Subtle beach home decor goes beyond seashells and sailboats

When starting a recent project at a client's Ocean City home, interior designer Phillip Smith wasn't looking to create an obvious beach home feel.

"When you are at the beach, it's hard to convey beach without screaming it," he said.


Smith focused on color, reflective objects and natural fibers to tap into the spirit of the beach without being too obvious. It was an approach that worked for his clients, a Catonsville couple, who liked it so much that what began as a small bathroom remodel turned into a redo of their three-bedroom home.

Moreover, it highlighted the fact that it's possible to achieve a beachy look without resorting to gimmicks like seashells, anchors or bushels of crabs.

Designer Stephanie Gamble also created a subtler "beach feel" in the main floor of her clients' 1930s' three-level Annapolis home — without even setting out to do so.

"We didn't intend for it to be coastal; it just worked out that way," said Gamble, owner of Baltimore-based interior design company The House Downtown.

Gamble said details such as anchoring the living room with a neutral-colored sofa and hanging artwork in hues of blue, green and white made the home feel like a property in Ocean City or the Outer Banks.

"It kind of just happened. It wasn't conscious. It was a natural progression," Gamble said. "Having a water view from several of the windows was an unconscious influence."

Gamble worked with a lighter color palette, which wound up giving the home its "coastal" feel.

"We were going in a light, airy direction," she said. "It's very coastal because of the blues. We used serene artwork. ... I equate serene with beach."

You can follow Gamble's and Smith's examples to transform your digs into a comfy beach pad without being too gimmicky. Restraint, Gamble said, is key.

"The nautical theme is always classic, but it's kind of expected," Gamble said. "You can never really go wrong with navy, white and a little splash of red. But why not do something a little unexpected? Do the theme sparingly."

Here are more tips from the interior designers on how to create an understated beach look in your home.

Paint and art

"Paint color is huge," Smith said. "You can change the entire look by painting."

He suggested painting cabinets white or adding watercolor prints to bare walls.


"You look at those and you get the feel of waves, and the colors are reminiscent of water," he said.

Another great way to incorporate color and get that beach-like vibe is through art, according to Gamble.

"Use artwork that isn't necessarily pictures of boats," she said. "We used serene imagery, which is very fluid. That felt like water."


You don't have to shun beach paraphernalia altogether — it's possible to incorporate it in tasteful ways. For example, Smith mounted two colorful surfboards, one in the upstairs loft and one in the living room, in his clients' Ocean City home.

"They had sentimental value," he said. The owners "met as a lifeguard and umbrella girl. [The surfboards] belonged to him. They're colorful, bright, saturated colors. They really pop out nicely against the neutral walls."

Smith has incorporated a lot of glass and reflecting materials into his project, including using mirrors whenever he got a chance.

"Mirrors remind you of iridescent shells and pearls," he said. "Any time you can use something that has a reflective quality, it gives a water feel."

Instead of the expected seashells or anchors, Gamble opted for a less popular, but still beachy, accessory: coral.

"I put a piece on a coffee table," she said. "The key is not to put it everywhere. Be very subtle. ... When you take it and run, it becomes a little much. Use the trends and the typical beach-themed items very sparingly."


From the large beige couch and cream-colored leather ottoman to the white lacquer dinning room table, Gamble used lighter tones to create a more serene atmosphere in her clients' Annapolis home.

"We were going [for] the lighter, airier feel," she said.

"Although a gray-blue coastal palette is dominant elsewhere in the house, the homeowners didn't want to overplay the blue tones in the decor inside the living room. The slate surround of the fireplace, cream-colored sofa and light blue runner on the table reinforce a neutral color scheme with sparing use of nautical blues."

Gamble used blue in the form of artwork and lamps to create a coastal feel. Accent pieces were also in shades of blue, as well as neutrals and light greens.

"Use anything that is calming," she said.

Fabric and texture

Gamble favored the use of linen and light-hued leathers for furniture covers and finishes, and used grass cloth for the walls.

"It creates that casual, comfortable feel that invokes coastal," she said. "Use anything light. Stay away from velvet."

Smith wanted to mimic the weathered outdoors once he determined that the Ocean City house would have a beachy feel. He advised using teak and resin furniture.

"It reminds you of wood," he said. "I used faux wood tile floor throughout the kitchen and living area. It reminds you of bamboo."

In the kitchen, Smith used sand-colored granite countertops that reminded him of sand dunes.

"It kind of snowballed from there," he said.