Shabby Chic to Brit Chic
What is Shabby Chic?
Shabby chic evolved from typical English country house décor, via chocolate-box cottages through suburban Laura Ashley acolytes, and out of the large, cluttered, eclectic, bohemian-inhabited Victorian terrace houses that dominate inner-city, urban architecture in Britain. In went a soupçon of French farmhouse, a scrap of Shaker, a smidge of Scandinavian, a pinch of Indian, a trace of Moroccan, a touch of goth and it was done.
Shabby chic was, and should be an eclectic mix of styles and eras. Useful objects should sit happily next to beautiful ones. The best kind are both useful and beautiful. Shabby chic need not be cluttered, indeed, simplicity and function are at the heart of a shabby chic home.
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A Shabby History
Back in the 1970s, before shabby chic became a recognised style, it was fairly easy to pick up old solid pieces of late Victorian through to 1930s furniture that no-one wanted any more. The second-hand junk stores were full of it. Market traders couldn't get rid of it. Tons of perfectly good and very well-made pieces were burned or left to rot, while Britain excitedly embraced the urban Conran look that was trying to pass itself off as sophisticated country style. Along with the furniture, out went the doors, architraves, panelling, floorboards, fireplaces, china, linen, and other beautifully made but unwanted lace, hand-stitched and faded soft furnishings. Those without much money for Habitat had to make do with these readily-available, but disdained, materials. They, being born of the hippy generation, sanded and scrubbed, washed and painted the old furniture into submission. Out went dark, treacle-varnish dining tables; out went spindly, over-designed, uncomfortable 1960's chairs. In came big comfy sofas, stripped pine dressers and distressed oak cabinets. Mismatching became desirable; patchwork was back in vogue; bright, heart-warming colours were embraced. We Britishers were well acquainted with the style – we just didn't have a name for it... until clever Rachel Ashwell, took it to America, opened a store in Santa Barbara and created her Shabby Chic emporium that was, in essence, a small corner of England.
Americans loved her idea and went with it, taking it from something that came out of lack of money and necessity to a dainty urban style that owes more to dollhouses than to real, muddy, rainy, British country life. Well, the time has come. We want it back. We are reclaiming our gentile shabbiness for our very own. Brit-chic is coming home!
Elements of Shabby Chic - Brit-chic Style
Start with the floors. Shabby chic floors are always stripped, stained, varnished or painted boards. Kitchen floors are quarry tiled and strewn with rag rugs. Any original tiled or flagstone floor is fine. Carpet is not encouraged but can be tolerated in low-traffic areas like bedrooms. Laminate is out. Sorry. However wood-like it is, it can't ever be a substitute for proper floor boards. You might just get away with painting it with a very hard-wearing floor paint in a good shabby chic colour, i.e. white, cream, duck-egg blue, or that lovely soft green, beloved by the National Trust, and laying down some worn rugs.
Transform junk into desirable home decor. Full instructions in minute detail, down to the last paint chip. Fun and humor combine with thrift.
Rachel Ashwell's iconic style that took squatter resourcefulness and turned it into high fashion.
Wall to Wall Shabby Brit
Walls can be painted or papered. Painted is preferred – if you really must paper, then stick with a small unobtrusive print; resist the current trend for bold designs, they are already passé anyway. Paint can be plain and almost any colour you like as long as it is matte (flat). Or, you can revive some of the paint-effects of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Remember rag-rolling and sponging? Marbling and tortoise-shelling? Combing and stippling? What fun we had with all that. If you have to go this route, then be subtle – overlay that enthusiasm for metallic sheen with a little restraint. You are aiming for 'chic', remember? A desirable alternative is painted panelling which can look good in any size home.
Furniture is Best Distressed
Furniture is always comfortable and practical. Forget dainty. Shabby chic started in country houses that had to accommodate the hunting, shooting, fishing set. Furniture was there to be used, not admired. Where there were Labradors and children, white sofas were never an option. Loose covers are always a Very Good Thing. While the rest of the world are turning to Ikea and lime green, go for blowsy floral printed covers – great for hiding paw prints, cat hair and baby sick. Tartan is a good shabby chic standby, but don't overdo it.
Wood furniture can be sanded, waxed, stained or painted and distressed. Solid kitchen tables look great with plain wood tops and painted legs. Whatever you do, don't try to match and coordinate – that is death to authentic shabby chic.
Windows get the Brit Chic Treatment
Windows are simple – plenty of sheers, antique curtains, and/or wood blinds – though these should be restricted to urban living and never, ever used in cottages or proper country homes. If you are lucky enough to own a house with built in shutters, then no curtains, apart from some romantic lace, are necessary. Classic plains or delicately patterned, Laura Ashley-type, fabrics reign supreme when it comes to fabrics for windows. However, if you can get hold of faded, lined velvet, then you've struck shabby chic gold.
Never, ever revive the fashion for Austrian blinds. Or, indeed, flounces of any variety.
Shabby Chic Accessories - The Brit Chic Way
Ah, yes. This is where stylists have a field day. Yes, it is nice to have an antique French bird cage but there are too many imitations around – wrought iron and fairy lights are a bit clichéd these days. And everybody recognises Cath Kidston. If you are after true shabby chic then develop your own style. What elements in the last few decades appeal to you? Don't be put off by home décor magazines that say you must stick to pale colours or you really must have these over-priced cushions. Right now, in the UK, there is a huge trend for decorating with the Union Jack, and it is all over the place, particularly in shabby chic online stores – trends are not good, trends cost money and look dated very quickly. Your shabby Brit chic-ness must rise above trends and become timeless.
The whole point of shabby chic is that it is a style that evolves from the personalities of the people living within it. You can't buy authentic shabby chic from fashionable designer stores. You have to put it together yourself, otherwise it is contrived, and that is exactly what shabby chic is not.
Ask your family members if they have any old china stashed away – it needn't be priceless Victorian teacups, but a good old 1970s vintage dinner service. There are tons of china in charity shops that would fit the bill perfectly. Car boot sales are a great source of shabby chic – look critically at your prospective purchases – can it be sanded, rusted, verdigris-ed, painted or otherwise 'shabbied'? Mix up your eras like a crazy era-mixing thing!