My mum was an antique doll restorer and dealer when I was growing up in London. While I was never that much interested in the dolls, I loved to observe her restoration process. Searching through the flea markets for the dolls, mainly French and made of porcelain, she would often find them in pieces. But once she had them in her work studio, the magical transformation would begin.
Watching her gather vintage bits of lace, velvets, silks and floppy flowers, and create new outfits, sewn by hand for the dolls, I learned to embrace the beauty of imperfection. Starting off with dolls a little wrinkled and faded, once Mum was finished, the pieces looked as though they had always been beautiful.
Because my mum was immersed in dolls every day, she would often come across dollhouses and furniture. They became my gateway to the world of make-believe, and in some ways interior design. I recall this fantasy world taking up hours and hours of my playtime, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. My mum would restore these dollhouses to a state of faded grandeur. She would sometimes add some wallpaper or create rugs out of old needlepoint pillows. The furniture would get little touch-ups of paint, or maybe she would make miniature bed linens from vintage scraps. It was a whimsical world.
And when I opened my store, Shabby Chic, selling mainly slipcovered furniture and bed linens, it was no surprise that I too would find dollhouses and vintage furniture that caught my eye. In a way similar to what we do with all the vintage treasures we sell, we would restore them, keeping as much of the original patina and details as possible, while giving them a refresh.
But the dollhouses are few and far between, and the restoration process can be lengthy. So, I was thrilled when I crossed paths with Ben Peck Whiston. He is a true master and artist, in many forms, but especially in this world of make-believe. His attention to detail is worthy of any museum exhibit. It is simply impossible to tell his pieces are newly made. His eyes capture the subtlety of patina and palette, and somehow his talented hands work the magic. Mainly through photographs he follows my journey of finding treasures and, when inspired, he begins his process to capture the details and replicate my vintage finds.
Initially he only made the furniture and accessories, but then the dollhouses followed.
For him this work is a complete labor of love, hand-painting wallpaper, installing wood floors and creating timeworn miniature exteriors and interiors.
It’s truly a privilege to work with an artist of his caliber. We have now built a clientele who are collecting his pieces, little by little. He is always adding new pieces. Funny for me, sometimes when he sees my posts on Instagram of new treasures I have found, before the piece is even loaded onto our trucks, he has somehow made a mini version (like the gold Spanish daybed).
Without any doubt, the world of make-believe is here to stay, and these miniature pieces are future heirlooms.
When I first moved from London to Los Angeles, Hollywood was where I set up home. As a young teenager, I absorbed the blue skies, Cadillacs and palm trees, and felt this was the pathway to my dreams.
Later, over the years, I would be drawn to the ocean. I’m not much of a swimmer or sunbather, but the sunrises and sunsets and the rhythm of the waves spoke to my soul. Then when I had my children, Malibu became our home. The idea of the sand and waves being their playground felt like an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Ocean life was their entertainment, from the pelicans on the rock outside our door to the dolphins swimming to seagulls singing and the stormy seas that would knock against the stilts that our house sat upon.
With beach living comes open doors to friends and family with no concern about sand in the house. Beachside decorating comes easily to me because it commands a casual beauty embracing the light and ocean breezes. Through all my moving around, I’ve always been attracted to little cottages and shacks. Smaller spaces are cozier and easier to decorate, but I still have to be mindful of practical living and little details.
Even though I later moved to Santa Monica (about 30 miles away) and I travel quite a bit, I thought having a mobile home in the Malibu community would keep my connection to this magical place. This would prove to be my biggest space challenge. So, I incorporated many of my signature Shabby Chic design techniques:
• White with pale blue was my theme, which I used on paint trim and furnishings.
• Throughout the little home, I painted the wall from the ground up 36 inches a pale gray. I do this treatment in most of my homes, and each time it reflects a different feeling. In this case, it felt like Mama Mia! meets Ibiza. It’s a quiet but impactful detail.
• Due to the proximity of neighbors, I created privacy without compromising light by sticking transparent decorative sheets on the windows.
• I squeezed in an oversized sectional (shown in the livingroom is Shabby Chic Bloomsbury Sectional), ignoring the tiny space.
• Quiet but reflective art is always a welcome layer to a space, and it fits well with a coastal vibe.
I’m sure over time my Malibu connection will continue. Once beach living gets into your soul, you can’t let it go.
The thrill of the hunt at a flea market is always exhilarating, not knowing just what waits around the next corner. Maybe it’ll be that elusive piece of china or stack of old signs you have been scouring every tag sale for. Or perhaps it’s the treasure you didn’t know you needed but suddenly realized you have to have.
PHOTO BY COURTNEY ALLISON
Courtney Allison: Treasure Hunting
I love shopping flea markets and tag sales simply to peruse or to search for something specific. And one of my favorite sources is shopped from the comfort of home. I have scored some of my most amazing antiques on Craigslist: the French buffet from the 1800s in the living room, that tall gilded floor mirror and even the French armoire in my bathroom, all found for bargain prices online.
But if you are more hands-on and want to roll up your sleeves and collect items as you go, here are some favorite spots to find the most unique and interesting pieces here in California:
Alameda Point Antiques Faire—Alameda, CA (1st Sunday of the month)
Goat Hill Fair —Santa Cruz, CA (twice a year)
Tumbleweed and Company —Roseville, CA (varies)
PHOTO BY COURTNEY ALLISON
Courtney Allison: Treasure Hunting
My favorite things to look for are always changing, depending on what I am obsessed with at the moment or what I may need for styling, but there are some things that always repeat no matter what.
Vintage china with intricate and detailed patterns, and simple ironstone.
Anything brass or silver—I’m currently collecting silver trophies for flowers, old dome covers and brass candlesticks for a bigger splash on the fireplace mantel.
Old books without covers, chunky baskets and wood pieces that have weathered away a bit.
Vintage mirrors—The more mottled the glass, the better.
I’ve been going to flea markets since I was a little girl in London. On early mornings before daylight, I would arrive as vendors were setting up with flashlights—their only source of light. There was something magical to me about this world.
My dad dealt in rare illustrated books and my mum in antique dolls, which she painstakingly restored. I wasn’t so much interested in books or dolls, but I learned the tricks of the trade from my parents.
From my dad, I learned how to be focused and a quick walker and thinker. From my mum, I learned patience and being selective (going home empty-handed is preferable to buying things you don’t need), creativity and finding precious bits and bobs to repurpose. Today I frequent flea markets for the purposes of resale, inspiration and occasionally for my home. I just walk up and down most of the aisles and cover most of the shows, or “fields.”
PHOTO BY AMY NEUSINGER
Rachel Ashwell: Seeking Authenticity
I’m always happy when I can find one-of-a-kind, authentic treasures. When you’re at flea markets, it’s important to know what you’re looking for, or it can be quite overwhelming. Make a wish list, get rough measurements of what you are looking for and keep notes on the clearance measurements for access.
Take along the following:
A tape measure.
A flashlight if going early in the morning.
Layers of clothing, good walking shoes and a hat.
To bring items home, it might be worthwhile renting a pick-up truck, furniture blankets and bungie cords. However, some of the bigger antiques shows have shippers and porters on sight.
If you aren’t taking something home right away, get the phone number of the vendor and pictures of the surrounding area on your phone, or jot down some notes just in case.
Cash is the best tool for negotiating.
PHOTO BY SARAH PANKOW
Rachel Ashwell: Seeking Authenticity
My favorite flea market finds:
Vintage wallpaper—I use it to line drawers.
Anything floral—I love floral carvings and floral prints on art and fabrics.
Chandeliers and table lamps—Whenever I buy lighting, I always get it checked out for safety.
Rugs of all sizes—I like to layer them, even smaller ones, always in my palette.
My favorite markets:
Los Angeles, CA:
My favorite of all is The Round Top Antiques Fair in Round Top, Texas, and I particularly love the following:
My love of flea markets started when I was just in high school, when my friends and I one day stumbled across one of the largest flea markets in Florida, and I knew immediately that this was my kind of place!
Since then, I have frequented hundreds of antique and flea markets from small roadside offerings to large-scale special events that draw hundreds of dealers and thousands of buyers from all over the country. These are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way…
PHOTO BY MARIAN PARSONS
Marian Parsons: Digging for Gems
Marian’s tips and tricks:
Not all flea markets are created equal. You really don’t know what the vibe of a flea market is until you get there. All the merchandise might be garage sale and auction leftovers or you might find high-end antiques (with high-end prices.) Go there knowing it might be a waste of time or it might be a goldmine.
Have a plan. Flea markets can be distracting and overwhelming—there’s so much stuff! A list of things you’re looking for will help you stay focused. It’s also a good idea to have dimensions of your space and a measuring tape, so you don’t buy something that doesn’t fit in your house!
Cash is king, but credit isn’t irrelevant. Cash used to be the only payment method accepted at flea markets, but more and more dealers are accepting credit cards. Cash will usually get you a better deal, though, so it’s still a good idea to have plenty on hand.
PHOTO BY MARIAN PARSONS
Marian Parsons: Digging for Gems
Come prepared. Flea markets can be as exhausting as a day at an amusement park, so it helps to come prepared. Bring a cart, large canvas shopping bag or wagon to carry your purchases. I would also suggest bringing some plastic shopping bags to wrap around pieces that might be rusty or need a good cleaning. Also, bring a water bottle, hand sanitizer and some snacks in your bag to get through the day.
Be realistic. It’s easy to get carried away at a flea market. When you’re assessing a piece to purchase, especially a larger, high-ticket item, take a minute to think through the purchase. Do you love it? Will it work well with your style and in your home? Do you have the perfect spot for it? Is it in good condition? If it needs work, are you capable of doing it? Asking these questions can confirm that the purchase is a good one or help you avoid buyer’s remorse. Also, make sure you can get the piece home. Will it fit in your vehicle? Will you have help to unload it at the other end?
So grab some friends, take out some cash and go hunt for treasure!
As I have been focused on the journey of launching my latest book, My Floral Affair, I have been quite reflective, contemplating my world of flowers and just how much they have always been part of my life. Not only fresh flowers, but also flowers in fabrics, lighting, wallpapers and art.
I have always appreciated finding floral beauties at flea markets and antiques shows even back when I first opened the doors of my Shabby Chic store in 1989. At that time, I was successful in consistently finding authentic floral-painted furniture, crumbling carved architectural pieces, faded artwork and threadbare fabrics. For me, the tattered elegance that comes with finding vintage florals is what helps each piece maintain its feminine beauty without being overly sweet.
Over time there was a floral explosion in décor, creating scarcity for authentic vintage finds. Reproductions started popping up, some lovely and subtle, but some too strong and sugary for my shabby world. Because of that, I have treasured every original floral-embellished piece I could find. A few I have kept myself, and some just pass through my hands to become future heirlooms. My most favorite place to search for these treasures is at the Round Top Antique shows in Texas. Prices are much different now than they used to be, but these days I am just happy to stumble across any authentic vintage finds.
I’m attracted to the fine handwork of painted furniture, typically from France and Italy. I have given the name of “timeworn elegance” to these special pieces. I also own several Hungarian pieces, where the painting is more primitive, often brighter, and fits with the boho side of me. I allow the style of floral furniture to guide me on where and how it should be placed in the world. Rarely do I have more than one piece in any one room, mostly so that each item can have its glory against my simpler palette of white and gray. Occasionally I will come across a bedroom set that I can’t bear to part with. In my home, I will designate a “floral zone,” maybe a guest room, just so it can be froufrou within its faded grandeur state.
I continue to make it my mission to hunt for these rare beauties. It’s important to stay consistent while balancing my aesthetics of romantic and feminine with simplicity. Floral upholstery fabrics and my bedding collections continue to be moments where I can layer floral décor into my otherwise quiet aesthetics. I tend to like faded fabrics, and design with the thought of mixing and matching from one collection to another. I like the practical aspect of this, but also how it brings a less contrived feeling.
When I began Shabby Chic, there were still quite a lot of chintz florals available in the world. This, of course, speaks to my British heritage of country cottages and manors. Often these were quite bold in their palette, but the crumpled nature of the slipcovers back then that made the patterns seem less formal. My new Rose Majesty print, which is both for upholstery and a bedding collection, is inspired by the days of chintz.
My modern tweak is to print it both on a chintz and a grain linen fabric. The linen fabric captures the traditional floral on a muted background. While today’s furniture and furnishings have very clean, simple lines, which I am attracted to also, there is always room for a little floral slipcovered chair in a cozy corner. My floral bedding and fabrics are available both at Target under the Simply Shabby Chic line and at shabbychic.com.
Few homes in southern California have the architectural character or timeless appeal of older homes. If a classic style of home is at the top or your list of must-haves, you often have to search high and low for the right house.
But when Rachel Ashwell, designer and founder of Shabby Chic, stumbled across this Brentwood house eight years ago, she fell in love with its quirks and knew it would be just the place to call home.
“The architectural style is a hodgepodge,” Rachel says. “It has a bit of a Southern feel, but it also has a Spanish, an English and an Irish flair.”
In the main living room, a large brick fireplace is the focal point of the room and sets the warm, comforting tone of the rest of the home. The fireplace is so large you can walk inside of it, Rachel says, which is common in Scottish or Irish houses. “It’s actually what drew me to buy the house to begin with.”
While the home already had many exceptional details, including arched walkways, beautiful balconies, and original doors and hardware, Rachel decided to restore some of the key design aspects to a more classic style.
“As often is the case, the baths and kitchen had been renovated, but in a slick and polished style, so I restored them and put them back to what I consider would have been the authentic style for the house,” Rachel says.
For the kitchen, she found some white subway tiles from an old Belgian subway that offer just a slight hint of sheen and contribute to the simplicity of the space. Other elements that bring her kitchen together are dainty pendants above the farmhouse sink, simple white floating shelves neatly stacked with plates, and white painted barnwood-style cabinets. “It has the illusion of a funky little kitchen, but it’s a really good, functional one.”
When Rachel moved in, walls separated the kitchen from the main living room; she opened everything up so it’s all one large space. “It feels like New York loft living, and I have a lot of guests stay here, so I wanted it to have a feeling of a lot of space and not lonely with all these closed-off rooms,” Rachel says. Now with multiple seating areas and dining and workshop areas, it’s an ideal multipurpose room for everyday use.
A big part of the home’s charm—and what Rachel is very well known for—are the many floral designs in fabric prints and small-scale use of wallpaper patterns you’ll find throughout the home. They add a soft and sophisticated touch in her signature Shabby Chic style.
“I like to do the patterned wallpaper in these little nook areas,” Rachel says. “I tend to use vintage wallpaper. Often you can’t find a large quantity of vintage wallpaper, so that’s why it’s confined to one space, but it’s easy to do.”
Another design trick for bringing in soft color: Rachel paints the walls white, but from the floor to about 3 feet off the ground, she paints it over with a light gray, pink or blue for a two-tone look. “It [adds] color in an unassuming, subtle way,” she says. “They did that a lot in Morocco, and that’s where I got the idea.” These small but impactful design details give Rachel’s home its personality.
Antiques add patina and character, and Rachel looks to flea-market pieces to create the look of timeworn elegance she loves. “Nearly all the cabinets, tables and chairs are flea market-found and refurbished to the point that they’re functional and clean, but I try to hold on to the authentic patinas and textures,” Rachel says.
She also mixes in a few reproduction furniture pieces from the Rachel Ashwell Furniture collection to achieve the style, scale and function she wants. Many of her antique pieces are recovered in machine-washable fabric for durability since they’re white. Her collections of antique dishes, trays, vases and containers decorate hutches, tabletops and shelves for a cozy, charming look. All the bedding, in fabric patterns or soft hues, is romantic and vintage inspired.
What is the essence of Rachel’s decorating style? “I guess I would call myself a bit boho, but it’s also very classic. I don’t like things that go in and out of style,” Rachel says. “My mantra is ‘beauty, comfort and function.’ Everything in my house needs to be inviting and needs to be useful. That’s where I start.”
4 Elements of Rachel Ashwell’s Style
Want to emulate Rachel’s signature style? Learn how with her tips.
Soft color: “My palette tends to be on the softer side,” Rachel says. From various pinks and raspberries to teal, the look is fresh and inviting.
Eclectic: “I like things to be eclectic but not chaotic. I might organize it or give it a theme with color. Think expensive mixed with flea market and Target.”
Glamour: “I always like a little bit of glamour.” These bits of bling can be crystal chandeliers or a rug with silver threading through it.
Timeworn: “Embracing the beauty of imperfections and faded grandeur is a big thing for me. I don’t get too neurotic if something gets chipped.
Rachel’s signature Shabby Chic style is all about creating perfect imperfection. Here’s how she does it:
First, figure out how the room will be used and what it needs to fulfill that purpose. “The saddest thing is creating a space in a house that is never used,” Rachel says.
Create an inspiration book or board. Rachel’s book for a project might include something like a picture of a pink blouse or some rose petals that speak to a palette or feeling, items that help tell the full story of what the house could be.
Evaluate what you already have and what can be repurposed.
Start visiting flea markets. Rachel keeps a master list of what she needs to buy for clients. It may take time to find just the right piece, but the end result is worth the time and effort.
Don’t overcomplicate things. Details are important, but you can get caught up in them and never get anything done.
Less is more. Rachel was inspired by the recent bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. “Get rid of things that you don’t need,” she encourages with the caveat, “but be cautious because you could regret it later. There is a real emotional empowerment in not hanging on to stuff, things that don’t serve a purpose anymore.”
When it comes to choosing paint or fabrics, Rachel doesn’t have particular favorites. “It’s how it looks or how it feels,” she says. “Try the paint on the walls to see how it works.” She does recommend avoiding creams or icy white wall paint; instead, Rachel says, “stay with pure, bright white.”
Today I start a new assignment that I am so excited to share with you: my own little monthly column in this special magazine.
Those of you who know me will know I’ve had many platforms over the past three decades to share my Shabby Chic journey. Ten books on the beauty of imperfection, a TV show on the E! channel of my real shabby and chic life—long before reality TV was a thing—and most recently social media and my blogs.
I have enjoyed sharing my world of beauty, comfort and function, which has allowed Shabby Chic to stay relevant. Like any long-standing business, I’ve had my share of ups and downs. My children have grown from babies to creative adults and, while the world has changed in leaps and bounds, my values and aesthetics have remained true to my passions.
In this month’s issue, my home in California is featured. I have included it in a couple of my books, but when I found out Courtney Allison was the editor of Romantic Homes, I knew it would be a perfect fit. I knew Courtney would reflect my aesthetics true to me.
While my aesthetic has evolved over the years, my core always starts with romance. My “nest” is my sanctuary. I’m happy to share all aspects of my home and lifestyle, including the little nooks, crannies and unsung heroes of hidden cabinets and hallways that I choose to give special attention.
My new book, My Floral Affair, is launching soon as well. As the title suggests, it’s about flowers, including real and fake as well as printed fabrics, wallpapers and art. I consider myself a flower plopper: I curate flowers and plop them rather effortlessly, typically in a vintage vase. I’m never quite sure how the petals and stems will fall, but somehow nature takes over and all is lovely.
Creating this book was an unforgettable experience, and I hope you will enjoy the tips and techniques I’ve learned along the way. Check back next issue for a book review, and signed copies are available on shabbychic.com.
Each month, I will cover various subjects, but always things romantic, and somehow I’ll always circle back to home. I truly look forward to connecting with you.