What is Shabby Chic?

20 February 2015  |  Admin

The world of interior design has, over the past few decades, been infiltrated by a school of thought that dictates that which is glossy and mass-produced is not always better. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true.

Shabby chic, put simply, is the idea that aesthetic appeal can be found in something old and worn out. This sort of thinking posits that straight lines and smooth edges need not reign supreme and that something chipped and faded can be just as appealing as something shiny and new.

This is in keeping with the sand-eroded surfer ideals and as such has found its way into many a beach cabin. But that is not the extent of its reach. This is a look reserved not just for holiday homes, but for proper homes as well. As a result of this shift, many are now able to recognise the flaws in a home and come to regard them as virtues.

Since the world is filled with old, unloved things – you needn’t look far, or spend a great deal – to find the right items to create the perfect shabby interior. One need only go down to the local charity shop in order to find a plethora of unloved treasures.

Or, at least, that’s the theory. In reality, there is an obvious distinction between something which is deliberately made to look old and something which is – well – falling apart. And yet, the demand is still there. The popularity of a number of designers who specialise in vintage items has meant that homes across the land have been converted toward that rustic aesthetic.

How did shabby chic come about?

Trying to achieve a worn-in look is not a new thing in the world of interiors. However, it was not until the last few decades that this approach was given a name. The first recorded use of the term came in the 80s and it has persisted ever since – gaining particular traction in the 1990s, when the phenomenon took off in the United States. The movement is widely believed to have originated in the UK.

shabby chic wall mounted clock

This clock is a perfect example of shabby chic in action – though it looks like a relic from the Victorian Era, this effect has been carefully designed. It would sit perfectly in any shabby chic interior.


The colours favoured in shabby chic are those of a neutral, washed-out tone. Beige is particularly popular. White-painted cabinets and bedside tables perfectly complement sky-blue bed sheets and curtains.


Any fabric which loses its colour over time is suitable for selection. Cotton and linen are favoured – the latter particularly so. Fabrics are usually adorned with floral patterns and decorative birds – in keeping with a style first popularised decades ago.


In furniture, wooden in particular, the traditional approaches are to either cover the wood entirely and thoroughly with paint, or to abstain from paint entirely and leave the wood on display. An oil or varnish is sometimes applied in order to accentuate the best qualities of the wood. In either instance the coat of varnish or paint must be replenished every so often in order to keep it looking glossy and new.

shabby chic standing home decoration grey cabinet


Dull, washed out colours, like those of this mirror and cabinet combination, perfectly represent the ideals of shabby chic.

In the case of shabby chic, an entirely different approach is called for. Instead of keeping the top coat of paint refreshed, shabby chic demands that it is instead allowed to deteriorate, so that the wood underneath shows through. The popularity of this effect has led to it being pursued intentionally; it is now quite common for the top coat of glaze or paint to be sanded away, in order that it appear old and worn out. This process even has a name: ‘distressing’.

Few would countenance allowing a genuine antique to deteriorate in this way – to do so would be extraordinarily costly. If a piece resembles the styles of older antiques, it is often prized as a cheaper alternative. If you have simply picked something up from the charity shop for next to nothing, you have little to lose when it eventually deteriorates.

Of course, there are some who enjoy the shabby aesthetic, but would prefer something built to last. Such people would be better advised to browse the vast selection of faux-shabby items on offer. Companies specialising in shabby-looking furniture go to great lengths to replicate the styles of eras past – and the results are often striking.

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