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Perhaps it's the mystery of the sea that captures the imagination. And how can we not be drawn in by the beauty of the color alone, starting with the glorious blues, from inky indigo to aquamarine? Whether it's the Caribbean or the Aegean, the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, Lake Michigan or Lake Como, the water — and the life within — most definitely informs the interiors of the homes near them.

But you don't have to live on the water to reap the benefits of the design. Especially this year.

Coastal decor, like Southwest and other region-specific styles, always has an audience. But page through summer catalogs and you can't help but notice enchanting images of sea critters on pillows, plates, napkins, fabrics and even wallcovering that may be equally tempting to the landlocked.

Even before we saw the glorious under-the-sea themed fabrics in Paris showrooms in January, we knew this was more than a passing fancy when we spotted a particular shop window in the City of Light. It was filled with an entire tableau of sea creatures: fish, anemones, coral — all crafted from passementerie and elegant upholstery and drapery trims.

"We all are drawn to the sea," says Chris Sotz, a home decor buyer at Anthropologie. "The ocean provides inherent muses and models. The fantasy about the sea translates to painting, watercolors."

Italian designer Paola Navone says that her Fish collection of tableware for Crate and Barrel was "happily inspired by the Mediterranean sea ... the fish and all their beauty, curious shapes and personalities."

For the Anthropologie team, it was a concept trip to Sardinia that generated a sea of ideas. Sardines and octopi especially struck a chord because artists had fun graphically laying them up end to end or superimposing images on disparate prints such as florals.

Decorative artists long have been fascinated with aquatic life. Captivating naturalist vintage hand-colored lithographs from the 18th and 19th centuries depicting fish, coral, anemones, urchins and nautilus are popular collectibles, beautifully displayed in traditional or modern decor. So are typical Japanese woodblock prints of carp.

The freshest images today also transition well even as they shine in coastal style, which has been morphing to less cluttered, more streamlined looks that are more sophisticated than kitschy, and quite evocative graphically. .

Playful, fanciful images are like screen grabs from "The Little Mermaid" — except that the colors, while vivid, are dialed down a bit to blend. And not all of the sea motifs are in Technicolor, either. Shades of gray or sand on white as in a series of pillows at West Elm grab attention in a stunning modern setting with a blue-painted barn-planking background and modern gray sectional.

So what elements can be woven into sea themes?

Sea creatures, of course. Coral has become iconic, the equivalent of the nautical anchor emblem. We love the patterning of its intricate branching and variety in type (wrinkled brains, cabbages, antlers and polyps), as well as color (not just red, but brilliant blues, lavender, yellow and black).

Natural materials, such as shells, mother of pearl and woven sea grass, are organic elements that bridge coastal and other styles of decor.

Shapes also play a role. For example, naturally curvy sea horses can be a prime design element. A simple metal tub on stand from Frontgate is distinguished by sea horses that form its handles; it's constructed of powder-coated aluminum with a painted, antiqued white finish. It's the kind of versatile piece that can be filled with ice for beverages on the deck or with greenery or ornaments for a holiday centerpiece.

All shades of blue also are essential ingredients, which is one reason for the appeal of sea or beach glass as an accessory. The smooth, weathered shards in shades of blue and green are especially beautiful in a clear vessel. (One source: Bed, Bath & Beyond, where a 3-pound bag sells for $8.99;

Appliques, embroidery or beading in pillows or table runners introduce texture, which can be smooth as well, with mother of pearl or other shell motifs used on place mats or trims or as inlays in furniture.

Aquatic designs can be effortlessly integrated into existing decor:

■Pillows are an easy way to introduce sea critters, which can be front and center on neutral ground or part of an overall pattern. Pillows on a sofa designed by Barclay Butera for Highland House, for example, feature a fish reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints in a blue-on-white pattern that doesn't jump out. Even subtler is a print made up of sea anemones that you really can't make out unless you look closely.

■Neutral additions can be furnishings such as tables made out of driftwood, whose natural shapes are incorporated into the design. Or go bold with a single chair that looks like it's made out of real coral. The design by Marjorie Skouras for Currey & Co. is crafted from powder-coated aluminum and can be used indoors or out on the deck.

■A piece of art can create a dramatic focal point. A supersized framed print of blue coral from Williams-Sonoma Home grounds a living space and echoes a blue and white palette punched up with coral accents. The modern water color-y feel lends modernity, as well as softness. Smaller prints of coral can be grouped together. And you might consider a feature wall with wallcovering in a sea theme: fish or coral. Anthropologie and Sanderson are among possible sources.

■Faux white shells decoratively placed on a grapevine wreath with a burlap ribbon from Pottery Barn (or do it yourself with real souvenir shells) create a handsome decorative accent, which can be used year-round, adding a bit of coastal cheer during the holidays. Besides, a little year-round beachy style is relaxed, feel-good decor.

"Think about the ease with being at the beach and the calm when you're near water," says Sotz. "Many of us have memories of being by the sea as a child. This is a nice way to bring that feeling home."


■Anthropologie, 800-309-2500,

■CB2, 800-606-6252,

■Crate and Barrel, 800-967-6696,

■Frontgate, 888-263-9850,

■Garnet Hill, 800-870-3513,

■Highland House, 336-889-5600,

■Pottery Barn, 888-779-5176,

■West Elm, 888-922-4119,

■Williams-Sonoma Home, 877-812-6235,

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