Caroline Perrin is a shell designer or, alternatively, a shell artist. She decorates objects with seashells — deﬁnitely a niche pursuit.
"We ate mussels for three days," Caroline Perrin says, laughing. "For lunch and dinner. And even breakfast sometimes."
Caroline had been commissioned to create two enormous mirrors to grace the entrance of the magniﬁcent new Hôtel Intercontinental, formerly the Hôtel Dieu, in Marseille. The mirrors were to be framed by a grand, intricate pattern of mussel shells.
This was a big project, so she engaged a handful of friends to help her in the enviable task of eating 80kg of mussels non-stop to yield enough shells to frame the two mirrors. "And with no cream — we prepared them with just wine, because I didn’t want the shells to be too greasy," she added. She needed 1500 shells for each frame- and then came the hard part, cleaning the shells, sorting them into 12 different sizes and then ﬁnally glueing them.
"It was complicated, but it was fun," — and the results are jaw-dropping, admired by visitors from around the world.
She has been based in Carpentras since 2008, where her garage serves as her atelier, now ﬁlled with boxes and boxes of shells. Her pieces take pride of place in homes and public places in Provence, all over Europe, England, the US and, more recently, in far-ﬂung locales like Hong Kong and the Middle East. The crazy idea came to her over 20 years ago when she was living in south-west France. A friend had a house on the beach in the Landes, and Caroline used to spend weekends there with her children, exploring and collecting shells.
"I was just playing around with what I could do with them, and suddenly I found this way to glue them," she explains. She decided to make a frame for herself. Some friends came to visit and loved it, and asked if she would like to sell it to them. That was the beginning — she made a second, which she sold, then a third.
There she was, right in the middle of nowhere in the Dordogne, but with the inspiration to expand her creative project. Maybe she could ﬁnd some different and brightly coloured shells? Before long she was sourcing exotic shells from South East Asia, and began decorating other objects like boxes and lamps.
Boutiques on the French Riviera started to take her pieces. Then she started presenting her work in Paris at the twice-yearly Maison & Objet show, and has exhibited there for the last 18 years.
Caroline is always looking for new ideas, including searching websites, "but sometimes the ideas just come from my mind, that’s it!" she explains.
And what a creative mind she has! Her beautiful and functional items also include elaborate baroque mirrors, wall panels and friezes to surround a pool area or bathroom, salt cellars, and even funerary urns. Some examples of her intricate work with mussel shells create mesmerising patterns that look very contemporary, and could hang in a modern house or apartment. In recent years she has started creating more whimsical decorative objects, like masks and sculpted ﬁsh.
"It’s great fun and very funny to make them, because you play with the shells and they are all different. I knew the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (the 16th century Italian artist who painted portraits composed of fruit and vegetables), and I thought maybe I could make faces out of shells."
Her fanciful ﬁsh will make you smile, with some being semi-realistic reproductions of strange bottom-hugging ﬁsh of the Mediterranean, while others are the product of her rich imagination.
It’s meticulous and detailed work, to be sure. Three years ago, she glued millions of mini shells to make a fountain for a private residence in Hong Kong, and the following year she spent a month in Montenegro decorating ﬁreplaces.
"I love to do that, to travel and create something somewhere else — it’s very interesting!"
Caroline shows no signs of slowing down, and her studio in Carpentras is buzzing with activity. Her latest commission is for a show at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York.
"I love what I’m doing," she says. "I have the shows in Paris, I have orders, I create. As long as I can do it, I’ll keep doing it."