What is (and Isn’t) Coastal Design?
At its core, coastal interior design is inspired by the elements that occur naturally on a coastline’s sandy shores: wind-swept dunes in tan and taupe, ocean blues that range from whispering blues to brooding hues, and natural flora and fauna like seagrass and aged driftwood. Coastal design is intended to evoke the essence of being in a serene, airy coastal oasis — any time of year.
When it comes to this easy, breezy style, there are a few common misconceptions — the first of which is that coastal interior design can only apply to homes that are in close proximity to the shorelines of beaches and lakes. This is simply untrue; the essence of coastal design is rooted in memories of time spent along those shorelines. The interior design style is more about being inspired by components of the landscape than it is emulating a beachfront home itself.
Another common misconception is that “coastal” design is synonymous with “nautical”. These two styles are, in fact, quite different. While you are welcome to embrace nautical motifs such as anchors and sailboats if they speak to you, these elements aren’t as necessary in coastal design as the name of the style may suggest. And yes, you can still weave in artwork depicting seascapes and other oceanic influences, but remember that a well-executed coastal interior design style expresses a feeling — one of tranquility and serenity.
With an eye for choice materials, usage of natural light and a carefully considered color palette, you can easily evoke the essence of a tranquil coastal respite in your home.
A Color Palette Derived from Nature
Convention may lead you to believe that cobalt blue and crisp white convey nautical style and living. But, as we’ve established, nautical is not the same as coastal. So, unless you want your bedroom to vaguely resemble a cruise ship cabin, you need to think broader than blue-and-white-everything (although you certainly may want to consider hues on this spectrum).
If you’re stuck on what constitutes a coastal interior design color palette, try this exercise. Either take a walk on a beach (if this option is available to you) or peruse coastal images in a quick Google search. Take note of what colors occur naturally in the landscape. You’ll quickly notice that the water isn’t always picture-perfect blue. Sometimes it’s moodier, resembling more of a slate blue with charcoal grey undertones. Other times, frothing white caps may grab your attention, or a calm surface on a sunny day may seem to glitter like a box of jewels. Use these images to inspire a color palette unique to your own authentic style.
Tip: Good sources of inspiration are publications that specialize in coastal interior design, such as Coastal Living, Ocean Home and Ocean Drive (particularly the home and real-estate section).
Coastal Living Room
The essence of a home along the shores — when you’re not sitting on the beach — is about spending time together in the living room while reading books, playing games or engaging in conversation. The key is to invest in comfortable furniture in coastal living room style—and plenty of it.
Two armchairs flanking a fireplace so far apart that you may need to shout to hear one another is not exactly inviting. Instead, consider two or three sofas and chairs paired with accompanying ottomans. Drawing from your larger palette, those furnishings could be sourced in shades of off-white, ivory, or beige, or perhaps a sky blue or sea green. Embrace sources of natural light to help create an airy atmosphere.
When it comes to anchoring your space with a rug, there are a few possible approaches. One is to opt for a jute or natural-fiber rug, which echoes the natural elements that can be found organically on sandy shores (think seagrass and driftwood). Another option is to seek out a textured, patterned rug that features shades from your larger color palette — perhaps a spectrum of blues and whites, or even pops of blush, cranberry or coral if your palette features warmer tones.
Next is the fun part: styling with accessories. If you’re struggling with how to employ coastal decorating ideas for living rooms, there is a bit of an art to it. The key is to group like pieces together, perhaps arranged on a built-in or console table, or hanging in a small nook with a simple armchair below, which goes a long way to building an eye-catching vignette.
When sourcing accessories and books, look for engaging titles that reflect your personal interests, or those that nod to a coastal theme. Be sure to seek out colorful spines that connect to your larger palette — and don’t be afraid to take a peek under the dust jacket; sometimes the bare hardcover on its own is the perfect fit for a stylish stack.
Next, fold in objects of personal significance: framed photos, family heirlooms of tabletop size, or other decorative art and objects that reflect the spirit of laid-back tranquility. Try to avoid “packing it in,” which will lead to a cramped feeling in the space—the exact opposite of that easy, breezy feel that the style calls for.
Without going overboard on your architectural design, or installing shiplap on your cathedral ceiling, try to keep “open layout” in mind when positioning furnishings and designating activities in certain rooms. This principle goes for the kitchen as well. Most coastal kitchen designs include an island with bar-height seating for casual grab-and-go meals en route to the beach. It’s also an idyllic spot to bask in early-morning sun while you relax with a cup of coffee.
Due to the wide variety of seashell- and sailboat-motif linens, servingware, and decorative art designed for the kitchen, this is the room where you need to practice some restraint. For a cautionary tale, look to the 1980s, when most on-trend kitchens sported chickens and roosters to reinforce “farmhouse” style. When mulling over coastal kitchen decor, try to avoid overtly oceanic motifs.
Instead, begin with the palette for a kitchen that emulates oceanfront living — perhaps that includes white, blue, and warm neutrals. Fold in woven baskets to store loose items, as opposed to metal or plastic containers, for a more refined aesthetic.
Dining chairs with open backs or those crafted from bent bamboo or burnt rattan look especially great in a coastal-inspired kitchen. This open-weave design further reinforces the concept of relaxed, leisurely living, especially when paired with abundant sources of natural light.
Coastal Bedroom Ideas
What often makes a coastal bedroom successful are the little surprises you find throughout the space. For example, in a coastal guest bedroom, you might pull back a perfectly made bed to find a classic pin-stripe or perhaps a bolder starfish-motif, or find a guest bedroom neatly tucked with a lovely Rebecca Atwood duvet cover in a watercolor print. A sheet set is an ideal way to lean into your theme as it remains mostly hidden, but serves a perfect opportunity to surprise and delight at the end of the day.
For a coastal gallery wall idea, we love incorporating one or two framed pieces of art that clearly nod to seaside themes (perhaps a beautiful photograph of a sailboat or a seascape painting), then leaving the balance of the installation for abstract art that complements to the colors featured in your coastal pieces.
For coastal bedroom furniture, avoid heavy, overstuffed and upholstered loveseats or armchairs in favor of a chair or bench born out of woven materials, like the Southport Rattan Bench by Suzanne Kasler.
Beyond linens and seating, another place to fold in coastal interior design in the bedroom is with a headboard. Choosing a woven or cane headboard—made comfier with propped-up pillows for relaxing or reading in bed—helps achieve the look. Distressed woods also look great on a headboard, as opposed to more polished, shiny or hand-carved pieces you might find in Mission style or Victorian style décor.
Coastal Bathroom Ideas
A coastal bathroom may very well be the easiest room to nail as it’s all about minimalism and a clean palette. In searching for coastal bathroom décor, go bold with a stunning framed print or photo of something that reminds you of the ocean, juxtaposed with otherwise pared-down accents. When paired with fixtures, a rug and towels, the look is nearly seamless.
If you are fortunate to have an abundance of counter space and don’t like the idea of stuffing everything into drawers, invest in catch-alls crafted from natural materials, like banana-leaf baskets, as well as utilitarian items like recycled-glass drinking glasses or a toothbrush holder. (Again, when it comes to accessories, it’s more about a subtle nod to your inspiration, so try to avoid a maximalist approach).
Other coastal bathroom ideas are about selecting cabinetry and furnishings — from vanities to seating — that are made from wood or other natural materials and not in dark shades or tones. A small stool that resembles a tree stump or has an organic shape is perfect for setting outside the shower or adjacent to a bathtub.
Don’t be afraid to incorporate a bit of whimsy in this space, too. Leaning into a fun, punchy wallpaper in a powder room provides an unexpected surprise. In larger bathrooms, consider wallpapering a single wall to anchor the vanity for a pop of personality — in measured doses.
Bringing it All Together
Coastal interior design is ultimately about evoking a sense of place — the feeling you get when checking into an inn by the sea; the joy of meeting friends in a rental home steps from the sand. Consider your life experiences and vacation memories as you build your dream design. The rest will come easily — just like a day at the beach.