Coastal currents: creating waves of style

Annapolis-based designer Gina Fitzsimmons created an accent wall of oyster shells for a show house.

The homes of the Mid-Atlantic's waterfront communities epitomize coastal style. Whether on the beach in Ocean City or a creek on the Eastern Shore, the look is casual and calming, creating a style that makes its owners feel like every day is a vacation.

Gina Fitzsimmons, owner of Fitzsimmons Design Associates and the Annapolis-based home furnishings store Details of Design, specializes in coastal homes. She calls this look "Chesapeake Cozy."


"I find that people in this region gravitate to a more comfortable, functional, tailored interior with a more eclectic look and natural materials," she says. "People like open floor plans — it's a more casual way of life."

Natural beauty


According to Fitzsimmons, the place where people go wrong is when they try to create a coastal look with too many framed prints of lighthouses or mirrored portholes. She recommends steering away from the kitsch and keeping things real by focusing on materials made by Mother Nature. In a recent showhouse, Fitzsimmons created an accent wall of oyster shells, an idea she came up with while eating some on the half shell in Rehoboth Beach, Del..

"A lot of tiles and backsplashes now feature small pebbles," she adds. "How wrong can you go with something that's drawn right out of nature?"

That is a sentiment echoed by architect Jim Rill, principal of Rill Architects in Bethesda, who says the selection of materials is important in helping a coastal home withstand the elements. In the past, coastal homes were covered with coat after coat of paint. Now he is using more stained woods on home exteriors or green materials such as Hardiplank siding that embrace today's trend toward eco-friendly living while also providing durability.

"You want to use materials that are low-maintenance, high-trafficking and sand- and water-resistant," he says. The same is true for home interiors. While the outside might need to withstand hurricane winds, waterfront houses also need to stand up to big gatherings of family and friends. Rill favors stamped concrete floors and wood paneling on walls.

"We use little to no drywall because it doesn't stand up well to moisture and sand, to people walking inside with wet towels and boogie boards. People are on vacation — they want to be able to spill some wine and not worry about it."

While most wallpaper is considered too formal for a coastal home, grasscloth wallpapers are trendy now and are another way to bring a look inspired by nature into the home's interior. These papers bring texture to a room and can be helpful when trying to cover wall imperfections.

Play with color

Perhaps the most notable trend in coastal living is the use of color. Pops of coral, green or yellow now liven up the traditional blue-and-white scheme.


"I love to use blue because it creates that relationship with the water that just makes sense," says Kelley Proxmire, owner of Kelley Interior Design in Bethesda. "But now I'm pairing different shades of blue with color. For example, in a home on the Eastern Shore, I'm using orange. Orange is a hot color these days, and it makes the room less predictable."

Even the blues themselves are getting more vibrant. The soft seaglass shades that are perennially popular are giving way to brighter turquoise and emerald. If committing to color is a little intimidating, update those cool blues with geometric-patterned throw pillows in hot colors, but think polka dots and stripes: Florals are passe.

Mix it up

The carefree lifestyle engendered by proximity to the water translates into an unfussy interior. To achieve the coastal casual look, leave the matching suites of glossy, dark wood furniture in the city. The beach style is more eclectic and relaxed, as epitomized by weathered or whitewashed wood furniture.

"Pay attention to mixing up finishes and styles, and that extends to the outdoors, too, whether it be a patio or porch," says Proxmire. She says its not uncommon now to see a dining room table surrounded by eight different chairs or furniture of different materials — teak, iron — in combination. "Have some creativity and ingenuity when you're thinking about furniture."

Upholstered furnishings have become more tailored, as evidenced by the current trend toward square, straight arms on sofas and chairs. With that comes a more tidy look.


"Slipcovers are big again, although they're not the sloppy ones of the past," says Fiona Weeks, co-owner of Dwelling & Design in Easton.

The use of outdoor fabrics indoors has become common; they are fade-resistant and handle spills and rough-housing with aplomb, but the new lines have a softer hand and are available in linens and even chenille.

"Linen prints are preferable to cotton prints simply because they offer more texture and a more casual look," Weeks says.

Create the unexpected

Certain materials are a given for a coastal home, like sisal rugs and beadboard. To modernize the look, use these elements in unexpected ways. Beadboard, for example, is commonly used on the wall with a chair rail. However, in a project on the Severn River, Fitzsimmons used it to frame the ceiling, like crown molding. In another project she placed it inside a recessed ceiling.

"Sisal rugs and carpeting are still being used," says Dwelling & Design's Weeks, "but usually with an interesting woven pattern. Flat woven carpets such as dhurries have made a comeback. The patterns are large scale and fun."


The use of outdoor carpets inside has become a popular choice for high-traffic areas like the kitchen and for porches. Proxmire says she likes those made by Bolon because the brand offers a range of colors and patterns, "and you can literally take it outside and hose it off."

Appropriate accessories

There is something about a home on the water that seems to attract inappropriate accessories, like one too many "Gone Fishin' " signs painted on driftwood or an overabundance of crab-emblazoned throw pillows. The experts agree that when it comes to accessories, it's best to edit, edit and edit again.

"If you have a lot of little shells you've collected, then put them all together on an attractive tray where they will have more impact than all spread out," Proxmire says. "Also, I like the drama of going big, like having one large shell on a table."

In her project that featured the oyster shell wall, Fitzsimmons points out that the wall was the coastal accent in the room with only a few subtle pieces to complement it. To create a division between the kitchen and the living area in that project (and to mask the sink), she too went for high drama, placing one large nickel fish on the island. In the home on the Severn River she created a well-balanced coastal tableau by grouping antique seagull prints found in an old book over a console table and framing the whole with reclaimed shutters.

Lighting tends to be clean and simple, too. "Antique boat lights converted for household use are used frequently and, of course, there is always the fail-safe polished nickel lanterns," says Weeks. "Our best-selling lamps are two styles made from oyster shells." For those wanting a less marine-inspired look, Weeks recommends frosted glass lamps, available in many colors, or the ever-popular ceramic guard lamp.


Perhaps what sets the coastal style apart is that it is as much about a feeling as a look. When one steps into a beach or bay house, there's an immediate feeling of comfort and a laid-back sensibility that encourages sandy feet on the coffee table, sunset cocktails on the patio, and fishing rods and flip-flops abandoned in the hallways. The line between the indoors and outdoors blurs in the coastal home so, at its best, the decor becomes a backdrop to the pursuit of a lifestyle.

5 beach tips

Use Mother Nature. Avoid too many framed prints of lighthouses and such, opting instead for natural materials like seashells and grasscloth.

Go with shades of blue, but add pops of other colors to play off of it.

Consider outdoor fabrics. The choices for these fabrics have multiplied to include linen looks and even chenille.

Chose a flat woven carpet, like a dhurrie rug, which is becoming popular. Outdoor carpeting is another good choice, especially for high-traffic areas.


Use simple lighting such as nickel lanterns or lamps made from seashells.