The Sea Shell: Design Motif

by Charles Sutton

“Why are there so many sea shell designs on furniture, textiles, and architecture?”

As with many decorative and design patterns, the answer lies in a combination of ancient superstition, the borrowing from nature’s unchanging harmony, and good business sense.

The ornamental shell motif, derived from the rounded ribbed shell of the mollusk ‘pectinidae’– sometimes called the cockle shell or more commonly known as the scallop shell – has a long and varied history.

In primitive civilizations, sea shells were used as money and powdered shells were thought to have aphrodisiac powers. Shell shaping and fluting were imitated on drinking vessels and vases in early Central and South American civilizations, and among those people the shell also had a religious association with the god Quetzalcoatl.

In Greco-Roman times, the shell was a favorite decorative feature, traceable to such seafaring peoples as the Aegeans. To both the Greeks and the Romans, the shell signified fertility and was associated with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, and with Venus, Roman goddess of the same attributes. Remember Botticelli’s famous 1484 painting, ‘Birth of Venus’, showing her being lifted from the sea on a beautiful, symmetrical scallop shell.

The scallop shell inspired diverse architectural designs, including the cathedral niche cap, the dome, shell-hooded porches, the spiral staircase, and facade ornament.

Seashells have always enticed collectors – a collection was even found among the ancient ruins of Pompeii. Wealthy Europeans in the 17th century considered rare shells (from the deepest oceans) to be status symbols and commissioned fancy display cabinets for their collections.

18th century furniture makers, such as Thomas Chippendale, appreciated the proportion and symmetry of the scallop shell. Chippendale incorporated them into his designs, realizing his world-traveled customers would also value the shell’s symbolism. Rococo – the highly ornate French style which sought to glorify Nature – was named from the rocaille (rock) and the coquille (shell). English gardens of the period often included grottos and structures made with limestone composed of fossilized shells.

The founding settlers of Colonial America associated the scallop shell with pilgrimages to the Holy Land. As the shell had been included in the heraldic charge or emblem of St. James the Great, the shell symbol of Apostle James became the acknowledged badge of Christian pilgrims. While traveling in the Holy Land, a pilgrim would carry a scallop shell not only as a symbol, but also to use for practical purposes: as an alms collection plate, a drinking cup, an eating utensil to dip from a common bowl or pot. Upon returning home, knights and pilgrims would keep the shell as a ‘holy’ relic and as a good luck charm or ornament to warn off evil spirits.

Thus, we can understand how the founding settlers in Colonial America esteemed the scallop shell during their pilgrimage from religious persecution to the New World. And the Puritans of ‘New’ England welcomed the shell design on their furniture.

Among the most desired and valuable 18th century American antiques are those made by two Quaker cabinetmaking families, the Townsends and Goddards of Rhode Island. Their kneehole bureau made use of the scallop shell in convex and concave carvings, as did their block-and-shell carved mahogany desk-and-bookcase. This shell blocking is considered uniquely American.

(The last remaining Townsend-Goddard desk-and-bookcase in private hands was sold at Christie’s in 1989 for $12.1 million, at the time a world auction record for any piece of American furniture.)

Today, while the shell may not convey a religious meaning, it does usually evoke memories of the sea – of children on the beach collecting them, or of simply holding a sea shell in one’s hand and marveling at one of nature’s most unique, beautiful, unchanging, and perfect designs.

To learn more about the shell motif in American furniture, the collection at Bienenstock Furniture Library includes every book published on Goddard-Townsend, including the definitive “Master Craftsmen of Newport.” The Library is free and open to scholars and the public.

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Charles Sutton, a recognized authority on fine furniture, is the current chairman of Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library. Sutton has written, taught and lectured throughout the U.S. on furniture history, design, period styles, construction and care.

Charles and Martha Sutton founded Sutton Fine Furniture which was responsible for fine reproductions licensed by The British National Trust, The Smithsonian Institute, The Henry Ford Museum and The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Sutton twice won the coveted, industry-wide Daphne Award for the best reproduction furniture made in America. In 2012, Charles and Martha established SIDE, The Sutton Initiative for Design Education at Salem College, Winston-Salem NC, featuring a chair library of 50 iconic chairs that are used to teach design and construction to students throughout North Carolina colleges and universities.

Sutton has served as chairman of the board for North Carolina Museum of Art and is a member of the American Society of Furniture Designers and The Furniture Society.