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Forget What You Know About Nautical Decor: The Complete Guide to Coastal Design

by on Dec 28, 2020

Photo: Chipper Hatter for CM Natural Design

The widespread appeal of nautical and coastal decor makes a lot of sense when you consider the primal and ancient connection humans have to the sea. Being attracted to the water is hardwired into our very cells. Scientific studies have proven what we already know anecdotally: spending time near, on, or in lakes and oceans make us happier and healthier. It’s no wonder that so many of us respond to the colors, clean lines, and natural elements of coastal, beach, and nautical decor. It makes us feel good to be reminded of the sea.

If your initial reaction to the term “coastal decor” is negative, it’s probably from witnessing too many cutesy and heavy-handed thematic rooms.  We are not advocating buying and displaying any and all items that have a sailboat or seahorse on them. Good decorating never grows out of an overly simplistic theme, and, “Put an anchor on it” is not a valid design philosophy!

What is Nautical Decor?

Nautical Decor in the living room
Photo: Jo Tyler for Domino

At its heart, nautical decor is simply design that evokes the sea and all its related elements. How coast and the open water are actually embodied within a home, well, there is a very broad design arc available. It can be expressed in serene, minimal spaces, as well as rustic and collected homes. Consider the preppy, modern Ralph Lauren interiors compared to the relaxed island vibe of India Hicks.

Nautical living room
Photo: Max Kim-Bee Design by Tilton Fenwick

Nautical decor can have muted color schemes inspired by driftwood and sea glass as well as crisp, high-contrast colors that reflect a racing ship.  With a little exploration, you are sure to find your personal design sweet spot within the wide range of expression in nautical decor.

Basic Elements of Nautical Decor

Nature is a big player in beach and coastal decor. Sea life and its vegetation can be represented in photographs, sculpture, or found objects.  Color is also a major element of nautical design with blue, unsurprisingly, being the primary influence. The color of blue is the one most commonly linked to water and has associations of depth, authority, and peace.

Bright, saturated colors evoke those in signal flags and the yellow slickers used by sailors. The combination of crisp white and dark blue comes from Naval uniforms which actually originated from the stripes that 19th century French fisherman once wore.

Multiple Sailing Knots
Photo: Remodelista

Wood is another common element in nautical decor. Rich, highly varnished woods recall the furniture in ships while weathered, light pieces evoke driftwood found beachside. Rope is also often featured as well as maps, other navigational aids, and graphic flags. Metallics, especially brass, reference uniform buttons as well as mechanical ship elements.

Interiors have always been influenced by fashion, and nautical decor is no different.  Queen Victoria was the first to dress her young sons in sailor suits.  Audrey Hepburn helped popularize the modern striped shirt and Coco Chanel did the same for wide legged pants.  This presence in fashion brought an association to beach house decor of adventure and stylishness.

How to Decorate a Coastal Living Room

Nautical Flag in living room
Photo: Apartment Therapy 

A great coastal living room is one that reflects the fun and rejuvenation of time spent on the beach. Look for a color scheme that uses a base of neutrals and navy punctuated with your favorite colors. Add texture and reference sailing ropes and hammocks with jute or sisal rugs and accessories. Include nautical symbols but resist the all-too-easy trap of becoming heavy-handed. Remember, “coastal” is not a theme. It is a design influence. Finish off your space with references to natural elements.

Coastal Decor Living Room
Photo: Patrick Cline
Beach decor living room
Photo: Annie Schlechter

Nautical Wall Decor

Coastal or beach decor nook
Photo: Michael Partenio for New England Home

Looking out at the water gives our brain just the right kind of rest.  There is enough visual stimulus to keep us interested but not so much as to be distracting or draining.  You want your nautical decorating to have that same effect.  Make sure your walls are engaging, but not overly busy.

nautical wall decor
Photo: Ana Antunes

Expand your beach house decor beyond photographs, paintings, and prints.  A wall mounted brass ship bell, vintage nautical flag, or knot display showcase personality and depth.

Decorating Ideas for a Coastal Bedroom

Vintage Coastal Bedroom
Photo: Lynn Morgan Design

Beach-y plays well in a vintage costal bedroom, meshing objects and folk art. Here, old ship models, steamer trunks, and photographs layer together nicely.  Stripes, check patterns, and plaids reference the maritime and keep the room lively.

Vintage coastal bedroom
Photo: William Abranowicz

Nautical Design in the Kitchen

Beach house kitchen
Photo: Lisa Romerein for Country Living

If you keep in mind what appeals to you about nautical decor, your design will stay focused and undiluted by unnecessary elements. These rooms are carefully curated but are nowhere near generic. They evoke the sea without being overt.

Nautical influenced dining room
Photo: Haven America

Nautical Outdoor Decor

Nautical outdoor living
Photo: Virginia Macdonald for Maison & Demeure

Color, texture, and pattern are all just as important in your outdoor living areas. Nature and natural elements are the stars of any open-air space but oars, lanterns, and sailboat decor are right at home here, too.

coastal decor outdoor living
Photo: Ashley Capp for House and Home

Nautical Bathrooms

Nautical inspired bathroom by CM Natural Designs
photo: Chipper Hatter for CM Natural Designs

Smaller spaces demand a little more restraint as they can veer into twee territory quickly.  Avoid going overboard (sorry!) with match-y beach-themed accessories but instead choose solid and thoughtful items such as these whale tail hooks and fishing hook hardware.

A benefit of smaller spaces is being able to utilize the wall as a design element more easily than in a large room. Shiplap has become associated with a modern farmhouse style but, as the name suggests, it has its origins at sea.

Bathroom coastal
Photo: Greg Natale

Tile is another great tool to anchor (sorry, again!) the bathroom. These two rooms above and below use tile to reference knots and waves in a playful but sophisticated way.

nautical decor in the bathroom
Photo: Jess Issac for Emily Henderson

There is so much beauty and symbolism in the sea!  Consider how you can take the colors, textures, and symbols of nautical decor and make them your own.

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  1. Great tips and images here. Thanks for posting! We love the addition on nautical rope furnishings and decor in a home to add texture and a nod to the sea.