This is why Shabby Chic never goes out of style

It’s an interior decorating trend that seems to be here to stay.

In this blog, 24housing examines:  

  • What shabby chic means
  • The origins of shabby chic
  • Today’s shabby chic look and how to create it
  • The future for the trend

Read on to find out all about it!

This kitchen displays typical shabby chic accessories
This kitchen displays the typical shabby chic accessories of washed furniture and dried flowers.

What is shabby chic?

It is as much a lifestyle expression as an interior design style, involving furniture, décor and accessories with a lived-in look which create informal, comfortable, yet stylish homes. The shabby chic concept aims to create a sense of nostalgia and charm; the skill in recreating it lies in making all the items in a home work together, creating a cohesive blend which avoids looking cluttered and haphazard.

Shabby chic furniture may come from various decades as the look can include a mix of mismatched items, from reproduction furniture to genuine antiques and new items. Typical objects include classic French farmhouse style furniture, heirloom pieces and items with a distressed finish, often with handcrafted attention that gives character.

Simple and functional

The trademark shabby chic look usually involves soft colours, lots of white, off-white and muted tones along with pastel colours and an odd splash of more vibrant colour. Floral wallpaper, chalk paint and distressed furniture pieces are also typical features. The `chic’ element involves items which evoke the glamour of the baroque period, for instance, opulent pieces such as intricate chandeliers, which are mixed with more provincial country items to create the desired atmosphere. Shabby chic is also influenced by the American Shaker movement of the early 1880s with its minimalist, rustic approach to furnishings which favoured shiplap wall panelling, bare floorboards and stone tiles to create a simple, yet functional look.

Shabby chic is not a `new money’ style; often involving inherited furniture or bought antique pieces, along with loose covers which can be removed and washed, much of its appeal is to country people and families. One of its strengths is that it seems to effortlessly move onto the next generation to tweak as it wishes, but the key ethos of being pretty and practical must remain intact to deliver the desired ambience.

Vintage furniture creates the shabby chic style.

The origins of shabby chic

The roots of shabby chic lie in British country houses, where fabrics with obviously time worn areas and old furniture inspired the trend which aimed to tap into a nostalgic vision of comfortable refinement. In the 1980s-90s, people were keen to demonstrate a sense of taste and style in their homes and were attracted to the idea of using unique pieces with their own history. Part of shabby chic’s enduring appeal is that the mixture of pieces it involves mean it can suit any home; we can all connect with the comfort of nostalgia.

British-born Rachel Ashwell launched her Shabby Chic brand in California in 1989 and she has been associated with the concept ever since. From those early days, Shabby Chic featured vintage wooden furniture with peeling paint layers, junk shop or sale room items such as mirrors, faded floral upholstery, coloured glassware and coffee tables. The brand grew in popularity when it created custom-made slipovers to put over vintage furniture.

Forever pieces

Ashwell has described her mantra as `Beauty, comfort and function,’ and her design philosophy as creating `forever’, using pieces which will stand the test of time and always look beautiful.  From the outset Shabby Chic was successful, but it hit difficult times and after 20 years, the business filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Perhaps people began to find the look too fussy with its swags and flowers, but the concept did not fade away and interest remained in its staple elements of chalk paint and distressed furniture. Ashwell reclaimed ownership of the company in 2013 and is trading now as Simply Shabby Chic.

Glamorous chandeliers add a touch of luxury to a room.

Today’s version of shabby chic

New look shabby chic is different; the heavy swags and extravagant floral influences no longer dominate; there are still flowers around, but the look is pared down, reflecting a more modern taste for a less fussy, slightly minimalist approach, while still offering warmth and comfort. Vintage pieces, wall mouldings, nature-inspired materials and a colour palette of whites and off-whites still take centre stage, alongside pale greens, some darker colours and bolder patterns than of old.

Despite a more minimalist approach in the intervening years, it appears that successive lockdowns have led to revived interest in shabby chic as people reverted to homely furnishings to make their houses comforting and welcoming. The shabby chic style is also massively popular on Tik Tok and Instagram. 

Roses are staple shabby chic accessories.

Rebecca Snowden, Interior Style Advisor at Furniture And Choice said:

Shabby chic rose to popularity in the 1980s and is now having a comeback with its laidback, vintage aesthetic. Known for its lived-in look, its enduring appeal is down to its homey touch and rustic charm featuring an off-white palette, floral prints and soft fabrics.

For 2022, shabby chic has evolved to feature less over-the-top embellishments by focusing more on cosiness. With more time spent at home over the last two years, comfort has become a key part of home interiors. Shabby chic’s versatility can be translated to city apartments or country style cottages. And it can be mixed with other décor styles such as industrial for a stylish contrast. This can mean softening a metal dining set with floral tableware or pairing a leather sofa with a jute rug and floral wallpaper.

Browse antique stores or flea markets to find unique pieces and pair them with soft furnishings like cushions or throws to create a layered look. Inject a pop of colour to your home with floral touches through wallpaper or accessories. You can also try your hand at upcycling an old piece of furniture by repainting or repurposing it. Aside from that, introduce natural materials such as a wooden dining set or sideboard.

To complete the look, lean into the ‘chic’ elements of this style. For example, pair vintage tableware or lampshades with glamorous accents such as a statement chandelier or mirror.”

A vintage shabby chic mirror.

Nature inspired

Today, shabby chic means involves comfortable fabrics, cottons and linens, floral wallpaper patterns, vintage fabrics, slipover covers, light and airy rooms, bare floorboards, carved wooden furniture and mouldings, all influenced by a nature inspired lifestyle. Also fitting the brief are raw materials such as jute rugs, stone walls, wicker, cotton muslin and natural fibres. On trend items include salvaged furniture, stained wood, wrought iron, coat hooks, fresh flowers in vases, vintage china, plants, wooden floorboards, white ceramic bathrooms, chintz and old paintings.

Shabby chic reinvents itself

Interior designer Suzanne Webster of SW Design Group Ltd., SW Design Group said that shabby chic has always adapted to changing times and is currently reinventing itself once again.

We are now seeing shabby chic on all sorts of forums, particularly Instagram. While it is a mismatched look, it is also very styled and this time around, shabby chic is reinventing itself to include lime washed furniture. In its heyday, people painted furniture but now the approach is more sophisticated; people are keen to paint and sand down items, and vintage pieces are being repurposed and perhaps given a distressed look and a new worktop.

Shabby chic is a look that’s easy to live with and keep clean, it’s good for DIY enthusiasts as it provides the opportunity to upcycle furniture. On Instagram, people are creating the shabby chic feel with dried flowers, for instance using pampas grass which is huge at the moment.

Suzanne added that Covid-19 has prompted people to turn their homes into havens of relaxation and security, often with a nostalgic feel and cottage style decor.

People want to connect with nature and are adopting a natural, outdoorsy look for their homes; they want them to be places of comfort and safety. Shabby chic can suit all homes, that’s its great appeal, from an Edwardian house to a new build, and that’s why it has never gone out of fashion. Shabby chic has always been a big seller as it is so adaptable.

The look is also extending to our gardens, with timeworn furniture, fabrics and rose gardens becoming stylish.

Pastel paint tones on painted wood with layers showing help complete the look

How to shabby chic furniture  

Junk shop purchases need to be worked on to create the desired effect and it is important not to use too many contrasting styles which may jar and give a cluttered look. It is best to keep to a limited colour palette and use items which work together well, although it is possible to mix and match older furniture styles to create character. Today’s shabby chicers are buying furniture from second-hand shops and auctions, cleaning items with sugar soap before painting them with many layers of base coats of clay paint or chalk paint, then using sandpaper to work off some of the paint to create a distressed surface before applying a top coat. Clear or coloured wax is then applied over the paint to seal and protect the finish, or interior varnish. When it comes to wall coverings, floral wallpapers or patterns with a nature theme are in vogue, as are painted walls in pastel tones.

The future for shabby chic

Shabby chic speaks to us today in many ways; it fits with our upcycling mindset – our desire to transform something old into something useful and appealing, while its core principles of using natural materials to create a comforting, homely feel chimes with our post-pandemic mood. It is the look that keeps on reinventing itself down the generations, and it appears to be here to stay.

Have I missed anything about the shabby chic look?

Which tips will you use first?

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