Shabby and Chic

I’m infinitely grateful to Rachel Ashwell.

Unless you’re interested in decorating, you probably don’t know who she is. She’s the decorator and designer who, in the 1990s, introduced the idea of Shabby Chic. It was very influential at the time, I suppose because everyone was so used to perfectly decorated houses being the standard to which we should all aspire. That was the ideal sold by the decorating magazines, and it mostly still is.

Shabby Chic was the idea that the things you had could be shabby — old, worn, cracked. But if they were beautiful, you could still decorate with them and create something chic — in fact, more chic than you could create with an entire roomful of perfectly-matched furniture.  It was based on English country house style, as well as the continental style found in old apartments in Paris, old castles in Tuscany. It was the style of people who had inherited things and didn’t throw them away. The appeal was that this fundamentally aristocratic style could be used by anyone. You didn’t need to inherit things — you could buy them in a thrift store or antique store. If they were a little broken, so much the better.

Dishes didn’t have to match, linens could be crumpled, with maybe a few holes in them. That was perfectly all right. The style was about the beauty of age, use, decay. It promised authenticity. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, things were more real if they had been used and loved.

It appealed to me at once because it was the style I had first known, in my grandmother’s apartment in Budapest. If you wanted to, you could call it Genteel Poverty, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? My grandmother had it down: the antique linens (because women in her family had embroidered them), the mismatched plates and glasses (because some in the set had broken), the furniture that was a little damaged (because repairing it would have cost too much). Shabby Chic is, of course, a romanticized version of that. But as you know, I’m not against romanticizing things. A human life without romance, without illusion, would not be much fun. Anyway, chic is an illusion. Just ask that consumate sorceress, Coco Chanel.

Ashwell lives in California, although she’s originally from England — her color palette was all wrong for me. But the underlying idea was just right. And it came just when I needed it, when I had very little money to spend on the basic necessities, much less decorating. But I love living in elegant spaces. It makes me feel happier and more human. So here was a decorating style that matched my history, my budget, my basic philosophy of life.

Since then, I’ve applied her philosophy to all sorts of things: the way I buy clothes and books, the way I cook food. I would paraphrase it this way: “I may be thrifty, but I’m determined to be elegant.” I try my best to be both . . .

I thought it would make sense, in this post, to include a few pictures of what my apartment looks like now. It’s in Boston, so I have New England light, which has an undertone of gray. You have to combat that with rich colors.

Shabby Chic 12

Let’s start with my living room widows. That table, I bought unfinished and refinished myself. The chairs are from an antique store, although I recovered the seats. The yellow armchair is from Goodwill, the Victorian slipper chair is from an antique store that was selling it cheaply because the fabric is so damaged. Until I have time to have it properly reupholstered, it’s covered with a piece of Waverly fabric in my favorite pattern. The lamp I bought in a hardward store and repainted, then added the shade. I sewed the bobble fringe on myself.  And the small black table, I carried a mile from Goodwill to my apartment.  It’s a little damaged, but works just fine, as you can see.

Shabby Chic 10

This chair in my hall was originally from Goodwill, and it was brown. I painted it, put a piece of fabric over the cushion (that’s another thing that needs to be reupholstered), and added a pillow, also from Goodwill. The small sewing chest contains jewelry, the shelf holds green Indonesian potter collected over many years, on doilies crocheted by my grandmother.

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And here is the shelf with the pottery, taken after I had bought my one indulgence, a CD player.  I’ve had the shelf for more than ten years, and it’s a little water-damaged.  Someday, hopefully, I’ll have a chance to refinish it.

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This is my writing desk.  Both the desk and chair were bought unfinished, and I refinished them.  Everything else came from various places: hardware stores, Staples, art stores where they sell picture frames.  The bulletin board came from Staples, but I covered it in fabric and pinned ribbon around the edges.

Shabby Chic 3

Across from it is the chest of drawers, found in an antique store.  The things on it are from various places, mostly antique and thrift stores, although that lovely mottled vase comes from Etsy.  The silver mirror needs to be polished . . .  To the left is a bookshelf that holds my murder mysteries.  Because there are days when nothing is as satisfying as a good murder.  And the painting is by my grandmother.

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This is just a collection of cushions on the daybed, which serves as a sofa and a place for guests to sleep.  The ones in the back are actually long pillows — I sewed the covers myself.  All the other cushions come from discount stores, except the one with the flowers, which is from Goodwill.  The scarf behind the daybed is also from Goodwill.


And this is probably the shabbiest but also chic-est thing I own: my bear Dani, who is almost my age.  I painted that chair, and the shelf behind him still needs to be repainted — it’s supposed to be cream, not blue.  But that will happen this summer, when I have some time.

Honestly, I think the reason I adopted this particular style, aside from its practicality (my dishes are cracked? that’s because they’re chic!) is that everything looks a little worn, which also means well-loved. It’s about having a life that is really, genuinely lived in. Which is of course what I try to do with my life — live in it as thoroughly as I can.

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5 Responses to Shabby and Chic

  1. Ramona Gault says:

    Love every bit of this, Theodora! You write: “my dishes are cracked? that’s because they’re chic!” You could just as easily write: “My dishes are chic–because they’re cracked!”

  2. Martin says:

    Similar to ‘wabi sabi’ in Japanese culture – an aesthetic that incorporates the idea of the beauty of the ‘oldness’ and impermanence of things (sort of).

  3. Love! You and I share the same taste in design. I have some Rachel Ashwell pieces. Some really nice and others from Target collection. Then I have flea market finds that look like her collection. That red rose pattern on the pillow is to die for and hard to find. All of it is so pretty.

    • I have beautiful curtains from her Target collection! 🙂 I love the whole aesthetic, although my colors are darker, partly because the light in the Northeast is different. But the underlying philosophy is so helpful . . .

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