Laura Ashley: The fashion house where florals were always in season
Laura Ashley's Welsh estate mirrored her style – and her children want it saved. By Kate Watson-Smyth
Wednesday 27 May 2009
Her floral fabrics and smocked dresses inspired a generation of women and her name became one of the world's most recognised brands. But now the legacy of Laura Ashley is under threat; her former home in Wales is shabby rather than chic and her children fear they may have to sell up unless they can find a way to preserve the building.
Rhydoldog House, near Powys, is in the centre of a 500-acre estate and her children are hoping that it can be restored and opened to the nation so that others can see the inspiration behind a global business that is still flourishing today – nearly 25 years after its founder's death.
Laura's eldest daughter, Jane, says the house and surrounding countryside clearly inspired her mother: "A lot of the rooms are still the same and you can see how her style evolved. It's a bit shabby now but that's part of its charm. I don't want to be sentimental about it, but so many people have suggested to us that it's the right thing to do and that the house is relevant, that we feel we should explore the possibilities," she said.
The house itself is a mishmash of styles, part 16th-century long-house with both Victorian gothic and neo-classical elements. Martin Wood, whose biography of Laura is due out in September (Frances Lincoln, £35), said: "The house itself is no great beauty but it has views to die for."
The setting is one thing, but it's how this design icon chose to decorate her own home that interests us, and it's not all heavy swagged curtains and floral cushions. "When she started out making tea towels at the kitchen table in her Pimlico flat, she did some quite modernistic designs and black-and-white images," says Wood.
"The morning room, also known as the print room, where she worked, is still decorated very much in that style with apricot wallpaper and lots of black-and-white pictures. It's perhaps not what people might expect."
In fact, Laura had always loved floral designs but didn't initially have the expertise to print such tiny, detailed designs. "She didn't set out to be a Victorian survivalist but she did believe that that was a time when people lived decent, straightforward lives," adds Wood. "A lot of the furniture is that rather lumpy Victorian gothic style with oil lamps and skirted tables, although her style later became more Victorian milkmaid."
Although Laura was the name on the brand, Wood says her husband, Bernard, exerted great influence over the décor. Bernard once said to Wood: "Whenever we bought a house we had a fight that lasted 24 hours and then we were fine."
The couple worked closely together on all aspects of the business and indeed it was Bernard who suggested making long dresses because they would use more material, according to Wood. That long dress became the Ashley trademark and was perfectly timed to fit in with fashion's change from the mini-skirt of the 1960s. So popular was her style that the Fulham Road branch once sold 4,000 dresses in one week. In the Eighties it was taken up by the "Sloane Rangers", chief of whom was a young Princess Diana.
Bernard died in February this year, nearly 25 years after his wife fell down the stairs on her 60th birthday, and his death has prompted their children to think about the future of Rhydoldog. "The fact that the business was built in this house over decades is what makes it special, said Jane. "There would be business meetings in the kitchen and my parents planned their international business strategy on walks around the gardens.
"If it is to be restored and opened then we need to find partnerships to help us with their expertise. But if that doesn't happen then it will to be sold to a large, happy family who will give it a new lease of life.
"The house holds such bittersweet memories for me, because the bed-room that is still intact was mine and I always expect her to be there when I go in. It was a very creative, happy time," she adds.
The National Trust has offered to work with the Ashley family to look at possible options for the future of the property.
Inside the homes of three other design stars
Barbara Hulanicki, founder of the iconic Sixties boutique Biba, turned to interior design in the 1980s and has been credited with reviving Miami Beach's art-deco area. Her own home is painted mainly in pale grey with shots of the bright pinks and oranges for which she is famous.
"I was brought up with Technicolor film and I'm mad about orange and fuschia so I'm not afraid of colour – except for green, which I never use, perhaps because my school uniform was a dull, sludge green," she says.
But she urges caution: "Too many gorgeous things in one room can spoil the effect, you need to mix the simple with the very busy for the best effect."
Sir Terence Conran, the so-called King of British interior design, has lived in a 17th-century manor in Berkshire since 1971, and, as you might expect, the interiors are simple, modern and, crucially, clutter-free.
He says that storage is key in bedrooms, which allows them to be restful, in bathrooms so they can be sanctuaries, while in the kitchen you need to be able to cook near the eating area, have plenty of comfortable chairs, lots of light and, for the lucky ones, a glowing open fire.
Cath Kidston, is the 21st-century Laura, according to Jane Ashley. Her reworking of the English country-house style, as opposed to Laura's new take on Victoriana, has seen her business expand globally.
She has 33 outlets with more planned this year, but her own house is not all flowers and pretty prints. "Despite the distinctive style for which I am known, parts of my own house are sleek and modern so I can keep it fresh," she says. "My sitting room is very fun and not at all grown up. I prefer houses that you can live in and where the dog can jump on the sofa and for it to feel relaxed and informal."
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