Saturday, July 9, 2011 :: LATIMES
In Ashwell's latest home her signature Shabby Chic look is in full effect.
At a time when weathered woods, vintage treasures and timeworn flea market finds are enjoying a renaissance in the decorating world, it is more than a bit ironic that Rachel Ashwell, the queen of Shabby Chic, finds herself rebuilding her empire.
Just two years ago, Ashwell was forced to closed the doors on 15 of her Shabby Chic stores and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a casualty in the housing market meltdown and ensuing recession. Her beloved mum, the muse to whom she dedicated her last book, had just passed away. Ashwell later would have to say goodbye to her three-bedroom, three-bath home in the tony Malibu Colony too.
"The castle had crumbled and I had to let it go," said Ashwell, who was 50 at the time. "It was a very painful time on every level. But what happens when you go through these kinds of things is a kind of rebirth, and you are very selective as to what you bring back."
The maven of comfort style is indeed back, this time in a 1960s clapboard rental in Malibu's Paradise Cove that she affectionately calls her "Shabby Shack," a symbol of her refocused life and work.
"The cottage isn't perfect," Ashwell said. "Saltillo tiles are not my favorite. In the past, I would have replaced everything — installed hardwood floors and new windows, changed the staircase and railing — but it's not necessary. I think the cottage demonstrates how to work with what you have. Even when things are not exactly the way you want, you can make it work."
In the last 24 months, Ashwell has been at work in other corners of her castle, rethinking her life, making changes. That includes her newly edited furnishings business — now three boutique stores under the moniker Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Couture in Santa Monica, New York and London, as well as a B&B called the Prairie that opened in March in Round Top, Texas, site of a twice yearly antiques market. Her forthcoming book, "Shabby Chic Inspirations and Beautiful Spaces," will be released in October.
But it is her Shabby Shack that may best represent Ashwell's adaptation to economically challenging times. A simple coat of matte white paint spruced up the exterior, although she left the beige on part of the second floor that cantilevers over the pool. ("I would have had to bring in scaffolding and painting it was just too costly and too much trouble," she said.)
Inside, romantic Turkish rugs in faded red and teal blues camouflage the unloved Saltillo tiles as well as add warmth and color to what had been a plain setting. Rather than replace the harsh black stair railing, Ashwell covered it with vintage textiles — all part of her new philosophy of "making do but not settling." Her signature Shabby Chic look is here, to be sure: the oh-so-comfy slipcovered sofas, the decades-old furnishings with soul, the flea market discoveries that the designer handpicks. An old wood table on the deck surrounded by mismatched chairs is as charming as ever. Her favorite weathered benches, combined with a giant table for dining or for work, represent another recession appointment: furniture that can serve multiple purposes.
"They can be a place to sit, or a coffee table, or simply a place to put things," she said.
Elsewhere, the home is filled with more of her trademark look, from the perforated wood chair by the fireplace to the scuffed-edge vintage tray topped with a mix of old flea market glasses. It's a style that Traditional Home editor in chief Ann Maine calls "very personal … homey and casual."
But Ashwell's signature white-on-white is evolving to include more color these days, part of her new "Russian peasant cottage style" inspired by some of British photographer Tim Walker's recent imagery.
"It's a bit more bohemian with a slightly richer palette than the Shabby Chic white-on-white and pastels," Ashwell said. "They're colors that were once intense and are now faded and smoky."
Ashwell's rental home also serves as a laboratory, a testing ground for Modern-inspired pieces that she recently added to her lineup. The iconic bean bag chair has been tweaked, the 1960s vinyl covers in psychedelic hues replaced with hand-dyed velvets in muted jewel tone colors, offering a soft landing for family and friends.
A sectional sofa has been added, the standard fare of modern interiors given the Ashwell spin: white linen and faded floral fabrics. The designer is quick to assure faithful customers that the form may be more contemporary than what they're used to, but the cushions are "still as mushy and comfortable as ever."
The bedroom — dressed in her new bespoke linens and a small mountain of ruffled pillows — offers the ultimate, forget-the-world cocoon.
In her small office niche by the winding staircase, lacey gowns from bygone eras hang off an old sconce, conjuring images of ballrooms and gardenia corsages. Nearby, a memory board fashioned from old cork and a painted white frame — another Shabby Chic signature piece — has been layered with children's photos, invitations, articles and fabric samples.
"The memory boards are like a scrapbook of your favorite things, but they hang on your wall so you can see them," said the designer, who considers them a form of "authentic, organic art."
The various looks, old and new, add up to what Karen Sellars, Ashwell's friend for more than 20 years, calls extraordinary resilience.
"The challenges of her business taught her a lot of lessons, but in the end it didn't dull her spirit," Sellars said.
Family Circle's director of home design, Judy Prouty, pointed out that although Shabby Chic isn't likely to be embraced by the fans of the clean-lined, pathologically uncluttered homes that dominate modern design blogs today, Ashwell's celebration of casual imperfection makes sense for imperfect times.
"Rachel's fondness for vintage pieces, cushy furniture and lots of white slipcovers give it a family-friendly, easy-to-live-with vibe," Prouty said, adding that Shabby Chic actually dovetails with the current frenzy for crafting, DIY and "anyone who wants to express their personal/artistic vision with a paintbrush, wallpaper, bits of lace and fabric."At the heart of Ashwell's pretty-but-imperfect furnishings always has been a kind of ethereal beauty, so it's fitting that in the corner of one of Ashwell's memory boards hangs a pair of broken wings.
"I have a philosophical connection with them," the designer said with a laugh. "So many Texas songs are about angels and broken wings. For me, they speak to the fact that you may not be able to fly as high or as fast, but you can still fly."
Rachel were so glad you’re back, see you at the flea market! :-)