When Rachel Ashwell introduced the concept of shabby chic to America in the 1980s, she was really just bringing the European philosophy of reinventing what you have to American shores.
As a rule, Americans shoppers have been easily seduced by new and improved products. Sofas and chairs with worn and faded fabric and furniture with nicked and chipped finishes were taken out to the garage or perhaps the vacation cottage, replaced by new pieces.
For many years in this country, purchasing a new set of furniture said “I’m moving up.” In Europe, especially in countries once ravaged by war, the economy of using what you have and finding a way to make it work is the accepted way. There is a cachet to building rooms around pieces that have been covered and re-covered. Antiques, wrinkles and all, are the centerpieces of the décor.
Before Ashwell, Laura Ashley introduced American buyers to a more stylized English country home look with her printed fabrics, wallpapers and draperies. The style was homey and gave a room the look of having developed over time — instead of having been purchased “en suite.”
When Ashwell adapted the look to the airy California style and called it shabby chic, the mix was wildly successful. It is easy to achieve and promotes economy by slip-covering pieces for maximum wear, mixing and matching furniture, and buying items that serve a useful purpose.
Ashwell’s personal palate of white, pale turquoise and pink, which came to be seen as the signature shades of shabby chic style, was a refreshing look after the vivid jewel tones of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In the preface to her first book, “Shabby Chic,” Ashwell states, “I didn’t invent this relaxed style. Europeans have long appreciated this approach to living.”
She adds, “Shabby Chic represents a revived appreciation for what is useful, well loved, and comfortable, for those things that some might perceive as being too tattered and worn to be of use or value.”
When I wrote in last week’s column that the shabby chic craze may be fading a bit in other parts of the country but is still strong here, it generated some buzz. The impression was that I had said the look was out of style everywhere but here. Not at all.
The point I wanted to make was that the idea of painting any old thing white, attaching a few chandelier crystals and calling it shabby chic was getting a little old.
Try searching for “shabby chic” on eBay. Most of what comes up has nothing to do with the philosophy of items serving a useful purpose.
(Actually, it could be argued that when Ashwell developed and marketed new fabrics, lampshades and linens designed to look old and faded — and especially now that her Shabby Chic line is being marketed by Target stores across the country — she violated her own basic principles.)
So, when I said I think the shabby chic “craze” is fading a bit in places that were onto Ashwell’s look before it was embraced in this area, I was speaking of the act of “tarting up” any old piece of junk and calling it “shabby chic.” And I stand by that. I think the lifestyle is still going strong, but the “faux” shabby chic fad is waning.
Having spent much of my childhood with my grandparents, people who lived through the Depression, a world war and much more, I was essentially born into that philosophy. Furniture was slipcovered to extend its life. When the lid to the cookie jar was broken, the jar became a planter. Furniture and other items were recycled and repaired. Fresh paint became nicked and chipped, but like my aging grandparents themselves, blemishes were accepted as badges of honor. Things were used and loved and spent many years in the family.
My home reflects that philosophy today. My sofa is the one my husband’s parents got when they married more than 50 years ago. It has been covered and re-covered many times over the years, but it is still serviceable and has sentimental value.
Four small white linen tablecloths serve as valances over my dining room windows. Rather than let them languish in a drawer only to be brought out for special occasions, I hung them so I could appreciate the delicate stitching and fine fabric every day. Our dining room table is a large, sturdy piece that once served in one of the workrooms at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. I picked it up for $35 at the museum’s “garage sale” before the institution moved into its new building. I painted it to suit my taste and I love the fact that in its former life it might have been the place where works of art were matted and framed.
My grandmother’s ornate wrought-iron garden tables, with their chipped paint and rusted finish, serve as side tables in my living room.
None of these things match the white and ice cream pastels so often associated with shabby chic. I’m drawn to warm colors like gold and red, but to me they completely embody the philosophy. They are all timeworn and somewhat shabby, but by putting them to use in new ways, sometimes with fresh paint, they are still beautiful.
I have a neighbor who is the daughter of Dutch immigrants. She lives this style without realizing it. Her favorite suede jacket is worn and frayed at the cuffs, but because it is still warm and supple, and because it belonged to her mother, she wears it often. She keeps her teapot warm in the faded, but altogether elegant, tea cozy her grandmother used in Holland. She uses these things not only because they are still useable, but also because they belonged to people she loves. The fact that they show their years doesn’t detract from their appeal. It only adds to it. They sit proudly beside the new pieces she has purchased for her home.
To me, that is the essence of shabby chic.
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