Shabby Chic is back

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 by Douglas And Gordon

A few decades ago when setting up home no-one could afford new furniture and it was accepted that you’d have to settle for second hand or family hand-me-downs. You made do and were grateful despite the fact that it often resulted in you having several styles of furniture or crockery all vying for attention.


Fast forward a few years, and ultra modern, brushed aluminium, glass, Perspex and leather pieces were popular. It had to be bold, it had to look new and it had to all match. The Ikea era also sent sales of affordable Scandi blonde or MDF flat-pack designs through the roof. It didn’t matter if it fell apart after a couple of years - it was instant ‘cheap chic’ and wasn’t built to last. For the first time, people could afford to refurnish their entirehouse throughout. As a result, the general masses turned their back on antiques and secondhand. Ikea even ran an advertising campaign telling everyone to “Chuck Out That Chintz” making a mockery of traditional flocked wallpaper, patterned curtains, sofas and cushions. Modern minimalism was in and anything a bit homely or old-fashioned was out.

But gradually, the gloss of new has worn thin. Little by little people have realised that brand new can be too new. A bit soulless and standoffish. The thrill of the £300 fake leather sofa has waned after a few uncomfortable nights watching TV while the backrest digs into your spine or the self-assembly computer desk is that little bit too wobbly. We’ve even grown tired of the canvas print that your friends all purchased too.

The style that’s gradually been creeping up on us since the late 1990s is ‘Shabby Chic’. It’s a style that celebrates items that have been well used and that are showing their age and history. It gives furniture a new lease of life and brings a vintage -but not stuffy -charm into the home. Cracks, scratches and blemishes are all part of the appeal. Whether it be an old Belfast sink, church bench, roll-top bath or chaise-longue pieces are often far better crafted and of higher quality than contemporary items, so you needn’t be scared of buying second hand.Chances are, if it’s lasted this long it will last another few decades. Because of this, it’s a very environmentally friendly style. Far better than that wonky computer desk, that let’s face it, will probably end up in a landfill site within the year.

It’s also a very economical approach to interior décor as Shabby Chic’s defining ethos combines the 6 ‘R’s: re-use,restore, revive, revamp, recycle and reclaim. It forces you to have ‘vision’ and to look at things in a new light - many items can be transformed for completely different uses - an old sewing machine bench could become a quirky side table; a piece of drift wood might be mounted as artwork on the wall; a glass cabinet could be used for a filing cabinet in the study; a tatty sofa may be re-upholstered using old curtains. Even a wicker fruit basket could be reused to store hand towels in the bathroom. It’s a real conglomeration of epochs and the possibilities are endless.

The key to Shabby Chic is to keep your background palette light or use natural or muted tones. Your furniture will be eclectic so by keeping your background colour simple you avoid looking too cluttered or like your Granny’s back room.

Of course, for thrift chic devotees who have fully embraced the style or for those with larger rooms and tall ceilings, roughly plastered walls, exposed brick and peeling wallpaper will add that extra bit of raw magic - if you can live with that ‘un-finished’ look.

The joy of Shabby Chic is that it’s a very individual look because antiques and vintage finds are unique. But it’s not like going to a department store or ordering online. It’s often a question of gathering your best items slowly and collecting them so that the look ‘evolves’ rather than furnishing or decorating your home in one go.

So, how to start on this eclectic domestic journey? Have a think about your own personal taste and think about how and where you live. If you live in a modern tower block a huge French renaissance style shabby chic bed or countrified gingham curtain may look out of place. Opt for sleeker art deco or 1960s style pieces that will look more in keeping with your architecture. Conversely, if you live in a Victorian villa you have the space to experiment with many different periods. Mixing in some key contemporary items will keep the look fresh - as well as practical. After all, you don’t want to live in a museum.

And you don’t need the knowledge or bravado of an antiques salesman to pick up a bargain. Many items can be found reasonably priced athousehold clearances, charity shops or car boot sales. If you do choose to visit one of the many antiques stores around West London then don’t be afraid of asking for a discount - particularly if you are purchasing more than one item. The stores also offer loads of vintage items (the term ‘vintage’ is usually applied to anything that is 20 years or older) so have a rummage. TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp recently decorated her entire house using second hand finds. She says, “Don't forget, in antiques' or street markets, items aren't price tagged or neatly laid out, so it's important to spend time looking around on your own.You never know what else you may find.

“Go with a shopping list and a budget, but be flexible. What you find at these centres are oneoffs, so if you see something utterly irresistible, it's often worth bagging it - otherwise you may never see the like again”. Allsopp goes on to say, “Pay as little as you possibly can - don't take the first price. Be prepared to haggle. The more effort you put in, the more rewarding it gets. Try it, you might like it.”

Be prepared to do a bit of work on your new buys. You might need to sand down, re-paint or reupholster. If you don’t fancy overhauling a piece of furniture yourself then buy ‘upcycled’. Designer Zoë Murphy rejuvenates 20th century items that have been disregarded and gives them a contemporary twist. She says, “Recycled furniture is an ideal way of showing faith in all the things we own, and expressing the idea that we should notgive up on things too early. I’m incredibly interested in the way people consume and how we always want 'new'. I like the fact that I can take something someone doesn't want anymore and work with it until it is desirable again”.

Zoë’s tables and chests are made by re-veneering the 1950s style pieces and screen-printing with drawings of seaside townscapes. Her footstools have bases made from wood off-cuts and are upholstered with scraps of fabric and her cushions are covered with strips of old wedding dresses she finds on eBay. "Each element has almost no value on its own, but put together they become something useful."

If you’d prefer to get someone else to do all the hard work, Retrouvius Reclamation & Design take on entire houses or room by room commissions or they can even source you specific pieces of furniture. They mix salvage finds with progressive design for a real urban translation. Partner Maria Speake says, “Often a lot of our materials are reclaimed but once they are re-used you wouldn't necessarily know, in fact they can look rather slick. I am more interested in the 'story' behind the materials, where they came from; the house, museum, train station. Combinations of fragments help create texture and variety something most of us crave after too much bad minimalism!”

If the prospect of living in Shabby Chic style seems too overwhelming then remember transforming the space doesn’t need to involve endless searches and bank-breaking expenditure. Take it a piece - or a car boot sale! - at a time. That way you only buy what you really love.

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