The series “Seasonal Design” covers home decor and how flowers elevate an environment. In this story, we speak to Shabby Chic® creator Rachel Ashwell about spring decorating.
Rachel Ashwell created one of the most popular design styles of all time — the global phenomenon known as Shabby Chic®. But, for her, it’s more about the emotion than the look. “The secret to life is the feeling,” she says. “Knowing what you feel and being conscious of that, whether in a space, in your clothing, or with a person, is everything.”
And in her iconic designs of soft, floral upholstery fabrics, weather-worn furniture, and vintage pieces, she creates the feeling of serenity with an ethereal, dreamlike quality.
That otherworld feeling flows from her mantra of “beauty, comfort, and function,” a filter that applies to everything in her solo store in Santa Monica, California, and her signature brands sold at leading retailers. Though known since 1989 for overstuffed, oversized, unwind-here soft furniture and fabrics and a white and pastel palette, Ashwell insists she is not a design trendsetter or even an interior designer.
Instead, her style has a “timeless, traditional neutrality about it” she says. Layering multiple looks like incorporating vintage flea-market finds like a gold mirror or crystal chandelier with an overstuffed chair is her unique way of telling a story through design. In her aesthetic, one can also see — and feel — her English countryside roots and love of Los Angeles, where she mostly lives.
Where Rachel Ashwell finds inspiration
Ashwell considers herself a highly sensitive and soulful person. “The escape of beauty is a very important element in my life.” Whether that’s a sojourn to her native English countryside or a stretch of time in a Malibu surf shack, she finds the enduring beauty of nature soothing. Flowers are a huge part of that inspiration, whether found in a beautiful old chintz fabric, a teeming floral garden, or a chandelier with crystal-shaped flowers.
Flowers enrich my soul and inspire my sense of beauty.
And then there are Ashwell’s romantic floral arrangements. They combine a soft nostalgia with classic tradition. She says she has a “spiritual connection to the beauty of blooms.”
Her garden in Santa Monica is “a heaven on earth of a mass of blooms,” she says, filled with English garden roses, sweet lavender, billowy hydrangea, and fragrant gardenias. Certainly “atypical now in a neighborhood of easy-care lawns and drought-resistant shrubs,” in LA, but consistent with her palette of pale pinks, pastel blues, and white and her feeling of sanctuary. And she believes we can all benefit by bringing in the feminine, soft, and romantic by way of flowers. “Flowers enrich my soul and inspire my sense of beauty.”
Here are Rachel Ashwell’s tips for creating, placing, and enjoying a romantic floral arrangement.
Finding the right floral vase
There is no “right” way to pair a vase with an arrangement, Ashwell says. But she does believe the beauty of the vase is an essential feature of the result. “The vase is the starting point, whether it’s a jam jar or ornate vintage vase, there’s no judgment. It just has to be lovely.”
Ashwell scours flea markets and thrift stores all over the world, and online marketplaces for her vases and says not to be afraid to repurpose something old or unique. “In a thrift store, you might find a teapot without a lid for $5, so long as it doesn’t leak.” If you find an older vase with cracks, you can always insert a glass liner. The main thing is to think outside of the box (or vase) and have confidence.
Romantic floral arrangement tips
Once the vase is chosen, Ashwell relies on her intuition to arrange it.
“I’m a flower plopper,” she says, meaning she truly plops the flowers into the vase. “When flowers come into my life, even a $10 bouquet from the supermarket or free from the alleyway [this is a very typical thing in LA to go into an alleyway and pick branches, blooms or citrus from trees that overhang into the alleyway], plopping enables me to be more spontaneous.”
Before the plopping begins, she tends to remove the green leaves, especially with roses, so the look is focused on the blooms. “I’m all about the heads of the roses,” Ashwell says. “For the most part I cut the leaves all the way down, so just the heads or buds are exposed.”
Where to place a floral arrangement
Ashwell then studies the space and finds the right place for her arrangements. If you’re having a dinner party, Ashwell says “You don’t need a three-foot vase on a dining room table. I prefer to do clusters. I love nothing more than six little vases on a dinner table, then everyone gets to take one home.”
She also suggests placing flowers where you wouldn’t usually, like a stairwell or hallway that doesn’t get any love or attention. She likes flowers where she spends a lot of time, by her desk or on a windowsill above the kitchen sink. “Flowers have their personalities. A beautiful arrangement can fit in anywhere.” Ashwell often places an arrangement by her makeup mirror in her bathroom too.
How to choose a floral color palette
Her florals naturally flow into her color scheme of pastels and pinks. “It might sound kind of wacky,” says the Shabby Chic® creator, “but I don’t pay too much attention to the palette around me.” Sometimes she brings in yellow roses but avoids bright, bright red. “For me, it’s too startling.” She says the main point is to focus on the beauty of the flowers and the vase selection.
Feel free to rearrange the arrangement
Ashwell is a fan of rearranging an arrangement to suit your taste. “Sometimes it’s perfect and you love it the way it is, other times you might want to tweak it till you absolutely adore it,” she says. “I tend to loosen up arrangements. I trim a lot of the green stems and leaves off. I like more air in the vase.” You can also end up with two or three displays out of one bouquet.
Best flowers for a romantic arrangement
Ashwell doesn’t consider herself a flower snob. “I go to the supermarket, I grab things, I love carnations — white and pink, but not red,” she says. She also loves peonies, hydrangeas, lisianthus, ranunculus, and roses as part of the Shabby Chic® aesthetic. “Sweet peas that are fleeting lovely things, and lilacs when they are around.”
The optimism of nature
A compelling reason to immerse oneself in florals is something the eye cannot see, but the heart can feel, according to Ashwell. At a time when so many of us are feeling stuck in a state of world-weariness, bringing nature inside is vital, she says.
“It’s just a reminder this too shall pass. Nature is the biggest teacher of that. We embrace the beauty when it’s in bloom, acceptance on its way out, and patience when it’s dormant. Above all, nature is hopeful.”