Rachel Ashwell’s Passion for Flowers

In her book MY FLORAL AFFAIR, designer Rachel Ashwell explores botanicals in their many forms, both real and interpreted, and nurtures a love that has lasted a lifetime
rachel ashwell flowers
Rachel Ashwell prizes ‘Yves Piaget’ roses for their hardiness and fragrance. The porcelain vase she found in a London flea market is one she’ll never sell.

“I’m a bit of a plopper,” says Rachel Ashwell, in a genteel accent that reveals more than a hint of a childhood spent in London and the English countryside, but one perhaps slightly faded from decades of living in the warm Southern California sunshine. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine the woman with this gracious voice plopping anywhere, until one remembers she’s the designer, shop owner, and author who first introduced Shabby Chic to the rest of us nearly 30 years ago—an aesthetic practically begging to be sunken into with its painted and weathered furniture, vintage-inspired fabrics, and comfy cushions and slipcovers, all awash in luminous whites, petal pinks, and tranquil blues. Today, however, the plopping that Ashwell speaks of refers to her everyday approach to flower arranging: cutting roses from the garden or picking up whatever catches her eye at the market, and casually placing blossoms into a container just as likely to be a milk bottle or chipped teacup as a fancy vase.

rachel ashwell flowers
‘Ballerina’ roses climb the stone walls of an English country house.

Flowers play into Ashwell’s stylistic vision in myriad ways, from the symphony of David Austin roses rambling profusely in her garden to fresh bouquets perched on tabletops; from patterns of pretty posies splayed across her textile and bed linen designs to floppy velvet blossoms breezily pinned to a hat or bulletin board. Thus it’s no surprise that florals thrive happily in all of Ashwell’s books (numbering 10 and counting), where she continues to inspire an ever-growing throng of devoted fans. But never more so than in her latest release, My Floral Affair (CICO Books, 2018), which takes readers on a botanical journey not only to her house in Santa Monica and to The Prairie, her bed-and-breakfast in Round Top, Texas, but also to the homes of friends and fellow flower lovers in England, Wales, Norway, and France.

Rachel Ashwell Flowers

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Flowers in their many iterations: springing from cheerful wallpaper and a vintage hat

Flowers in their many iterations: encircling a chandelier

Flowers in their many iterations: embroidered on silk

Flowers in their many iterations: painted on vases

Ashwell first spotted this cottage on Instagram (@cowparsley_and_ foxgloves) and immediately connected with the owners’ embrace of white paint, uncluttered interiors, and flowers from their quintessentially English garden.

For the reception area at Babington, a country house hotel in Somerset, England, Ashwell collaborated with floral designer and grower Toria Britten to interpret her vision.

Landscape and floral designer Lucy Hunter shares Ashwell’s affinity for white, pink, and blue, as seen in her living room in Wales.

A profusion of ‘Yves Piaget’ and ‘Francis E. Lester’ roses welcomes guests outside Rachel Ashwell’s California dining room.

Rachel Ashwell flowers
‘Yves Piaget’ roses in a vintage pitcher, along with an oil painting and other jars with floral embellishments, from Rachel Ashwell’s new book, My Floral Affair.

It’s also somewhat of a stylistic jaunt, one that finds Ashwell branching out from her usual comfort zone on occasion, whether through the appreciation of a broader palette or the evolution of her arranging techniques. “I loved learning and showcasing how these women translate different floral perspectives into the way they decorate, garden, and put together a bouquet with knowledge and mindful passion,” she says. “I even ventured into the mysteries of floral frogs and wire,” Ashwell adds, with a laugh.

rachel ashwell flowers
Ashwell first spotted this cottage on Instagram (@cowparsley_and_foxgloves) and immediately connected with the owners’ embrace of white paint, uncluttered interiors, and flowers from their quintessentially English garden.

The title of the new book aside, Ashwell’s connection with flowers has been more of a lifelong union rather than a fleeting passion. “Growing up in England, I remember walking to school with my mum, and the crocuses and daffodils would be coming up to announce spring had finally arrived, which was always very exciting,” she says. “She’d point out what was blooming in our own garden in summer, and I also learned to welcome the ‘nothing’ in winter, when things were dormant.” Ultimately, Ashwell’s early garden memories have become metaphor for her artistic process. “Now, living in California, we don’t have those distinct seasonal differences, and I do find they make such good sense— the emerging, the abundance of full flower, a slow fade, and then a period of rest to gather the energy to start anew. It’s similar to the rhythm for how I create,” she says.

In English fashion and textile designer Pearl Lowe’s house, intricate crochet curtains from her own collection play with simple jam jars of hibiscus and scabiosa on the windowsill.

That creative cadence appears throughout My Floral Affair, both in the author’s own environs and in floral arrangements and in the homes and handiwork of the kindred spirits she introduces along the way. Whether separated by an ocean or their diversity in outlook, each person and page seems to share the ethos that has guided Ashwell since the day she embarked down her path in design: that beauty, comfort, and function are all essential, and great beauty can often be found in imperfection. “Roses are lovely when in peak but also pretty amazing when a little dried or wilted and on the way out,” she says. There will always be room for a dropped petal or two in Ashwell’s world, and, yes, plopping of every sort will be enthusiastically encouraged.

rachel ashwell arrangements
The cascade of Peruvian lilies, hydrangeas, and bell flowers is actually two visually connected arrangements.

By Karen Carroll | Photography by Amy Neunsinger

book cover for My Floral Affair by Rachel Ashwell