A Guide to Coastal Design and How to Decorate With It

Cate Brown Maloney Interiors coastal design kitchen breakfast bar

Cate Brown for Maloney Interiors

In This Article

Whether you live near the ocean or simply long for interior spaces that reflect a breezy, beach-like feel, coastal design style may be right up your alley. We spoke with interior designers specializing in coastal spaces who shared the key colors, design elements, and styling tips to keep in mind when transforming your own home.

What Is Coastal Design Style?

Coastal design is characterized by the reflection of natural seaside elements—surf, sand, and sky—in the home through color and texture. It is often confused with nautical design style.

Origins

According to designer Caroline Kopp, "Coastal style is all about that feeling of peace and fun that you get from being near the water." And the look itself is nothing new. "Coastal design has been around for centuries, largely because it was the manner in which people decorated their waterfront or seaside homes," designer Amy Leferink explains. Originating in the Hamptons in the late 19th century, the style has made its way across the country but takes different forms depending on region, designer Andra DelMonico shares. " In more traditional Northeastern homes you’ll see varnished dark wood making an appearance," she notes. "In the Southern states, you may see lighter woods there are greyed from the saltwater and air exposure. Head to the warmer climates of Florida and California and you’ll find more tropical-inspired coastal design."

Adds Leferink, "Over time, this look has evolved to be less literal and more an overall interpretation subject to the designer or homeowner and how they choose to bring the outside in, regardless of the home being situated in a coastal location."

katherine carter coastal bedroom

Katherine Carter

Key Elements

The coastal aesthetic is defined by the use of a few specific color families, designers note. "Anyone can bring coastal design into their space just by using the right colors," designer Nicole Martel explains. "You can never go wrong with neutrals, but if you're looking for something a little more fun, try using bright and airy colors with pops of navy, or different hues of blues and greens (think sea glass)." Kopp summarizes this overall philosophy when noting, "The colors in coastal style are drawn from the water: think sand, clouds, and the sea."

While you'll want to part ways with bold prints like leopard and ikat, you can still enjoy a bit of pattern play, Martel says, noting that "striped fabrics are always a great way to lean into that coastal look."

Designer Ally Maloney offers advice for those renovating a home to reflect a coastal look. "I love wide plank white oak floors," she says. "I also love rift sawn or quarter sawn white oak cabinets and furniture. Teak is also a great material for coastal style homes." Located on the water? Those building a home from scratch may wish to implement an "upside down home" floor plan, which is often implemented "in order to respond to the biggest and best views while also protecting the structure from the harsh environments," architect Cathy Purple Cherry explains. The phrase refers to houses in which bedrooms are located on the lower level and the kitchen and living room is upstairs.

Cate Brown for Maloney Interiors coastal design bathroom

Cate Brown for Maloney Interiors

Once you select a few soothing hues that you'll use to guide your decorating scheme, it's time to focus on what Martel considers to be two major players within coastal design: lighting and texture. "Many people overlook lighting, but in coastal design we see it as a critical element," she explains. "We love to use wooden bead or capiz chandeliers and fun sconces with coastal elements to give rooms that perfect coastal vibe."

Of course, these types of light fixtures will bring welcome texture to a space, but there are other ways to add some intrigue, Martel says. "Think driftwood finishes on furniture and accessories, woven wood roman shades, sisal or jute rugs, grasscloth wallpaper. The possibilities are endless." Kopp agrees. "I like to bring in natural textures like jute, cotton, and limestone to give that casual relaxed vibe, and make you feel like you are on vacation," she says.

And don't be afraid about incorporating a bit of everything, Martel encourages. "Mix and match within the same space to really drive the look home.

Decorating Tips

Not actually near the coast? Fake it a bit with art! "I love water and clouds as a motif in photography, it is a great way to bring in the spirit of the coastline even if you don't have a direct water view," Kopp shares.

While selecting artwork and accessories, there is an important distinction to keep in mind, though. "Don’t confuse coastal with nautical," Maloney says. "Anchors, seashells, and cabana stripes are a node to nautical design, not coastal design. Don’t be kitschy with your decor."

christina kim interior design coastal kitchen

Design by Christina Kim Interior Design / Photo by Raquel Langworthy

And while coastal style rooms can certainly be enjoyed anywhere, there are special factors to keep in mind when decorating a home that truly is located by the ocean. "Coastal style takes a relaxed approach with fabrics and textiles," Kopp states. "You want pieces that are going to wear well and that will not be damaged by wet bathing suits and crowds of kids."

Last but not least, think about the ways in which you can implement what designer Courtnay Tartt Elias refers to as "seamless living." She explains, "Living in the South and close to the water means that there's a lot of focus on outdoor/indoor spaces." As a result, she adds, "There's certainly a desire to bring the soothing nature of the outdoors in, and to erase the line between the two. I believe that this feeling or desire is what really helped coastal style take off."