All-American Style: Shabby Chic Interior Design
You Know the Look from Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail Apartment, but Shabby Chic Interior Design Goes Back Further Than the 90s
“I don’t want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void.” Who was Kathleen Kelly’s interior designer? Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks delighted us in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, but the real star of that movie is the shabby chic apartment in the picturesque New York City brownstone. The late 90s were the height of shabby chic decor, and Ryan’s character nailed the look with her floral print sofa, quilted bed linens, and distressed wood furniture. Over 20 years later, the cozy shabby chic vibe is coming back full force, albeit under a different name and approach. The rise of the 2020s comfort trend has me reminiscing about my first steps into “shabby chic” decor, which came over a decade before the premiere of You’ve Got Mail. As a teen in the 80s, I was obsessed with Laura Ashley bedding and British culture. These floral patterns pulled straight from the English cottage are pivotal to the shabby chic movement, which had me questioning how far back this “90s style” really goes. Join my team of Austin interior designers and me as we continue on our quest to uncover the roots of all-American interior design styles. To learn about shabby chic interior design, we have to take a trip across the pond—and go back over 100 years!
Elements of the Shabby Chic Interior Design Style
Rustic and Vintage Furnishings
Shabby chic interior design embraces the romanticism of the old—sometimes going as far as faux finishing brand new pieces to look well worn. Rustic and vintage furnishings with weathered woods, crackle paint finishes, and beautiful imperfections ground shabby chic rooms and establish a warm, lived-in feel.
While shabby chic embraces the nostalgic appeal of heirloom pieces, not everyone after the look is lucky enough to inherit grandma’s china cabinet. Faux finishes, like crackle paint and antiquing, give new purchases old-world charm.
The shabby chic style employs soft colors to lighten the look, establish an airy feel, and balance rustic elements. Neutrals and muted pastels like sage, robin egg blue, and lavender are classic go-to’s.
Florals for shabby chic? Groundbreaking. Laura Ashley gave us the gift of floral print housewares, and I intend to use them! Floral patterns are central to the shabby chic style and evoke a feeling of English charm while establishing indoor-outdoor connections.
Shabby chic design focuses on comfort, and layering varied textiles is the best way to give a space a warm and welcoming feel. After all, you cannot have enough blankets, throws, pillows, and plush bedding.
Historical Influences of the Shabby Chic Style
While the shabby chic movement peaked in the 1990s, the foundation of the style was laid almost 100 years earlier. In early 1900s England, a collective of writers and intellectuals, including Virginia Woolfe and E. M. Forster, formed the Bloomsbury Group. This group challenged Victorian ideals of the day and shaped new attitudes around literature, feminism, and even interior design. Introducing the Bloomsburian style, group members rejected dark and stuffy Victorian interiors in favor of hand-painted details, light colors, and motifs inspired by the English countryside. The British love affair with country-inspired design only continued to grow from there.
In the 1950s, Laura Ashley launched her iconic English floral print textile company. After Princess Diana made Laura Ashley patterns a staple of her wardrobe in the 1980s, the brand garnered international attention and appeal, especially in the United States. As a result, American 1980s interior design was dotted with floral print bedding, sofas, and pillows from the Laura Ashley catalog. Today, Laura Ashley maintains an enduring appeal and is again becoming a home staple.
By the early 1990s, the shabby chic style was coming into its own, and Rachel Ashwell founded a new home brand, appropriately named Shabby Chic. As the original shabby chic store, Ashwell played a pivotal role in packaging the style and defining the look that would take off through the decade. In 1996, she published a book and described shabby chic as “the aura of old money, cushy comfort, and crafted indifference.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Kathleen Kelly kept a copy in her bookstore desk.
Why Shabby Chic Interior Design is Trending Again
This decade has an affinity for nostalgia, even for the not-so-distant past. “I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words—you’ve got mail.” In today’s fast-paced world, it’s hard to believe we once had the patience for dial-up! Shabby chic defined a decade that many of us pine for, so it only makes sense that we wish to recreate the look. I’m not sure if you have heard of the Meg Ryan Fall trend, but I think we can all relate to the idea of creating familiar comfort in our homes. With its English cottage roots, vintage furnishings, and Laura Ashley textiles, Shabby chic has transitioned to a new trend—cottage style. This latest incarnation of the aesthetic also goes by cottage chic and “cottagecore” if you’re on TikTok. The root of all of these design styles, however, is comfort. And, comfort will always be popular.
What Makes Shabby Chic Design “All-American?”
At first glance, it may seem like we pulled the shabby chic style from American rom coms, imitating the Meg Ryan look with flea market finds, crackle paint DIY, and catalog-ordered quilts. However, a closer look indicates that we snagged the idea from the British and claimed shabby chic as our own American interior design style. If shabby chic has English roots, can it still be all-American? Yes! Americans have taken some of our best design cues from across the pond, like Georgian interior design, and made them our own. In the case of shabby chic, we applied American ideals of comfort and nostalgia—pairing English antiques with reclaimed wood from the American farmhouse. American design is all about mixing styles. Not too shabby, right?
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Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.