way you paint it. I’ve just painted a set of drawers with shell handles. It’s all pink, but I painted the handles gold underneath to bring out the shape of them.”
Condon has a bright and punchy aesthetic. Her current favourite is a shell-backed wooden chair, currently painted in strong pink, chosen to match its velvet seat pad.
“I love that chair! I found it in a second-hand furniture shop for €20 and I walked away from it. I knew that I’d made a mistake so I went back for it the next day.
"I’ve never seen one like it, except in an American magazine that showed a set of them but it didn’t have details about where they came from. At first it was going to be turquoise but I couldn’t find the right fabric. Then I found the pink velvet so I went with that.”
She’s also found that scalloping – which mimics the edge of a scallop shell – is a useful way of blending wall and ceiling colour.
“In my studio the ceiling is pink so I brought it down in a scalloped edge where it meets the wall. I’m also making a scalloped rim for a bar cart, so that the drinks won’t fall off the edge. It’s going to be pink too. I must be going through a pink phase or something!”
If you fancy learning how to do any of this yourself, Joanne Condon runs upcycling workshops all over Ireland and online.
Scalloping is currently widespread in upholstered furniture, often combined with velvet. It frequently takes the shape of an accent chair – EZ Living Furniture’s Blush accent chair in pink or green velvet (€499) is a one of many. The scalloped form is also spreading to headboards.
Some of these adopt the arched form of the shell itself. This is very pretty but better suited to a single bed, with just one person in the middle, than a double.
The name of Ariel bed (€2,600 from Sweetpea & Willow) is testimony the Little Mermaid nostalgia behind scalloped headboard: the fishtailed princess of Disney’s 1989 classic animation slept in a seashell bed.
The form reached its peak in 2010 when Circu produced a children’s bed in the shape of an open scallop shell. It’s handmade in pink fibreglass with internal colour-change lighting in the top half of the shell, two metres in diameter, and costs €14,713 from Panomo.
For those that can afford to shell out, it’s a cleverly realised fantasy piece but, as someone with a very literal mind, I’ve an issue with the design. Real bivalve molluscs have shells that shut, hence the phrase “to shut like a clam”.
The Little Mermaid bed doesn’t shut. It’s perfectly safe. No small children will get sandwiched inside.
But there’s something about the image of a closing shell that I can’t get out of my mind.
See superfolk.com, joannecondon.com. foxford.com, mindtheg.com, ezlivingfurniture.ie, sweetpeaandwillow.com, pamono.eu