Coastal designs are meant to enhance ocean views and promote comfortable, care-free living. While inexpert iterations of the style may seem stiff and outdated, innovative designers often incorporate contemporary elements to create rich, dynamic environments, whether on the coast or just inspired by it. So how do designers balance coastal and high-modern influences to craft luxurious, beachy interiors? We talked with top designers about what it takes to pull off contemporary coastal style today.
1. Architectural Details
Any great design begins with the structure. Corine Maggio, founder of CM Natural Designs in Mill Valley, California, points out that architectural elements can introduce a coastal vibe into a room. “Architectural detailing like molding, wainscoting, and paneling make such a big impact on a space,” says Maggio.
2. Weather-Proof Textiles & Surfaces
Sand, salt, and sun are constant design considerations for homes on the shore, particularly when the client is a young family or a pet owner. Fabrics need to be durable enough for casual living — unless the home owners prefer to be constantly vigilant — and surfaces should be able to withstand at least minimal damage. Barbara Elza Hirsch of Elza B. Design in Concord, Massachusetts, recommends Sunbrella fabrics and powder-coated metals that resist staining from salt water, as well as polypropylene and sisal rugs that can be shaken out; tile near doorways, luxury vinyl flooring, and painted wood floors all help minimize damage in heavy-traffic areas. “Ideally, have an outdoor shower made to track sand and salt before it enters the home,” says Hirsch.
3. Simple, Clean Lines
Simplicity is of the utmost important in coastal design. “Easy living is the overall goal,” says Lisa Michael, a designer based in Delray Beach, Florida. Clean-lined cabinetry can help create this fantasy of effortlessness, as can other elements that focus on crisp, classic forms. Lisa Walsh, owner of Walsh Hill Design in Pennsylvania, recommends using sharp lines, like stripes, to emphasize the horizon line outside.
4. Avoid Over-Emphasizing a Nautical Theme
The most obvious way to create a coastal style is to incorporate nautical elements, including anchor motifs, decorative objects, and beachy artwork. With restraint, nautical tropes can help express the soul of a design; without it, the design risks coming off as cheap or overwrought. “Being too overt with nautical or coastal references” can disrupt the subtle beauty of a design, according to Joni Vanderslice, president of J Banks Design in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The team at J Banks Design suggests avoiding or limiting the use of seashells. “Use boats, fish, and anchors sparsely, if at all,” advises Sophia Shibles, a designer based in Providence, Rhode Island.
5. Sea-Inspired Shades and Materials
Colors and materials inspired by the ocean can help round out the theme more subtly than nautical accessories. "Materials that reference the coastal elements of sand, sea, and sky can enhance a coastal style," says Walsh. "For instance, a matte glass tile that resembles sea glass, with its soft sand-blasted texture, suggests the beach in tone and texture." Details are important, as is the overall palette. "Choosing a palette inspired by nature — the sand, sky, and sea or even foliage — is a great place to start," says Florida-based designer Amanda Webster. "Adding natural and organic elements, such as shell, bone, driftwood, ropes, and cork, helps to add a layered look."
6. Tread Carefully with Gloss
Excessive gloss may look contemporary, but it's not always coastal. “Stay away from anything shiny, including wood finishes,” says Shibles. For other designers, gloss can enhance a coastal style if executed correctly. Hirsch, for example, notes that painted lacquer furniture can reference “glossy sailboat paint treatments” — gesturing toward a nautical theme without risking heavy handedness. Like dramatically nautical elements, glossy finishes should be used minimally if they're appropriate for the space.
7. Emphasize Views with Every Detail
If a home has water views, every detail in the house should enhance those vistas, rather than obstruct them. Window treatments are key for emphasizing water views, and designers often recommend sheer or light drapery. Other accents matter as well. For example, large, contemporary pendants may help a room look more modern, but they risk blocking windows from different perspectives in a room, depending on the layout of a room and the fixture's location. Rachel Reider, a Boston-based interior designer, recommends glass lighting. “Glass oversized light fixtures are another go to element in creating a modern coastal environment,” says Reider. “They make a statement without obstructing water views.”
8. Treasure Imperfection
Unlike other genres of contemporary design, a contemporary coastal look shouldn't be too polished. Stefani Stein, a designer in Los Angeles, suggests using natural elements to emphasize the connection between the outdoors and in, particularly those that lack perfect symmetry, which may give materials a manufactured quality. “Nature is imperfect, and I like how subtle imperfections in the materials bring the natural feeling indoors as well,” says Stein.
9. It's Not All About Location
For many designers, location is not the defining feature of a coastal aesthetic. Designers at J Banks Design refer to coastal style as "light and airy, eclectic with a casual sense of space, with textures and mixed use of finishes," agreeing that it can be used in any home. A sense of lightness and freedom of space are aspirational for many clients. "Homeowners can incorporate the natural elements, ambiance, and softer color palette of a classic coastal interior to create a relaxing, easy, and airy retreat to enjoy every day," says Webster.