Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Couture

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Rachel's Blog

Monthly Archives: September 2008

  • Royalty meets the cowboy

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    I write from one of my favorite places in the world, “The Covent Garden Hotel”. It is located in a section of London called Covent Garden, which was the site of a flower, fruit, and vegetable market from the 1500s until 1974.

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    The Covent Garden Hotel is quite small with only 58 rooms. It has four floors with meandering staircases, which I always befriend as I avoid elevators whenever possible (claustrophobic). These staircases creek but their crookedness is so very charming too me.

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    The hotel is designed by Kit Kemp and it is part of a small chain of hotels. While the interiors are a little more dramatic than I would design myself, it is still wonderfully eclectic, bohemian and inviting while still maintaining a traditional British aesthetic. Wherever I travel, I always try and stay in hotels that embrace the culture of the city; and for me a small boutique helps to accomplish that experience.

    There is a drawing room in this hotel where I have spent many an evening. Much conversation, lots of sofas, ottomans, two big fireplaces and lots of mushy cushions.

    A drawing room is derived from the 16th centuy term "withdrawing room", a withdrawing room was a room to which the owner of the house, his wife, or a distinguished guest who was occupying one of the main apartments in the house could "withdraw" for more privacy.

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    I have been staying at this hotel over the years, from when my children were small, through teenage years, and now I am here seeing my daughter settle into student life in London. The bar in the drawing room works on the honor system. Years back, my teenagers and their friends appeared to not fully understand the meaning of “honor”. To this day when they come “into the drawing room”, they wonder if they might be recognized.

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    I am really happy I was raised in London because it is impossible not to inhale the culture that bursts out of the sidewalks. Writers, painters, poets, actors, dancers, and designers have all paid their dues and learnt their craft from the history of their predecessors. I was a really poor student at school so the only chance I stood of ever learning anything was if it was subliminal and experiential.

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    And of course the royalty and British heritage themes that is always influence my designs are a direct authentic inspiration from my roots.

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    To purchase any of these please click here.

    However my next stop after London is the Roundtop Texas Flea market which stretches from the towns of Warrenton to Marburger.

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    Country western music is my favorite next to opera. The common theme I suppose is the tragedy of unrequited love. Merle Haggard, George Strait, Johnny Cash, get me each and every time.

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    There is usually a team of 4 of us that go to Roundtop Texas. I take along another pair of eyes to help me buy items and keep track of where we purchased things and how much we paid for them. And then of course I take along some serious muscles to help haul and load our container in the field.

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    We all spend a lot of time together; therefore the players must all get along well. The house we sleep in has little insulation; therefore there are no secrets when we are on the road.

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    When we are in our truck driving around, my guys know songs about trucks breaking down, dogs passing, or broken hearts --subjects I like to listen to. Somehow we are still a happy bunch.

    Nothing is more satisfying than to see our pile of treasures grow over the few days we are shopping.

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    The saying of southern hospitality is a true saying. The genuine kindness and welcome that exists “down there” is just lovely. We never ever miss a show. I have made some true friends. Jolie, Amie and Janie of the “Junk Gypsy Fame” are a wonderful family and business that we discovered at the “zapp hall field.” They sell cowboy gypsy clothes and jewelry and are true treasures of people.

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    Click here to go to the Junk Gypsy web page.

    And then my Texas Home, “The Outpost Inn”. Lenore and Danny (and the now departed Buck), are the perfect hosts.

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    The Outpost Inn is a bed and breakfast ranch that has the main house with rooms for rent.

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    But the real treats are the little barns that have been painstakingly built and restored by Danny, and immaculately decorated by Lenore.

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    Lenore is also an amazing fine art painter and a great mum. Hopefully one day she will get back to her painting. There is not one single detail that has not been considered by Danny and Lenore, including the perfect breakfast prepared by them each and every morning.

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    Danny kindly makes me my own special breakfast. Not because his menu is not adored by all, I am just a boringly fussy eater and don’t like any spices. Ketchup, salt, and butter are as adventurous as I get. So while all others eat a hearty texas country breakfast, I am in heaven with my plain egg on toast and tea.

    It is a lovely way to start the day --to meet all the other shoppers and hear their stories of the days before and hopes of the days ahead. My favorite table in the dining room is red with matching red benches. This actually was my first inspiration to bring red in my palette. Has to be funky and worn of course, but it’s a color I have learnt to embrace.

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    The steamy, stormy weather is often a subject covered at breakfast. I am always impressed by the local Texas women, from Dallas and Houston, because no matter how steamy and stormy it gets, they never look sweaty or have bad hair days. (The electrical storms are so dramatic they would seem fake if in a movie).

    I thought I had gone to heaven when I was eating lunch in a field, as the rain started coming down, and I heard a distant Willie Nelson singing “Blue Skies”. I recall saying to my guys “I want nothing more at this moment”.

    I am a sight for sore eyes from the moment I set foot outside. Hair frizzy and stringy and sweaty face with my clothes stuck to my body. Yuck. This makes it impossible for me to ever judge if I can buy a mirror, as a reflection at that moment would be just too distracting. So I always have to ask a nearby shopper to check for distortions!!!!!!

    At the start of each day I always sit for a moment on a porch and view the blue bonnets or wildflowers.

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    I love the concept of wildflowers --these whimsical unsettled flowers that find their own place to bloom, where they feel most at home. But just for a little time. And then off they go to spread their beauty once again, somewhere else.

    At the end of my day I get to walk the carpet of wisteria that leads to my cottage. This is just a little piece of heaven.

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    It seems everywhere I look in Texas there is beauty. Even though one may think of everything in Texas as too big, I find the details to be very intimate. In my initial blog I showed my favorite church in the world.

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    When I marry again, I would love nothing more than to hold the ceremony here.
    There is something so very cheerful, authentic, but light spirited about this teeny little church. Even the graveyard next to it is the happiest most colorful place you could imagine. Quite beautiful.

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    But of course the purpose of this trip to Texas is to shop and shop and shop. I never come back disappointed. Last time I came back with loads of lovely rugs.

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    I love Texas for authentic paint. I rarely have to repaint anything. Wonderful tables, cabinets, hutches in my palette. Prices are going up but I buy whatever I can for one day there will be no more.

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    To view the entire prairie collection click here.

    Even though I have stores across the county, I send everything I buy back to my corporate office where we refurbish everything. Sometimes that may be just a cleanup. Maybe a cushion for a stool (although if great paint I usually forego a cushion as I would rather not cover up the paint.) We always make sure drawers and cupboards open smoothly. (If hinges or handles have to be replaced we always use vintage. Either found at fleamarkets too or from Liz's hardware.) A final touch is to wallpaper the drawers or shelves. Again preferably with vintage wallpaper. Even though it is getting harder and harder to come by these treasures, the search continues to be fun and inspirational. And now also green friendly.

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    So the word treasure is the right word in this instance. For me the experience is the bigger treasure.

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  • Communication and Renovation

    My first proper blog page since my introduction a few weeks ago.

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    Even though one of my greatest joys is to have a cup of tea and good conversations in person with a friend, little by little technology has found a way to sometimes dilute that connection. I remember the days of receiving a telegram and wondered how a message could be sent and so quickly delivered on a piece of paper.

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    The telegram was replaced years later by fax, a machine that I still do not understand. In recent years, I was introduced to a “blackberry,” a wonderful tool, especially for travel and international business. But for sure it has to be used with great caution, for the addiction it can cause and for the information it holds that might be read by uninvited readers.

    As I mentioned in my introduction, the world of “blogs” is new to me, so the discovery of “comments” was a lovely surprise. And while it is not quite the personal touch of a cup of tea, I am certainly learning what a lovely vehicle it is to share thoughts with like-minded people.

    My intentions are to update my blog weekly. I got delayed the last couple of weeks because even though both Shabby Chic and my kids are now set to go on their ways, I found myself so busy with my stores and preparation of kids going back to college. As my son moved into his first all-boy apartment with two other friends in New York, he did break the news to me that they had opted for a black sofa and coffee table. (However, I did get a call several hours later that he couldn’t believe the confusion, the lack of customer service, and how long it all took to shop, giving him a new understanding of what a pleasant experience it is to shop in Shabby Chic.)

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    Click here to see all Shabby Chic store locations

    I have spent the last few weeks traveling my stores on the east coast, making sure my vision of wanting to create an aesthetic of magic is somehow achieved. It’s quite tricky to accomplish this, as all Shabby Chic stores are different shapes and sizes. And with so many one-of-a-kind vintage items, each store has to be individually directed in how to display each product. But the effort is well worth the end result. Meeting my employees and seeing their enthusiasm and effort is endlessly touching to me.

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    Other than kids and work, another project I am close to completing is a house I have been working on in Los Angeles.

    I have been living in Los Angeles for close to 30 years, but the truth is, my dream has always been to live in a 200-year-old small stone farmhouse, surrounded by wildflowers and roses, in the countryside. It would also be near a small village with a church, would have a view of pretty rooftops, would have chickens and goats and small children, four seasons, especially the rain, the smell of gravy, and the sound of classical music. (Similar to Hill Top Farm, the home Beatrix Potter lived in that was so beautifully portrayed in the movie Miss Potter).

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    I have lived in a few different homes over the years for a few different reasons, always looking for my dream house (more details of this in my next book). A year ago, I stumbled on my “kind of nearly dream home.” Built in the early 20’s, it is confused as to whether it is Spanish or a house from the South (New Orleans). It has some lovely original details like a large brick fireplace, which is actually too big for the room and not Spanish or New Orleans in style, but more like it belonged on the Yorkshire Moors. (It could have been in a scene from the film, "Wuthering Heights," with Laurence Olivier).

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    The house has a quiet sense of pride about it. It is situated on a nice sized lot, with the potential to make a lovely back garden.

    When I bought the house it had some renovations, but sadly most of them were wasted on me. It had a very slick kitchen and bathrooms, and lots of built-in cupboards. So I initially gutted the house. Bathrooms and kitchens are for me places that are areas that can set a tone for the home. I decided to restore these rooms to what felt more authentic to the house, which meant finding some authentic vintage elements.

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    Rosie’s Vintage Wallpaper and Hannah’s Treasures have been great sources for vintage wallpaper. However, it can be challenging to use as it’s not ready glued and it’s quite brittle. (I of course think the tears are charming.) It’s also hard to find quantities of any one design. So I either use to line cupboards, or if there is room, I usually install a wooden painted chair rail 36” up the wall and install the vintage paper above the chair rail. This halves the quantity needed. (Below the chair rail I install anaglypta wallpaper and paint a shiny off-white. Its also practical from a wear and tear standpoint).

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    Do be careful giving instructions of where you want each roll of paper installed. I told my wallpaper hanger where I wanted my favorite paper hung, but by miscommunication, it landed up in my daughters closet. A wasted spot for a paper I loved and couldn’t get anymore.

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    I was so upset until I reminded myself, “its just wallpaper!!!” I quickly hung up one of Shabby Chic’s top selling framed art pieces, which has become our new mantra, “keep calm and carry on” and all was good.

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    Click here to purchase "keep calm carry on" framed poster available at Shabby Chic online

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    I do enjoy opening a cupboard and finding lovely paper lining the walls. It has become our trademark at Shabby Chic to line the drawers of furniture with wallpaper. It gives a nice quality.

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    Click here to purchase Devon Dresser from Shabby Chic online

    I have tried to find reproduction papers that I like, but I really can’t find any. They are either too sweet or the printing is flat and lacks character. In time I will do my own line of wallpaper.

    With my kids being away and traveling frequently myself, my goal with this house is to find a balance of a home that has my usual values of beauty, comfort and function, but that feels just as good when it is full to capacity with people, or it is just myself. The inspiration to knock down walls to open up the kitchen to the family room, and open up the family room to the living room, came from times I have spent in lofts in NY. I don’t like to think of unused rooms in a house. (This often seems the case these days, with formal living rooms). So the idea of having one large communal room, to eat, talk, watch a movie etc was something I wanted to try and create.

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    I am really bad at imaging what a space will look like with walls moved around. A drawn plan is wasted on me. I have to walk the location and be shown with hand movements what is moving where. The main elements I returned to my nearly dream house were……

    Vintage lighting:
    I have been gathering from ebay and the flea markets for the past few months.

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    Vintage tiles:
    I was initially excited about L’antiquario Tiles. The concept of reclaimed tiles was heavenly to me. In the end, I spent a lot of money and wasn’t able to use most the tiles. I wanted tiles for a small space but the color variations were too tremendous, well past the “beauty of imperfection”. Even though I saw samples before I purchased, it didn’t help with such variations.

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    I did buy some tiles that I was able to use in a small powder bathroom. They were from the subways in Belgium I think. Before I installed them I thought they were too funky. But actually once I got them on the wall and grouted they gave me the exact character I was looking for in the bathroom.

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    I think in the end my little powder bathroom came out very authentic looking.(I will go through my 2 other bathrooms in this house on future posts)

    Vintage hardware:
    Vintage bathroom hardware from Liz’s Hardware is perfect perfect perfect. It is worth every penny for all the effort they take care of to hand over working, authentic hardware.

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    For me, the biggest and most daunting task of this restoration house project was to build a garage. Not that I care to have one, but this was a permit thing. I never actually built anything before. I am better at working with what already exists. I decided to make the garage barn style, as it is one of my most favorite architectural styles…

    Hence the beginning of my barn research, which lead me to my favorite find of the week:

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    Click here to go to "The Old Weathered Barn"

    It is a moving short story/photo diary of aging Ohio barns, called The Old Weathered Barn, which illustrates the beauty in getting older. A subject that perhaps we can only appreciate with a few years behind us. To me these words demonstrate such a perfect perception of life and the value of each stage. With my understanding of the vulnerability of life, this website touched me greatly. Next blog I will share my barn journey and my appreciation of authentic paint and wood, which is touched upon in The Old Weathered Barn.

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