Design beside the seaside: Get the fresh coastal look without the sailing clichés

Combine white-painted furniture, striped linen and the right vintage accessories
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The Independent Online

Can't afford a holiday? A home by the sea is the next best thing. Can't afford that either? Then fake it – by bringing a bit of the seaside into your home. Think "coastal style" interiors, however, and a few clichés may come to mind: faux-distressed white woodwork, nautical accessories, driftwood furniture... But it doesn't have to be thus. The style is a perennial design choice and, being fresh, relaxing and airy, it's not surprising it has endured. However, as such, it can look a little mass-produced if not executed with individuality and panache. To create something stylish, rather than tweely themed, think beyond the obvious – and work it in moderation.


There are several key elements to consider when creating a space designed to evoke coastal life. Think about how it feels to be beside the sea. There's that special kind of light you only get by the water – so if you're trying to recreate that inland, you'll need to work extra hard. Light, shiny surfaces bounce light around, while pale window coverings will maximise what nature provides.

Being beside the ocean is also about a wilder existence, so a palette inspired by the relevant natural features and materials will help, as will accessories and furniture with a weather-beaten air. Exercise caution here, though, as "artfully distressed" can look a touch catalogue – so try to find things that have faded and worn authentically; you can feel the difference, even at a distance.

Steer clear of too much polish, clutter and fussy detail. By keeping furniture to a minimum and including pieces that let light through, such as slatted or rattan chairs, you will boost a room's sense of space.


"Take a more natural approach to that beach idea," says Atlanta Bartlett, an interiors stylist and author who also runs, a locations agency which includes her own coastside property in Kent. "When thinking about your colour scheme," she advises, "don't assume you ought to go for just blue and white – there are lots of other colours associated with the seaside. What about the beach in winter? My local, Camber Sands, is almost more beautiful then than in summer – all those sandy beiges, charcoals, off-whites and greys – it's breathtaking." To keep darker colours reminiscent of the beach, use deeper shades for accessories and smaller details.

There is also an alternative approach: to take things tropical. In his book The Way We Live by the Sea (£19.95, Thames & Hudson), the former Conran creative director Stafford Cliff includes luscious shots of colourful beachside rooms in exotic locations including Mexico, Mauritius and Kenya: think bold print fabrics, bamboo walls and rattan flooring. Without tropical sunshine to set it off, however, colour overload risks creating a cluttered-looking space at odds with the desired airy, relaxed effect – so, again, keep the backdrop pale, using "jungly" touches for selected accents.


"The interiors of houses by the sea often seem to have a design vocabulary in common," Cliff says, "and colours tend to be light and reflective." Describing the bathroom in a London house which has been subtly styled to hint at the seaside – all shades of white, tongue-and-groove panelling, and natural wood – he says: "[This] is a good example of how materials, colours and design can evoke the feeling of freshness and openness normally associated with life on the coast or even at sea. The ample light from the window is reflected from the polished wooden floor."

For large expanses of wall and floor, pale colours will best evoke the coast. "White is great because it reflects loads of light," says Bartlett. But, she warns, "be careful to mix up your whites; all brilliant white will look very cold. Go for lots of different shades, and add as much textural variety as possible to create definition." Think white-painted, nautical-evoking tongue-and-groove cladding on walls, sheepskin throws over armchairs, and sisal rugs for breaking up a pale and potentially too-smooth backdrop. Glass panels in a door, lots of mirrors – ideally vintage finds – will also boost whatever level of natural light you're working with, as well as provide textural contrast.


As this look is all about the big outdoors, a good short-cut is to incorporate items you'd normally find outside. A vintage deckchair in the bathroom, or a white-painted folding garden chair at a desk, can give a hint of beach life without overdoing it.

You can also incorporate typically external materials: rough natural floor tiles in a bedroom or living room, where you'd least expect them, can be effective for conjuring up a hint of the wild and rugged. Bartlett's beautiful beachside house uses salvaged scaffolding boards – for floorboards, shelves, table tops. To get an even more sun-baked effect, she suggests lime-washing the boards, or using "white soap": after sanding the wood back, apply lye – caustic soda – which opens the grain, and then apply the white soap to bleach the wood further and give it "a beautiful, silky, chalky finish".


There's something about antique or vintage pieces that evokes the coast. By using lots of whites, you could potentially create something that looks slick and minimal, so to avoid it looking clinical or deliberately "designery", rough it up a bit with, for example, a battered old leather armchair. "Anything too perfect – such as a high-gloss floor – would get wrecked by sand coming into the house if you're actually living by the sea," Bartlett says. So even when working the coastal look in an urban setting, try to channel the practicalities of genuine beachside life to guide your choices.


So as not to end up with a pastiche of a beach house, it's important to mix things up. "You don't have to have fishermen's baskets hanging everywhere," Bartlett advises, "something sparkly can really work – a chandelier can look lovely."

However you accessorise your coastal room, remember you're aiming for a hint, not a sledgehammer.

Get the look

* has a mohair and wool throw in slate grey, £39, which looks great draped over the end of a pale sofa, or beach up the garden with a bamboo lantern for £25.

* The Tate shop has a wonderful range of St Ives prints, cards and picture books ripe for framing by local artists including Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis (

* is lived-in and lovely with a range of hand-picked antiques including, currently, a c. 1900 Italian gilt chair, £700, plus coat racks made from reclaimed scaffolding. adds a hint of rugged British coastline to dinner with simple slate table mats for £12 each.

* Simple, nautical-striped bed linens for classic seaside chic are on offer from offers the ubiquitous decorative-wooden sailing boat for just £12 – just the one, mind.