Rachel Ashwell: Shabby Chic Inspiration and Beautiful Spaces is a new book that features quintessential Shabby Chic spaces that found their way into Rachel’s vision. Consider Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne’s dining room with simmering silk wallpaper [top], an elegant background for blue silk curtains that puddle to the floor. The room also contains silver-leaf Louis XVI chairs, delicate wall sconces and a heirloom chandelier. It’s a ‘glamour and bling’ dining room with a handmade petticoat tablecloth too, set with well-polished silver, roses, candles and fine porcelain.
Also featured in the book is The Prairie Bed & Breakfast, where sumptuous is paired with rustic tranquility. The result is pretty china, crystal lighting and vintage floral wallpaper meets corrugated tin ceilings, salvaged wood walls and inherited taxidermy – sporting floral hats and crowns, of course. A London home’s timeworn elegance and Rachel’s adventurous Notting Hill rental are in the same neighborhood as the Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Couture™ shop located around the corner. Her current quirky shack in Malibu also makes an appearance. In the book, Rachel also interjects her newfound appreciation for darker palettes, which will no doubt be a surprise to long time followers accustomed to white and pink.
My interview with Rachel was just what I had expected. Her words were often laced with emotion, passion and sentiment, just like her home décor.
Atticmag: Shabby Chic looks like an easy way to decorate, but you can’t just throw things together and expect attractive results. There are so many stumbling blocks when it comes to decorating. What advice would you give to someone just starting to decorate his or her home?
RA: The #1 thing, one of my big mantras is “less is more.” At the end of the day, I think it’s finding that nice balance of a home feeling comfortable and inviting, but not cluttered. If it’s the first home and you’re coming out with nothing then that’s obviously one way of having to begin. But often when you’re moving, even if it’s friends giving you a few things, your mom and dad giving you things – you will have a few basics to start. Maybe you’re just using them out of necessity, but maybe they’re things that you really, actually love.
So begin working out on this clean slate — what really connects with you? Is it a specific color palette, a specific style – meaning do you like bohemian, modern, only Shabby Chic. Pick a theme of something; it could be a theme of colors – a pastel palette, an ivory and white palette or maybe all earth tones. I believe if you pick a palette, then you can actually blend in an eclectic style – perhaps blend in some Asian influences with some modern, with some Shabby Chic. It really depends on what speaks to you, and then the work begins. You’ll have your own little checklist – does it fall into that palette or fall into a particular style – so it doesn’t become a hodgepodge. Then what is this home really about – is it kid friendly, are you not home much, do you like to entertain, are you an artist. Really collect what your end use is going to be.
You need to have a running tally of needed things, especially if you’re a flea market person. Sometimes flea markets can be overwhelming — “I know I like this, but I don’t even know what I need.” If you recognize anything in life, know what you’re looking for. It’s a lot easier to recognize it when you see it.
Don’t compromise. Practice patience if you don’t find that perfect mirror — whether you’re shopping online, at some of the more general stores or at the flea market. “Nothing” is so much better than the wrong thing, because the wrong thing can then go on to become someone else’s treasure. Don’t even buy it to begin with.
Work with the things you already have – especially if they mean something to you emotionally. Maybe you don’t love them aesthetically, but to work them out – what if I painted that a different color or covered that with a bit of fabric. Is there anything I could do to blend it into my new life, so I can continue to enjoy the heirloom quality of the piece?
So really working out into organizational – what’s my palette, what’s my theme, what’s my use, and what do I already have. Then you’ll work out the missing pieces over time. For myself, I would so much prefer using a stack of magazines or books as a temporary solution until I find the right end table, then compromising with the wrong thing. I find with friendships, with things, whatever I do in life, once you let in the wrong thing you kind of settle. Then it’s hard to get rid of it. You’re better off having nothing so you have that space for the right thing. Very good philosophy, right?
Atticmag: I completely agree. You mentioned your “less is more” mantra. Let’s talk for a minute about that. For example, in your new book it says a bed only needs a few changes. Over the last 20 years, there have been so many great patterns of your bedding… and then there’s the vintage furniture. Andrea in Napa keeps packing her house, but can’t bear to part with her older pieces she knows she’ll never find again. Now there’s the new store, new patterns, new vintage pieces. “Less is more” is a great idea, but how can Shabby fans indulge themselves yet truly keep it simple?
RA: Well, I think a bigger question of life is if you want to make changes. Sometimes you have to let go in order to make room for something new. Things can take on new uses. If she loves all of her wonderful bedding collections – maybe she has children she can pass them on to. Flowery bedding can become a summer slipcover. Why pack the linen closet with bedding she just absolutely doesn’t need?
As far as vintage pieces, that’s the beauty to me of flea markets. If you go to Pottery Barn to buy a bedside table, the minute you bring out of the shop it’s depreciated in value. You’re not going to be able to resell. After you’ve enjoyed a flea market table for 15 years and are ready to experience something new, you can probably sell it on eBay, and places like that, for more than you paid. That’s the beauty of vintage.
At the end of the day you only have X amount of square feet and you only have X amount of use. I think the worst thing you can do is to pack it and just keeping packing and packing in more and more just because you love something.
Tastes change. My tastes change. A lot of people that are seeing the new book are “hmm, there’s some different palettes in here.” Whether they like it or not is out to the jury. But with this particular book, I hope that I satisfied the people that love to see the quintessential Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic type of aesthetic. But I also put some homes in, not necessarily so much for aesthetical inspiration, but for ideas. There’s a house in the book called Sophie’s Space where she painted the lower half of the wall a color and then little stripes. The palette she chose isn’t necessarily in my world, but the idea is that. And so that threads through the thinking of sometimes you thoroughly enjoyed something, but it’s time let it go. I’m the queen of that; things pass through my hands all day long. Believe me, if I wanted to keep every single piece I loved all these years, I’d be on the hoarders show.
I find sometimes you live through something and it takes on your energy, and sometimes you want to continue that – maybe it’s a chair your kids have grown up in. Well, you’re probably never going to part with that piece, but maybe there are other pieces. That’s kind of an emotional place that somebody has to get to. But the answer isn’t to just keep on and on adding. The answer is definitely to feel okay to let something go, whether it’s through eBay or passed on to our children. My daughter is now 24, and her place is partly – not fully because she has her own aesthetic – but partly filled with my let go’s and she’s thrilled with them.
Atticmag: Speaking of Lily, do you think she or Jake may join the company down the road?
RA: No, but both are highly creative. I’ve not produced doctors or lawyers, that’s for sure. My daughter’s been going through fashion school. She’s lived, slept and drank my aesthetic. So I’m 100% sure, from her Shabby Chic upbringing, what will come from her is some form of her version of my aesthetic but thru fashion. My son, interestingly, is just finishing New York Art School, and his execution of art through music and through fine painting has absolutely no recognizable aesthetic to what I do. But he’s definitely full of soul, and it comes out in much more abstract, bright colors. Yet you can see the common thread is still there.
Atticmag: Do you ever feel that the business side of Shabby Chic Couture or The Prairie takes over and leaves little time for creating, or do you make it a priority each day to give yourself time to create and think?
RA: Obviously what happened to the company a few years back, that exact thing happened. It was all business and in the end my soul, my creativity and everything just got completely lost. In the end so did the company, for that and other reasons. Two years ago I had a choice of, do I just let the legacy of what I had created rest where it was and go do other things, or do I feel like there is another chapter. I discussed with my team of people that stayed by me, and we decided there was a future.
When and if the time is right for me to step aside it will be done, I hope, in a way that is a choice as opposed to a circumstance. Therefore, with my village, as I call them, we decided to rise from the ashes and continue. To bring back and do what we did with the understanding the only reason I would be doing this is the creative. The financial, the ego, and the other reasons that one does things when one is younger – I had already experienced that. So for me, if and when the day comes that I’m not 100% creative will be the day when it’s time for me to walk away. That’s the only thing that fuels me now, I’ve satisfied everything else. That’s why we only have the four stores now, my books and the bed and breakfast. In my world, I’m still involved with the Target program and there are other licensing partnerships – some things at Michael’s and a few other licensing programs. The things that I’m involved in with the nuts and bolts of business, creative is the only place I feel I can contribute and do my piece. My true love going forward, along with the creative, is with each one of these books I get more and more connected in the writing – more than I do in the pictures.
Atticmag: The change in your writing was most evident in your previous book, Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Interiors, which was written during and after what was probably the most vulnerable time in your life. All of your fans heard what was happening via the media. Having a daughter that worked in the stores as they were closing, I knew, or at least I felt like I was tied closer to what was going on. (Our oldest daughter landed her dream job working in the Shabby Chic Corte Madera and San Francisco stores – both closed a year later in 2009 after filing for Chapter 11.)
RA: Oh, sure.
Atticmag: That certainly allowed me to read the book from a different angle, and it was just beautifully written, lovely reading and so heartfelt. The new book has that soulful feeling too, but the sadness is gone.
RA: Thank you.
Atticmag: The merchandise at the stores and the bedding create such a calming space. One of our guest bedrooms is Shabby, and it’s where two of my young adult children want to stay when they visit. It’s also where I go when I need to calm down or relax. Even the cats tend to sleep there most days. Will there be any more stores opening in the near future?
RA: No, I don’t think so. So much of what we sell in the stores are handmade things; hand-dyed, hand sewn, made in America. Quiet frankly there’s a limitation of production when we’re honoring that.
Atticmag: I know all of your Fillmore (Street, San Francisco) store fans, including my daughter, will be disappointed.
RA: That’s the one store that actually that might pop back, and the main reason being our manager of the New York store recently had to relocate to San Francisco. That one would not be an impossibility, or relatively close by in California.
Atticmag: Most Shabby fans first fell in love with your signature style on the Style Network TV show – I certainly remember watching. Even though that was a decade ago, your look is timeless. A friend of mine in California is a huge fan, but when I mentioned I was doing an interview, Jody only had one question. (One!?) Are there plans to put the rest of the shows on DVD?
RA: I really don’t know, and I’m asked this question endlessly. There have been so many changes over at the Style and the E! Network I can’t get an answer! But I’m working on it. She’s certainly not alone in that request. It’s purely a technical, business, logistical thing. They’re lost somewhere in the archives of the Style Network.
Atticmag: Your fans know where the inspirations for your designs come from and you’ve been very open about the business and some personal aspects of your life – but what tidbit about yourself can you tell Atticmag readers that they haven’t read in your books or on your blog?
RA: Something personal about myself? I’m quite shy. I believe I’ve been able to communicate through my books, my products and my stores in a such heartfelt, authentic kind of nurturing way because I think it’s my outlet to satisfy that part of myself. It really is where I connect in that way with myself because it’s difficult for me in other ways.
Rachel expressed that exact thought in the forward of her book when she wrote, “I find when I let my thoughts and mindset live in a space of creativity, life is good and a safe place to be.”
The new Shabby Chic Couture stores (Santa Monica, SOHO, at The Prairie and in London) and the corporate office (also featured) are beautiful “home of work” spaces. Someone who works for Rachel finds it’s not just knowing the merchandise but being able to connect with the customers and having an aesthetic talent to mix and match – so that everyone feels they are walking away with lovely bedding and a set pulled together especially for them. First time customers are drawn to her designs because they come from her passion to create. More often than not they become repeat customers due to the store’s atmosphere and quality of the merchandise. And Rachel’s loyal fans always look forward to her next book.
Photographs reprinted with permission from Rachel Ashwell: Shabby Chic Inspirations and Beautiful Spaces. © 2011 by CICO Books. (Photo: L.A. Times)
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