Secreted in safe spots are talismans of the sea and our return to nature, in the form of shells whose infinite variations of form, pattern, texture and colour, remind us of the shaping forces of nature. We take them back to our city homes and offices glancing at them from time to time, remembering and drawing inspiration.
The appeal of the shell is timeless and, as Gaston Bachelard argues, ‘deeply rooted in our humanness’. We have made it into an archetypal symbol of the cycle of life: occupied it signifies home, birth and growth; unoccupied emptiness, death, and the on-going flux of life and matter.
As we inspect our shell, tracing its rhythmic forms and surfaces with our fingers, and holding it closely to our ear to listen for the ocean’s roar we awaken our senses to the greater order of nature of which we are but a small part. We witness in its spiral forms, be they conical, cylindrical or flat, the mystery of form giving life slowly over time.
We sense the aesthetic rightness of the shell, admiring the integrated growth of its structure, forms and ornament with its purpose and environment. And as we gaze back at ancient fossilised ammonites with their spiral growth trajectories crystallised forever, we sense something of that hidden order of the universe that Plato and others theorise is the source of true beauty.
For the poet Paul Valery shells glow with ‘the spirit of geometry’, with the nautilus pompilius being the ideal because it most closely approximates the logarithmic spiral that records the trajectory of growth and thus life.
In the spirals of the nautilus and all shells we find Leonardo da Pisa’s Fibonacci sequence and so are able to connect their growth patterns to those of the wider universe of things including sunflowers, leaves on a plant stem, the spiral nebulae of the solar system and our fingerprints.
Having studied spirals of shells with scientific intensity, Theodore Cook called them ‘the curves of life’. He proposed a ‘theory of spirality’ and argued that in the shell, we find the link between theories of life, growth and beauty.
While ideals of beauty might change, the shell has always provided designers and architects with inspiration. For example, Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala kept boxes of shells in his office and home, drawing inspiration for motifs, structure and forms.
Australians Grant and Mary Featherston similarly used nature as a field of design enquiry, drawing inspiration from the functional essentialism and organic structural logic of leaves, bones, seedpods and shells.
More famous examples are perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and the ubiquitous spiral staircase. Like the shell, the beauty of the spiral staircase as a visual concept is in its form, that continues to grow, never occupying the same space, thus not only explaining the past but also prophesising the future.
Victor Papanek advised designers to study the biological structures and systems in ‘the handbook of nature’ and design analogous man-made systems that respond with intelligence to the ecology and environment.
Each shell we pick up on the beach links us into the elemental cycles of nature. It speaks of the natural order and the environment in which everything impacts on each other for both good and bad.