A battered painted dresser; an overstuffed sofa covered in faded, flowered fabric; a chipped vase filled with nearly-gone cabbage roses; a light fixture draped in ropes of rock crystal. These design elements are a few of the lasting legacies of Shabby Chic, the home décor empire founded in the late '80s by British transplant Rachel Ashwell. In her latest book, “The World of Shabby Chic” (Rizzoli, $45), the design doyenne looks back on her humble start in both life and business and shows how to mix tattered elegance with easy comfort. Ashwell called from the Prairie, her B&B in the flea market capital of Texas, Round Top, to give us a rundown of her brand’s enduring appeal.
1. Do the white thing: Snow-hued furniture was never a practical option until Ashwell introduced washable white denim slipcovers to the world. “I was, and am, rather shy,” says Ashwell, “and back when I started Shabby Chic, I felt safe in saying that white was a color I liked — I thought it very neutral and wouldn’t be noticed very much. But I came to realize it’s the biggest wow there is — it’s so striking in a room. And of course white denim is the most practical fabric in the world, especially if you have children. I mean, if you can’t wash it, why bother?”
2. Distressed for success: The designer’s appreciation of chipped, worn decor owes much to a childhood spent wandering north London’s famous Camden Passage flea market. “My mum restored antique dolls and sold them at the market, but she didn’t make them pristine — she embraced their imperfections,” recalls Ashwell. “She would use threadbare velvets and frayed ribbons and the result were lovely dolls with some shabby qualities. And my dad had this deep admiration for worn, dog-eared books. To this day, it’s what speaks to me when I’m walking up and down the aisles of a flea market: the good energy of something that’s been used.”
3. For all intents and repurposes: Another lasting Shabby Chic aesthetic involves taking elements from the outdoors and bringing them inside or vice versa. “I just look at every single piece — the palette, the material, the patina — and think, where is it best suited? Where does it look best?” Ashwell’s favorite items to repurpose include potting benches, metal garden chairs (“but make sure to add a nice, mushy down cushion for comfort”) and anything made of wood. “And any kind of garden urn or pot looks good, especially if it’s flaking paint,” she adds. “Fill it with fresh or dried flowers and it makes a beautiful centerpiece.”
4. Mix it up: Ashwell made it stylish to set a table with mismatched dishes and silverware, and mix prints and fabrics throughout the house. “But there is a method to the chaos,” she says with a laugh. “You know, I’m not going to mix completely different styles or colors that clash. But it’s easy to put a floral plate on top of one that’s rimmed with gold, or to mix various shades of blue fabrics in a bedroom. In the world of Shabby Chic, you can’t really go wrong doing that.”
5. Flower power: Everyone knows that nothing freshens up a room faster than fresh buds, but Ashwell’s tenet is more encompassing. “Of course I love fresh flowers, but sometimes it’s not practical — it’s not the right season and they’re too expansive to buy or the weather’s too hot and they’ll wilt,” she says. “It’s fine to use fake flowers — they make so many beautiful ones these days — or even to mix fresh and fake ones. But you can also just bring in the element with a small painting or print because it’s really about the romance and femininity of flowers that’s important.”
6: Glitter sweet: The exclamation point to a classic Shabby Chic room is shimmering crystal chandelier, the older the better. “Even if you live very simply in a less formal setting, it’s a nice little accented detail,” says Ashwell. “There are reproductions that are very affordable now — authentic ones can be so expensive. But if you do find one at a flea market that needs to be re-wired, have it done professionally to be on the safe side. And if you want to give them a little style tweak, you can get different fabrics on the tiny lampshades. “
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