Several hundred feet beneath the ocean's surface and woven throughout tropical reefs, live coral is one of nature's brightest lights. Its branches create a vivid curtain for brilliantly hued fish: impressive architecture that is built at the snail's pace of less than an inch a year.
In a color range most often associated with fiery red-orange through salmon and pink tones, the coral hue long has attracted those who revel in warm, robust surroundings in the home. Now, in addition to the colors of coral, images from the reef also can be found in fashion and home decor.
Eclipsing a fashion trend that ranges from jaunty patterns on white clothing to chunky jewelry made out of the real thing, coral motifs have surfaced on wall-coverings, pillows, lamp shades, etched glass and furniture.
They've made a huge splash on the table, appearing on dinnerware, flatware, bowls, trays, place mats, napkins and napkin rings whose craggy shapes mimic the ocean's prototype. Even high-end designers are captivated by coral.
Ann Gish, known for her contemporary bedding, decorative pillows and tabletop designs, features coral branches on embroidered cotton sheets and pillowcases, especially fetching in an alternative color teaming of chocolate on white. Robert Kuo, an artist trained in traditional craft, works coral branching into cloisonne enamel wine coasters. Jay Strongwater, who turned jewelry-making skills into exquisitely detailed home designs, has fashioned elegant picture frames wrapped in hand-enameled jagged coral laced with shells and starfish and dotted with hand-set Swarovski crystals. The 12-3 / 4-inch frames are a pricey $2,200.
Although coral branch designs long have been a favorite on both coasts, their popularity has gotten legs all over the country.
"Coral is the 'it' accessory," says Kay Fuston, editor-in-chief of Coastal Living magazine. "Its texture, shape and color make it an attractive accessory. And it goes along with other materials inspired by nature -- bamboo, raffia, sea glass."
Coral can be a refreshing reminder of a vacation just celebrated, one to come or simply a vibrant summer expression. But it needn't be kitschy.
"The coral [motif] can be very elegant," says Fuston, and can be found in as many variations as there are home styles.
At its most vivid end of the orange-red spectrum, the color of coral is electric, especially in neutral spaces. But it also may co-exist in startling combinations with other brights, such as cobalt blue or lime green.
Coral's organic roots, of course, are savored as design elements based in nature. The intrinsic twisting, branching form is intriguing, whether it is expressed in an all-over pattern or small sprays. Veining on white is almost startling, while some coral networks are more like tendrils on a vine.
In its dimensional, tactile form, where "branches" that look like they've just been plucked from the sea may form the trunks of chandeliers, the handles of flatware or the bases of bowls, the sculptural quality is pleasing and texturally inviting.
The India-based artisan Michael Aram celebrates coral's profile by casting pieces from real samples from the sea in a number of unusual applications. Especially dynamic is Aram's lifelike but faux coral candelabra that holds pillar candles as it might cuddle clown fish in the wild.
Hurricane lamps also take on an oceanic theme with their glass globes cradled by Aram's sculptural faux coral. The designer also has teamed shiny stainless steel with an epoxy painted in a scarlet coral, a striking combination fashioned into platters and bowls that nestle atop cast-enameled coral branches.
Just how much you love aquatic life as a decorating theme may determine how to translate coral motifs into furnishings. Coral branches spilling over wall-coverings may serve as an engaging, graphic backdrop, possibly with matching fabric on windows or upholstery. Thibaut's Coral Gables pattern from its Laguna collection has grand scale but a muted palette, with raspberry coral sprigs on a pale lemon ground.
John Derian: (212) 677-3917 or johnderian.com
Gump's: (800) 882-8055 or gumps.com
John Derian: (212) 677-3917 or johnderian.com
The Source Perrier Collection: (888) 543-2804 or sourceperrier.com
Thibaut: (800) 223-0704 or thibautdesign.com
Protecting coral reefs
It's a good thing that most of the coral seen in home design today is faux; the real thing is endangered.
Coral reefs are among the most threatened marine ecosystems, according to The Nature Conservancy. Some scientists believe that the world could lose up to 70 percent of its coral reefs by 2020; others extend the prediction to 2100. Blame it on global warming, pollution, harmful bacteria, over-fishing, destructive fishing practices and coastal development. Higher ocean temperatures have weakened corals, making them more susceptible to disease. Elevated carbon dioxide has made oceans more acidic, and the changing chemistry is harmful to coral.
The impact of losing reefs is not just aesthetic, although they are a majestic, colorful part of ocean life. Coral reefs support millions of species of marine life. They are valuable in protecting shorelines and communities from storms and erosion. And they are responsible for a $30 billion economy.