Design Notes Archive

Treasures from the Sea

Treasures from the Sea

Nothing conjures up nostalgic summer memories like combing the beach for seashells. It got us to thinking about a few iconic spots where they hold pride of place all year round. If you find yourself in Kent, take a trip to the astounding Shell Grotto in Margate. Discovered by happenstance in 1835, the walls of this underground cavern are lined with 4.6 million seashells arranged in fantastical patterns. The mysterious grotto, with its skylight rotunda, quickly became a tourist destination and its origins have been speculated about ever since. Unfortunately, residue from 19th century gas lanterns, once used to keep its chambers alight, have thwarted modern attempts at carbon dating meaning we may never know from whence it came. Don’t let the touristy shopfront entrance fool you; this is a truly magical place.

Make a weekend of it and follow the white cliffs down to Dover, hop on the ferry to Calais and then head to Château de Rambouillet on the outskirts of Paris. Within the castle grounds and tucked behind another unassuming façade is the Shell Thatched Cottage (la Chaumière des Coquillages), commissioned in 1779 by the Duke of Penthièvre for his widowed daughter-in-law Princess de Lamballe. Inside the traditional thatched-roof house walls are swathed in countless colourful seashells that fan out in a range of neoclassical motifs. It’s a complete contrast to the building’s humble exterior and unlike the grotto in Margate, Rambouillet’s seashells are flooded with light reflecting their brilliant opalescent lustre.

En hommage to these over-the-top locales, it seemed only appropriate to feature the shell-encrusted bathroom of mixed media artist Janine Janet. Having spent much of the 1950’s and 60’s dressing boutique windows for the likes of Balenciaga, Givenchy and Balmain, along with designing sets for filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Janet became known for her wild use of natural materials. Among them, she used seashells to adorn everything from plaster busts to a bathroom door panel commissioned by designer Alberto Pinto in 1981 (pictured right). Most of us wouldn’t be so bold but it’s safe to say that, on a smaller scale at least, artefacts from the sea never look out of place in the bathroom.

Photographs © Roland Beafre, Editions Norma