Thursday, January 9, 2014

Decorating with Seaside Nature


When I moved to the farm a little over 6 months ago, one of the first areas I decorated was the living room mantle.  In my previous house, I didn't have a fireplace and I really missed having one.  It's a space for treasured collections and Christmas stockings, a focal point of sculptural carvings and conversation.

This part of the house dates back to the American Federal period of architecture and was built around 1810 by my ancestor, Pelatiah Ransom.  The back room of the house was built thirty years earlier but, as his prosperity grew, so did his apparent desire for a larger, more updated home in keeping with the style of the new republic.  The living room, then called a parlor, was the center of entertaining within the house.  The elegant, hand-planed moldings around the windows and doors were the finest in the house.  The fireplace mantle and surround were equally graceful, reflecting the period's fascination with ancient Greek and Roman architecture and the symmetry, pure white color, and fine proportion that defined it.

Many years ago, the original brick beehive fireplace and chimney had to be removed, probably due to the homemade mortar disintegrating, a common problem with antique homes.  The firebox was boarded up, but the mantle remained.  When my sister and I inherited the house, there was a lot of rehabilitation that needed to be done, including removing carpets and replacing some of the damaged plaster.  Since we were doing all that work, we decided to also return the fireplace to it's original beauty.  We removed the board from the firebox and, to our surprise, found pairs of old shoes in there.  After a little research, we believe it may have been an old superstition to bring good luck.  A friend who was skilled in masonry rebuilt the brick firebox with discarded bricks and designed a lovely bluestone hearth.  (We also returned the shoes to their rightful place behind the bricks.)  The original American Chestnut floor, hidden for so many years beneath wall-to-wall carpeting, was lovingly restored with my sister and brother-in-law's elbow grease.  It's easy to see why the extraordinarily wide planks and patina are so sought-after today for their beauty, in addition to American Chestnut being a now-extinct wood.

I have a few collections that could have gone on the mantle:  small hand-made pottery that I collected in Europe and New England, wooden folk art animal figurines, British tin tea boxes, hand-blown glass from my college days in Venice, and cast-iron birds and crickets, to name a few.  I will probably keep most of the collections in storage and rotate them in and out every few months.

I decided on my seashore collection.  We took annual summer trips to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and would return with buckets of seashells, tumbled sea glass, flattened pebbles, and driftwood. One year, I found a unique grey fossil on the beach that may have been a distant cousin of a sand dollar.  For our honeymoon, JP and I went to the Cayman Islands where huge conch shells and pieces of coral wash up on the shore.  I think he rolled his eyes as I loaded shells and coral, carefully wrapped in our clothes, into our suitcases to bring home.  I also found imitation coral and starfish on the clearance rack at a home decorating store; they looked and felt almost real (and were a real bargain).

The conch shells and coral were fairly dingy and a bit green with algae.  I soaked them for a day in a mild bleach solution and then scrubbed them with a toothbrush and hand soap.  I arranged my collection on the mantle, choosing the best pieces that showed patterns, textures, and interesting shapes.  The lovely brain coral sits in the center with other pieces of varying shapes, sizes, and textures arranged to either side.

Here are some tips for a seashore arrangement:

- A wall painted with a light shade, especially ocean blue, is a crisp background for white shells.
- Prop a framed, beach-themed art work or mirror in the back of the display.  The shabby-chic mirror I used is perfect:  it echoes the whiteness and organic shapes of the shells, reflects light back which makes the room feel larger, and has cut-outs which highlight the blue wall color.
- Shells don't need to be perfect.  Some of my most interesting finds have been shells covered with barnacles and shells with broken pieces which reveal the spiraling interior.
- Look beyond shells to other seashore artifacts, such as faded driftwood, clear and colored sea glass, clear jars filled with beach sand, pastel stones, starfish, sand dollars.
- Mix different shapes, sizes, and textures.
- Look for interesting display methods, such as stacking stones, piling miscellaneous shells in a basket, or filling a clear vessel 
- Incorporate the ocean theme into other parts of the room.  I hung antique glass buoys in netting in front of the windows and framed family photos from a day at the beach.
- Preserve ocean wildlife: never break off or touch pieces of live coral; never collect living starfish, sand dollars, or animals living in shells; and avoid walking on off-limit sand dunes. 


An ocean collection may not have been what was originally displayed on this mantle two hundred years ago, but I feel it's a fitting connection to this house and history.  The Ransom family traces ancestors back to the 1600's from the original seaside Plymouth colony and Cape Cod.  In addition, many Americans during the Federal period were enthusiastic about representing themselves as worldly; their new-found democracy and victory prompted them to learn about other lands and collect exotic treasures.

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