By Karon Warren | Photography courtesy of Millie Burke/Lowcountry Linens
Combining the natural and enhanced beauty of oyster shells, artist Millie Burke creates décor items that are keepsakes.
Even with 25 years of interior and graphic design under her belt, Millie Burke never stops looking for inspiration. Her latest creation? Decorated oyster shells.
At Lowcountry Linens in Hilton Head Island, S.C., Burke creates and sells a wide variety of hand-block printed kitchen linens, decorative pillows, home accessories, jewelry and more. Most items feature Burke’s own creative designs or artwork.
“I started with the kitchen textiles and the hand-block printed kitchen towels,” Burke says. “I have the towels made in India, and then we do all of the hand-block printing here. I carve all of the printing blocks. My workers and myself do the hand-block printing.”
Last year, Burke introduced a new product: oyster bowls. These items are created using natural oyster shells sourced from throughout the United States, which are then imprinted with her original designs or artwork. She declines to go into detail of her exact process because, as she states on more than one occasion, there are copycats everywhere.
“I already had a lot of the designs, so I decided to take my block print designs and, using our own method here that we don’t really like to expose because so many people try and copy us now, which is always a battle in this industry, we take the original block-print designs and put them onto the oyster shells,” Burke says. “It’s a seven-step process for us. We’re very detail-oriented. There’s a lot of work that goes into ours. We put several coats of finish on them after we transfer the image.”
The result is an oyster shell with a lovely design that can be displayed on a small easel or used as a ring bowl or other decorative display. Oyster bowl designs fall into two categories: “designer” and “map” oyster shell bowls. The “designer” category features Burke’s hand-block printed designs and imprints of her original artwork. The “map” category features standard and custom maps of states, cities or specific areas.
Popular designs include the ginger jar with orchid, the pineapple, the orange topiary tree with the ginger jar, and all the map designs. Coastal designs featuring shrimp, sand dollars, and other beach-themed items also are popular.
“The three oysters on the oyster shell (one of her paintings), that’s new and that’s going like crazy,” Burke says.
Burke says creating the oyster bowls was a natural progression based on previous success with the shells.
“Oyster shells really took off for us a couple of years ago,” she says. “I had carved printing blocks of oyster shells, and they were like our top seller on our kitchen towels.”
Burke also had been working with the shells on another product she designed called welcoming beads, which are strands of hand-painted wood beads.
“We started using the shells as a decorative ornament on the welcoming beads,” she says.
In addition, she’d been using the shells in other ways, too, such as hand painting oyster shells on some art and on pillows.
Customer response to the oyster bowls has been nothing short of overwhelming, she says.
“We are so busy trying to get the orders out, I can’t even tell you,” Burke says. “And it doesn’t seem to be fading. It seems to be just getting stronger and stronger.”
She says she thinks customers love them because of their combination of natural and enhanced beauty.
“They’re natural, yet they’re embellished with something wonderful,” Burke explains. “I have a retail store, too, and people come in and they love the oyster shell paintings, but they don’t have anywhere to put it or they can’t afford to buy a painting at the time. However, they love the fact they can get that art on a little oyster shell and still have a piece of the art. A lot of people buy the oyster shell and put it on the little gold easel so they use them or give them as a small piece of art, or they can use them as a ring bowl. They’re just so unique. I think people just love them.”
Going forward, expect to see more from Burke, with or without oyster shells.
“I’m always thinking of new designs,” she says. “Even when I’m driving, I’m thinking of new designs. You always need to be thinking. You have to have that kind of brain, I guess, to keep doing something like this. I never get tired of it.”
The oyster shell bowls are available online at lowcountrylinens.com for $36 each or available at Paisley Pineapple in Olive Branch, Miss.