The call of the scallop

The call of the scallop

Why have the gentle curves of the scallop inspired generations of architects, artists and designers, asks interiors editor Giles Kime.

When, in the late fifteenth century, the artist Sandro Botticelli depicted Venus, goddess of love and beauty, after her birth, he showed her being borne across the waves on a giant scallop shell that had conveyed her from the depths below. Back when the sea was still uncharted territory, shells, pearls and coral – as well as sea creatures such as whales and dolphins – were evidence of a mysterious parallel universe with its own deity, from Neptune to Poseidon.

Botticelli and his contemporaries, like the sculptors, muralists and mosaicists of ancient Rome and Greece before them, were inspired by the simplicity of natural forms – and not just the human body but also the striking features of plants and animals, such as the scrolling acanthus leaves which characterise the Corinthian capitals that are a feature of classical buildings. Like the colours to be found in nature, these pleasing shapes brought architecture and design to life.

But in particular, it was the sea that, for centuries, inspired generations of artists and designers – and still does. The gentle, rhythmic curves of the scallop shell contrast against the functional efficiency of the straight line. In Moorish and medieval buildings, scalloping adds a decorative edge to arches. In the classically inspired architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it brought a flourish to architectural facades and interior plasterwork.

The shape of the scallop also lends itself to lighting; in the twentieth century, it inspired iconic lighting designs by the Finnish industrial designer, Paavo Tynell. More recently, British interior designers such as Rita Konig, Salvesen Graham and Soane Britain have employed the scallop to bring a whimsical quality to slipcovers, rugs and furniture. On the table, this decorative edge gives a discrete, curvaceous feel to mats and linen. Yet the appeal of a scallop’s gentle curves is not just visual, it’s also tactile. As handles, such as the Aberdovey drawer pull in the collection of hardware specialists Armac Martin, bring pleasure to the simple act of opening a drawer. The allure of the scallop shell lives on through the centuries.

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