Design Dive: The Aesthetic of Florida
The unifying force in the sunshine state is actually kitsch.
Florida is the land of endless sunshine, white sandy beaches, strange headlines, and a design aesthetic that's as unique as it is captivating. If you find yourself in any classic seafood place on a dock, or in an old seaside motel — you will find a remarkably similar aesthetic. Fish, mermaids, vibrant colors, and general kitsch.
Perhaps because Florida is often at the center of headline politics (or beef with a theme park) its glamour is surpassed by its weirdness. Maybe it’s our violent, unbelievable, or violently unbelievable headlines (here’s one from this week). Or it could be the onslaught of hurricanes and alligators that make it seem a little less-than-dreamy.
I get it. It’s wacky. Florida is a strange peninsula with cities so uniquely diverse from one another, that it can feel like many states (or worlds!) within one state. Just an hour away from Mickey Mouse there is nothing but cows and farmers. 2 hours from there and you are in a washed-up surf town.
I am here to advocate that perhaps the unifying factor across the massive peninsula is the colorful, kitsch aesthetic. There is cohesion in Florida's design unlike any other state, I argue.
Categories of Kitsch we will explore:
Shells & Mermaids (plus sea cows)
A little personal background: I am a 6th generation Floridian, stemming from pioneer ancestors in Arcadia (a town with only 7,500 people in it as of 2021) who drove cattle and worked in the citrus industry.
I grew up in the suburbs of central FL, traveling to the beach every summer, and exploring springs and rivers all year around. No matter where I travel, there is something I find specifically magical about Florida. And I think it’s the absurdity of our design. I love it.
A bass-shaped mailbox is commonplace. Dolphin shower curtains are what all of my friends had growing up. And topless mermaid fountains are rampant in neighborhoods hours from the sea.
Shells & Mermaids
Shells have held a special place in Florida's heart long before the first tourists arrived. Florida's coastline boasts some of the most diverse seashell collections in the world, and these natural treasures still inspire art and design (and tie-dye t-shirts for tourists).
The tradition of shell decor in Florida can be traced back to indigenous tribes that used shells for ornamentation. However, it was during the mid-20th century that shells became a hallmark of Florida's kitsch design. Tourists, charmed by the state's abundant seashell offerings, began to incorporate them into their homes and gardens.
Vogue even featured Sanibel Island as the unofficial seashell capital of North America.
Seashell-covered mirrors and shell-encrusted furniture originated in the condos of snowbirds on the Florida coast. A casual conch example, in Jerry Seinfeld’s parents’ FL home:
Mermaids go hand in hand with shell decor. They have fascinated sailors and storytellers for centuries. In Florida, the allure of mermaids is intertwined with its rich maritime heritage and the fascination of its underwater world.
One of the most famous mermaid attractions in Florida is Weeki Wachee Springs, where live mermaid shows have been captivating audiences since the 1940s.
Mermaid motifs soon found their way into Florida's design landscape too. Mermaid-shaped door knockers, mermaid-themed bathroom tiles, and mermaid yard statues fill Florida homes across the state still.
The shell and mermaid decor aesthetic in Florida is a testament to the state's enduring love affair with its coastal beauty and maritime mythology. It's a celebration of the natural treasures found along its shores and…perhaps also, hardly-clothed women.
Sailors and fishermen often incorporated fish-themed elements into their vessels and living spaces as a way to pay homage to the abundant marine life that sustained their livelihoods.
Fish as Icons of Relaxation
In the early to mid-20th century, Florida's coastal areas saw a surge in popularity as vacation destinations. The emergence of coastal cottages and beachfront bungalows brought with it a wave of fish-themed decor. From fish-shaped mailboxes to whimsical fish-printed fabrics, these homes celebrated the sea and the leisurely lifestyle it offered.
Artistry and Elegance
In the Florida Keys, where fishing is both a tradition and an art form, fish decor took on a more artistic and elegant flair. Local craftsmen and artists created intricate fish sculptures, mosaics, and stained glass pieces that showcased the natural beauty of Florida's marine life. These works of art not only celebrated the sea but also elevated fish decor to a new level of sophistication.
Al Pflueger Jr. is a significantly talented and acclaimed fish taxidermist in Florida. In 1972, Sports Illustrated interviewed him about his craft.
Kitschy Classics: Florida's Motel Marvels
When it comes to capturing the essence of Florida's unique design aesthetic, few places can hold a candle to its quirky, kitschy motels. These roadside gems, with their neon signs, vibrant colors, and whimsical themes, have been a staple of Florida's landscape for decades. Let's take a trip down memory lane and check into the history of kitschy Florida motel design, along with four famous motels that have left an indelible mark on the Sunshine State.
The Birth of Kitschy Motels
The story of kitschy Florida motels begins in the mid-20th century, a time when Florida was experiencing a tourism boom. Motel owners, looking to stand out in the competitive market, started getting creative with their designs. They embraced the bold and the bizarre, infusing their establishments with themes that ranged from tropical paradise to space-age futurism.
Famous Motels That Define the Sunshine State
The Tropics Motor Hotel (Miami Beach): This iconic motel, with its pastel-colored facades and palm tree-lined pool, epitomizes the Miami Beach Art Deco style. It's a blast from the past, a place where guests can step into a time capsule of the 1950s and experience the glamour and elegance of old Miami Beach.
The Starlite Motel (Clearwater): A true relic of the Space Age, the Starlite Motel in Clearwater boasts a futuristic design that includes flying saucer-shaped rooms. It's a testament to the fascination with space and technology that gripped the nation in the 1960s.
Florida, the land of sunshine and kitsch, is home to the tackiest, most eye-catching souvenir shops you'll ever encounter. These vibrant emporiums of memorabilia and oddities are a testament to the state's flair for the flamboyant.
Here is a small directory of stand-out Kissimmee souvenir shops, please click any of them for a shock to the senses:
If a photo was not linked, it can be found here.
🦩 Important FL Links:
Podcast: Florida Men on Florida Man for headline stories and interviews with fascinating Floridians
Music: Orange Blossom Child by Van Plating, inspired by growing up in Florida country
Scent: Vacation’s signature scent smells like poolwater
Watch: The Florida Project
Read: Florida Book by A24
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