"I’m never happier than when I’m rummaging in a flea market."
A sheepskin rug is as much about comfort as it is visual charm; an antique bookcase is as pleasing on the eye as it is shelving for a lifetime collection of books. It’s the balance of beauty and live-in-ability which made Studio Ashby the perfect choice to design the apartments and shared spaces at No.3 Upper Riverside, the Peninsula’s latest emerging neighbourhood. The finished look is a nod to the area’s maritime past, an honouring of its artistic present and a commitment to the needs of its future busy urban dweller. We discover the influences that make up the pages of Sophie Ashby’s portfolio and the walls of her own London home.
Image by Thea Lovstad
A childhood spent in South Africa
I spent my childhood just outside Cape Town and I go back as often as I can. I think a lot about the woodlands Bushveld and the Karoo; the greens, yellows, heathers, clays and burnt oranges, and after sunset how all the planting changes. It’s all there in the colour palette at No.3 Upper Riverside. The influences come through in many of my projects, for example, I’ll use a basket weave design on the floor, which is very much an African style. At home, it’s more about the pieces I’ve picked up on trips, which tend to represent Africa as it is now, rather than a whole load of tribal or ethnic stuff. The art scene in Cape Town is particularly exciting at the moment. There’s a lot of political art with strong messages because of everything that’s happening there, but I quite like the pieces by the artists which are more hopeful and self-reflective — art that depicts the micro existence of a person rather than a big political macro statement.
A love of antiques
I’m never happier than when I’m rummaging in a flea market. In my flat I’ve a 1960s swivelling chair which, according to the dealer, came from a doctor’s waiting room. I love the idea that the things I’m surrounded by have a past and a personality. An antique French chest of drawers doesn’t necessarily cost much more than something from IKEA, but it’s probably better made, solid wood, full of beautiful little ironmongery details or tiny touches like a brass-lined lock, a marble top or a bit of gilding. Interaction with those things on a daily basis gives me so much pleasure. The bedside tables at No.3 Upper Riverside are antique, and not just because we find it difficult to find contemporary versions we like; it’s representative of the real people who’ll live in these spaces and what they bring to a new home, which is usually a granny’s old sideboard or something they’ve picked up from a flea market along the way.
As soon as you set out to achieve a uniform look, you stop noticing individual things. But if you put something very raw next to something very refined, you suddenly really notice each piece. It’s definitely a challenge to elegantly juxtapose the right things together and it’s part of the training I do in the studio with my designers. Something has to come first, whether it’s a pendant light or a dining table. You fall in love with that and then you think about something that complements rather than matches. It unfolds from there and you go around the room adding in a way that creates a little moment of celebration for each piece, rather than trying to shock or make a huge statement. My approach to buying things for my flat is a bit like how I shop for clothes. I’ve never gone out and bought an entire outfit; I buy individual pieces and somehow they all go together. The artwork, the objects, the furniture in my home are all interchangeable, so I move things around a lot and that in itself creates something new.
Collecting life experiences
The day before the art is hung and the shelves are dressed in our interiors, they always feel like such sad spaces, lacking crucial personality. When we’re designing for a client, we tend to start with the art. Art doesn’t have to be bought from galleries; it can be anything that you look at that makes you feel something—a painting your niece did at school, a holiday snap or some postcards or posters you’ve collected. You can make something look far more impressive and spectacular than it is with a really good frame. At home, my walls are full of beautiful stamps I’ve framed and art posters from exhibitions I’ve visited.
Summer holidays spent in the Med
I find, as most people do, that the pace of London, the demands of clients and all the things I have to do in a working week, all makes it quite hard to drift off and think and be creative. Summer holidays, spent mostly in Italy, are so enriching and bring me so much joy. Staying in beautiful design hotels, visiting galleries, eating delicious food and hunting for ceramics — it all influences me in so many ways. It’s not about seeing anything specifically Italian in my work; it’s about how powerful switching off can be for your imagination.
Cheyne Terrace, Chelsea
Who is your style icon?
Lin Slater, Lucinda Chambers, Marlene Dietrich — I love the elegant silhouettes of these older, wiser, inherently chic women.
Ever been star stuck?
Not yet. Put me in a room with Rihanna or Beyoncé though and that would be the time.
Favourite London date venue?
A tiny Mayfair restaurant called Kitty Fisher’s in Shepherd’s Market.
Most treasured possession?
A portrait of an old woman painted by my husband Charlie when he was 16. After that, my engagement ring.
Best place to find a bargain?
Sunbury Antiques Market in Kempton Park. That’s where you’ll find a beautiful little old ceramic vase for £5. You have to go with pocketfuls of cash and elbows out, ready to hustle like your life depends on it. You have to get there by 6 am too—it’s all over by 9.30.
Best place to splurge?
Willer on Holland Street in Kensington for stunning glassware, ceramics and sculpture.