Rachel Ashwell Biography

Interior designer and entrepreneur

Born c. 1960 in Cambridge, England; married; children: two.


Interior designer and entrepreneur. Left school at 16; set designer and wardrobe stylist, 1977–87; founded Shabby Chic, c. 1987; hosted décor shows on television.


In the late 1980s, Rachel Ashwell created Shabby Chic, an interior design concept that featured a light color palette, distressed furniture with character, slipcovers, and old–style designs. Comfort and function were favored in Ashwell's vision. Ashwell copyrighted the name and owned the concept. She was successful in owning a series of stores and product lines under the Shabby Chic name.

Ashwell is a native of Great Britain, where her parents got her involved in antiques from an early age. Her mother was a restorer of antique dolls and teddy bears, while her father was a secondhand, rare book dealer. Ashwell learned to love shopping in flea markets and antique stores as a young girl as she and her sister went to such places with their parents looking for dolls, books, and bears. By the time she was 13 years old, Ashwell was selling items in London antique markets.

By about 1983, Ashwell had moved to the United States, settling in California. She had a career as a set designer and stylist in the entertainment industry,

Rachel Ashwell
primarily working in as a commercial and print stylist. When she had her two children, she left this career behind to focus on her family.

Ashwell began doing what became Shabby Chic in her own home as she decorated the house to withstand the rigors of her children and pets. She made washable, design–friendly slipcovers for her furniture. Friends soon wanted them, which led to her first store.

In about 1989, Ashwell opened a store in Santa Monica, California, called Shabby Chic. By this time, she wanted to start a small business, though Shabby Chic soon became a large, successful company. She began by selling slipcovers, in such varied materials as velvet, denim, and linen. She later expanded to vintage furniture and accessories for the home, again emphasizing comfort as well as the beauty of imperfections.

To find pieces to sell in her store, Ashwell would hit garage sales and flea markets. While she might restore, sand and/or paint the dressers, tables, and cabinets that she would find, for the most part Ashwell was determined to keep the piece's character. She would buy furniture that was well–built but well–used, capitalizing on the flaws as a chance to be creative. These finds would form the core of Ashwell's Shabby Chic business for many years.

Though Ashwell emphasized practical furniture with character, she also had a touch of sophistication. She especially enjoyed finding and including crystal chandeliers in her decorating schemes. As Mary Berth Breckenridge of the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette wrote, "Ashwell's style is at once easy and elegant, making unlikely partners of elements like rumpled fabrics and crystal chandeliers. Most of all, it's practical."

By 1991, Ashwell had three Shabby Chic stores, opening additional locations in New York City and San Francisco, California. She later added a store in Chicago, Illinois. While each store sold Shabby Chic products, she geared what was found in each store toward the style and clientele it would attract in each city.

Shabby Chic also expanded the kind of products it carried. Ashwell first branched out into home textiles, like sheets and fabrics. Many of her fabrics were poplins and linens in her signature colors. In the late 1990s, she also added Shabby Chic Man to appeal to male consumers, Shabby Chic Home, which included bedding, and Rachel Ashwell Designs Collection, which featured new furniture in the mode of the restored pieces that she sold at her stores.

Some of these products created trends in the home decorating industry. Ashwell was among the first to popularize the concept of knitted bed sheets in the late 1990s. Because she favored a jeans and T–shirt lifestyle, she believed the latter fabric would make great bedding, a trend which other companies began to follow. Similarly, many companies started selling new, distressed furniture.

Ashwell continued to expand her own ideas to stay ahead of the market. She added pajamas and aromatherapy products to the Shabby Chic Home line. She also introduced three new product lines: Shabby Chic Studio, a less expensive line of furniture; Shabby Chic Baby, which featured bedding and accessories for infants; and Shabby Chic Accessories, a line of lampshades, chair pads, and backpacks.

Between 1996 and 2004, Ashwell penned four books showcasing different aspects of her Shabby Chic design concept. Shabby Chic, published in 1996, was primarily a book of photos of homes done in Ashwell's decorating style. In 1998, she published Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic Treasure Hunting & Decorating Guide, a handbook on how to shop at flea markets and garage sales to purchase and create one's own Shabby Chic furniture. She followed this with 2000's The Shabby Chic Home and 2001's The Shabby Chic Gift of Giving. The latter was a guide for finding unusual gifts in antique stores and flea markets and wrapping them with flair. Shabby Chic: Sumptuous Settings and Other Lovely Things was scheduled for publication in March of 2004.

Because of Ashwell's success with Shabby Chic, she was a guest on shows on HGTV (Home and Garden Television). By 2000, Ashwell was a home and how–to expert with her own program on E! Entertainment Television and its related Style Network. She displayed her style on her show Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic. Of her philosophy as an interior designer, Ashwell told Glenna Morton from about.com , "One of my pet peeves is too much matching, clutter, frills, and people being too quick to complete the decorating process. The solution is to simplify. Be without, rather than making a wrong quick choice. Less is more."

Selected writings

Shabby Chic, HarperCollins, 1996.

Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic Treasure Hunting & Decorating Guide, Regan Books, 1998.

The Shabby Chic Home, Regan Books, 2000.

The Shabby Chic Gift of Giving, Regan Books, 2001.

Shabby Chic: Sumptuous Settings and Other Lovely Things, Regan Books, 2004.



Book List, July 1998, p. 1844.

Chicago Sun–Times, June 3, 2001, p. 8.

Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 1998, p. B4.

Country Living, February 2002, p. 77.

HFN, March 24, 1997, p. 17.

Independent, March 5, 2003, p. 19.

Library Journal, September 15, 1998, p. 72.

Ottawa Citizen, September 5, 1998, p. I9.

Pittsburgh Post–Gazette, August 3, 1996, p. C1.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 28, 1991, p. 1; January 1, 2003, p. 2WB.

Times, April 5, 2002.


"About Shabby Chic," Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic, http://www.shabbychic.com/aboutus.html# (December 18, 2003).

"At Home with a Designer: An Interview with Rachel Ashwell," about.com , http://interiordec.about.com/library/designers/bl_ashwell.htm (December 18, 2003).

"Furniture gets protection in new cover–up scheme," SouthCoast Today, http://www.s–t.com/daily/05–00/05–28–00/h01ho201.htm (December 18, 2003).

"Not Too Shabby a Life," Groovy Art Gal, http://www.groovyartgal.com/beyondthecover/departments/lifestyles.asp (December 18, 2003).

"Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic," Style Network, http://www.stylenetwork.com/Popup/Shows/shabby.html (December 18, 2003).

Annette Petruso

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