Not too shabby With its relaxed look and feel, Shabby Chic has become a favorite style for those who can't keep the house perfect but still want a touch of elegance

Focus on design.

October 18, 1998|By Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub | Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Rachel Ashwell would never ever take an old wheelbarrow and transform it into a coffee table.

She would buy a clunky oak table, add some beaded molding and paint it cream with touches of the original finish showing through.

This difference is what makes the first design "country" and the second Ashwell's distinctive Shabby Chic, a brand name and decorating style that's known for having the courage to combine comfortable furniture with washable slipcovers, crystal chandeliers and flea-market finds.

Ashwell, a former set de-signer and stylist in California, created the Shabby Chic look in 1989. The easy-to-live-with style has become a favorite of baby boomers, who love the way it allows them to live with kids and pets without getting hysterical if something is spilled on the sofa. Shabby Chic, in fact, is more than a brand name. It's a way of life.

Love her look but don't have a clue how to achieve it? Ashwell provided how-to advice in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. She is the author of the recently-published "Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic Treasure Hunting & Decorating Guide" (ReganBooks, $30) and "Shabby Chic" (ReganBooks, 1996).

Although she owns 12 Shabby Chic stores and sells her own lines of furniture and bed linens, she doesn't advocate starting your decorating at the furniture store.

"Take an inventory of what you have in your home first," she said. "I am a big believer that less is more. Do you really use what you have in your house? ... If you don't use it or it is gathering dust, get rid of it."

Then, you should look at what's left with a stranger's eye. Do you like the shape of your armoire and sofa? Can they be reworked? They sure can. Ashwell suggested painting a dark armoire white and covering a well-constructed red sofa with white slipcovers.

The right light color is essential to the Shabby Chic style. Think ivory, cream, dusty pink, pale sky blue, celadon green and soft yellow. Nothing shouts. It whispers good taste.

When you do start your shopping, Ashwell said it's best to use different sources rather than buy everything at the same place.

"There can be a blandness if you buy everything for your home," she said.

Ashwell, who is English, relies on the British sensibility. If things can't be inherited, they should at least look as if some of them were.

Many of the objects she selects are worn but good quality. Some of the hallmarks in fabric are worn damask, faded velvets, tea-stained florals, washed-out cotton prints and slightly tattered lace.

"There is a fine line between fine and used and funky and junky," she said. "If the piece is rickety, it's too far gone."

Let's say you're looking for a mirror at a flea market or antiques mall. If your image looks distorted, she recommended passing it up unless the frame is spectacular. Then it's worth getting new glass. When you do, Ashwell suggested making it beveled to add extra detail.

Signposts of quality in furniture include sturdy construction and tongue-in-groove joints. Weight is also important - the heavier the wicker, for instance, the better.

"Workmanship is kind of a given when you are buying something old," she said. "What is lovely is when you find old pieces that are made so well that if you tried to duplicate them today they would be very expensive."

As you go along, you'll learn to appreciate what Ashwell calls the value of "imperfect beauty."

She learned that lesson in her childhood when she went to flea markets with her mother, who bought and restored antique dolls and teddy bears. Ashwell's favorites were those with character - such as a beautiful doll with a cracked face or some fingers missing.

"Does the imperfection still allow for the piece to be functional?" she asked. "If the vase has a slight chip, is it still able to hold water? You can use nail polish to cover up the chips."

Another important part of the Shabby Chic look is what Ashwell calls superficial top layering. It includes plenty of fresh flowers, candles and crisp white linen. (Don't want to iron the linen napkins? No matter. Ashwell said linen is better than paper even when it's wrinkled.)

Collections also make a home look homey. But she emphasized that they should be useful rather than kitschy. This means collecting vases or bowls rather than little dolls or ducks.

But she also allows room for fun. One of her favorite items is a blue-and-white plate with two lovers embracing in a canoe. On the bow of the boat is an angel.

The plate, she said, makes her sit down and think where she is emotionally. Is she focused or just bubbling along?

"The things that I am always looking for at flea markets are plates or cups with little writing on them or calligraphy prayers," she said. "Those are the things around the house that stop me from being so uptight in the business world."

What you want to achieve in the Shabby Chic lifestyle is comfort with an elegant accent.

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