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Life Style

Shabby chic: quite sure you know what that means?

Shabby chic and design.  Shabby chic and furnishing.  Shabby chic, definition, meaning, history… People talk a lot about shabby chic these days. But are you absolutely sure you know what it means? A fashion fad or a lifestyle? We can fill you in on this.


Shabby chic, if you think of the dictionary meaning of each word, is an oxymoron. Nothing wrong about being an oxymoron: it’s simply a way of combining two contradictory concepts. For example “lucid madness”… Shabby and chic obviously contradict each other if applied to the same style. Shabby meaning dull, aged, worn, ugly… And chic… exactly the opposite.

At this point, the question is: how can the word shabby and chic be applied simultaneously to the same thing? Quite easily, actually. At least during the 1980s, when the term shabby chic was coined by the furnishing magazine The World of Interiors to describe a decorating technique and furnishing style. Ten years later its usage was further boosted when London designer Rachel Ashwell founded a company called Shabby Chic. Some people actually argue that the aesthetic origins of this approach to interior design can be traced much further back in time: to mid-18th century France under Louis XV, and its vogue for ‘decapé’ distressed furnishing. Let’s investigate further.

The expression Shabby Chic is used to describe a furnishing style that is actually impeccably elegant

In a sense, its apparent shabbiness is faked: it’s really a disguised sophistication. True, furniture, objects, accessories and furnishings appear aged, distressed and generally consumed by time and usage. But whether based on genuine or artificial aging (or both), designer shabby chic establishes a look where every element of a room is carefully chosen or treated. At a first glance, everything may seem careless and accidental, but the shabby chic aesthetic depends on carefully studied effects that are meticulously planned down to the last detail.

Take the pieces of furniture: ideally these will present surfaces faded or distressed to just the right degree, creating a sense of memory and nostalgia, a vintage grace apparently avoiding ostentation. Better still if the furniture is genuinely old, perhaps inherited from grandparents, discovered in country homes or found in flea markets… then, perhaps, subjected to a DIY-style transformation that exalts its imperfections, emphasizing the grain of wood, the fading of fabric or the faint traces of original colouring.

Shabby Chic projects focus particularly on three materials: wood, iron (wrought iron beds are de rigeur) and old stone, employed widely for flooring or basins, endowing a used and ‘times long gone’ mood. An element of style mixture is commonly exploited, mixing Country, British and Provençal moods, for example.

Fabrics and textiles play a vital role in characterising a shabby chic ambience. Lightweight natural weaves like cotton and linen are the most frequently used, for beds, sofas and armchairs, and also for tablecloths and curtains. Along with floral prints and flowery patterns, lace and embroidery also play important roles, especially in bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens.

Another leitmotif is the display of old objects. ‘Genuine’ shabby chic design style almost always features old utensils like tin cans used as light-shades, old flower pots, silver cutlery, non-matching cushions strewn on sofas or on the floor for casually sitting, heart-shaped motifs hung on walls, doors, wardrobes and handles, tassels, bare floorboards and old carpets…
Shabby chic styling tends to use recurrent colours, dominated by whites that mix with neutral tones like creams, beiges and palish greys. Pastel hues are naturally popular: pale blue, aquamarine, sage green, antique pink, apricot and lilac… all rigorously tenuous and unobtrusive.

Shabby chic: a passing trend?

Objects displaying their wear and tear, faded or scratched furniture, tables with flaking finishes, old trunks with damaged surfaces, mirrors with distressed frames and reflections encrusted by a patina of passing time… what is it about this apparent shabbiness that makes it so widely considered as being chic? That has brought it to its current status in interior design?

Undoubtedly, one reason is this: shabby chic evokes our fascination with the past, our need for psychological comforting through memory, real or imagined roots, historic fantasy. It is a form of creative recycling that awakens our desire for origins, frequently revisiting a past highlighted by the presence of boldly modern elements.

Do you think this is too sentimental an interpretation? We don’t think so. Above all because shabby chic strikes its emotional chord through a combination of moods: Country, British and Provençal. The perfect Shabby Chic effect, in other words, combines a rustic touch with a British mood and then adds the natural appeal of an irresistibly romantic dimension…

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