The term was coined as far back as the 1970s, says Min Hogg, editor of the World of Interiors, champion of the shabby chic look. But that was the real thing - an attempt to convince people that real old furniture handed down through the generations and lofty houses beautifully falling apart could be an asset not a curse.
Nineties shabby chic is all about buying in the most realistic put up jobs: distressed furniture made to look old and lived in (a bit like puffing your face under a sun lamp for quicker, deeper wrinkles ahead of time) and carefully faded materials for that sun-drenched look; bought-in old books, antique-look lamps and vases from shops that smell of scented candles and bump their prices up accordingly. Even Dickens & Jones is selling out of faded velvet cushions.
Shabby Chic evokes a more romantic era, the end of the empire, decaying mansions, Brideshead. The more old and neglected the better - to a certain extent, explains Min Hogg. "There is a cachet now in dust. It gives people a past they haven't had. It skips a generation, so that if you move into an old house you look more appropriate and natural."
Artist Jonathan Tucker-Bull is a true bohemian but by necessity a frugal one as his art - made from his own sperm and used condoms - has yet to reap big financial rewards. This has not stopped him achieving understated shabby chic elegance in his Camden home.
"Everything in this flat has been acquired from skips or people's 'throw- outs'," says Tucker-Bull. "The stuff is good quality, old and solid, and built from natural materials. As long as it is aesthetically pleasing and classic, I'll have it. People are too faddish; they chuck out old things when they move into an old house because they think everything has to be new and clean. We found our old tapestry dumped with a load of clothes in a plastic bag. The antique wooden globe came from a skip as did the rocking horse with a broken leg and tail. The silk cushions were left behind by a film crew who did some work in our old house. We have gradually accrued stuff so that it is attractive for us to live in. The money that we save goes back into my art."
Real is obviously better than pretend. For authenticity you need either a very old house with a heritage of antique furniture that has been treated with careless abandon by generations of children fed on cream teas and soldier sons returning from India. Or you need the time, dedication or desperation to scout for the best antique deals, and well-fed skips.
Not just in look, but as people, the shabby chic-er and the minimalist couldn't be more different. Simon Tarr, Manager at After Noah, the London- based group of stores with old and contemporary furniture and haven of the shabby chic-er with money to spend says, "The shabby chic customer is the one with an eclectic or jumbled lifestyle. They don't crave neat looks but want their homes to look quirky." The minimalist shopper is more conventionally trendy.
As well as old furniture from the 1890s to the 1960s, After Noah sells the accessories that help create your old and shabby look: Bakelite phones, Anglepoise lamps and the like. While the minimalist craves modernity, with all its technology and bright colours, the shabby chic-er clings to an older lifestyle. Even the television, if there at all, is hidden away. Painted wood looks chalky and vaguely 18th century. It's a reason for celebration when ones old look leather chair pops another hole.
Min Hogg says that both the shabby chic-er and the minimalist are now classic looks rather than trends. "Minimalism has been around since the monk's cell. The best shabby chic is not created but an expression of how you are by nature. Natural grace and style helps." For then you can get away with anything. But the risk of Shabby Chic is that you end up looking simply shabby, just as minimalism can end up looking like you just don't own anything. Hogg points out that while dust can be romantic, it is just a short step to being sluttish. "Dirty is not very nice, greasy is never elegant. You don't want your table cloth too full of holes, but there is something very nice about a piece of linen that has been washed so much that it has faded."
One benefit of shabby chic is you can drop any worries about the need for self control. The shabby chic interior overflows with candles, dead flowers, old vases and rich cloths. Think of the Flake ad with the girl in the bath with her roses.
While the British are a little coy about creating something that looks like old money fallen on hard times but isn't, this isn't a problem in America. While British designers get sniffy about the very use of the term, Shabby Chic in the States is a highly successful chain of stores selling that old aristocratic look. In California, New York and, bizarrely, Brussels, Shabby Chic stores sell vintage-look 1930s floral materials. Apparently Madonna's home is full of the stuff. Now there's an endorsement.
WHO ARE YOU?
A Shabby Chic-er ...
MOTTO: My dust is settled and so am I
READS: Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson
WEARS: Flowing robes, Monsoon, Ghost
WATCHES: Foreign language films especially black and white
JOB: Artist, student or impoverished aristocrat
MOTTO: Where there's a wall, there's an architect to knock it out
READS: Chemical Generation, Elmore Leonard
WEARS: No patterns, Armani suits, a few well-chosen costly T-shirts
WATCHES: 'Trainspotting', 'Trees Lounge'
JOB: TV producer, advertising exec or architectReuse content