Sophie Ashby is one of the most influential tastemakers in contemporary interiors and still her star continues to rise. As well as running her internationally successful London-based design studio, Studio Ashby, she’s set up a homewares label and opened a showroom, established a charity to tackle the lack of diversity in the interior design industry and recently completed a huge project in Hackney. Here, Sophie Ashby talks to us about her peripatetic roots and what it’s like operating as one half of the capital’s coolest creative power couple.
Hailed as the poster girl for millennial interiors, Sophie Ashby launched her eponymous design studio as a one-woman band when she was just 25. She now employs more than a dozen people and has garnered a huge following – and multiple awards – running projects that range from multi-million-pound private homes in Belgravia and luxury Cotswolds country retreats to international hotels and top London restaurants. She’s also set up a charity to address the lack of diversity in her industry, launched her own homewares label Sister by Studio Ashby, opened a showroom and shop and, most recently, conceptualised the design of One Crown Place, a residential development in Shoreditch and her first foray into interior architecture. All by her mid-30s.
Softly spoken, warm and boyishly elegant – with a sleekly cropped blonde bob and wearing a tailored monochrome top and trousers combination – she is refreshingly understated for someone who has achieved so much. We meet at her studio-showroom-shop in Westminster, which opened last May in the former Blewcoat School, a striking 18th-century, Grade I-listed building that was once a school for underprivileged children and, since then, a bridalwear showroom and National Trust gift shop. “We still get quite a lot of old ladies wandering in here looking for that,” Ashby tells me with a laugh. While the building itself might be grand, inside natural light floods the space, which is artfully decorated with vibrant velvet sofas, tropical print ottomans and patterned rugs.
There are pops of colour everywhere, most notably in the contemporary artworks that line the walls, which are part of Blewcoat’s latest ‘Artist in Residence’ exhibition. Set to change every six months, the collection I’m currently admiring was hand-picked by South African curator Amy Ellenbogen. The art brings the space to life in a unique way and offers an insight into Ashby’s magic, and perhaps the key to her meteoric rise to success. “When I start a project, I look at whatever art the client has and build from there – it’s become my USP,” she says. Indeed, Sophie’s ever-evolving fascination with art, as well as antiques, craftsmanship and modernist furniture, was central to the Sophie Ashby Collection at One Crown Place in east London – eleven newly launched residences that are a masterclass in her signature fresh-eclectic style, with their rich palette and tactile finishes.
“Art is central to our inspiration, and so is place – the way we respond to and are in turn shaped by it,” she has said of the collection. “We believe the items we surround ourselves with should make us feel alive and connect us to the spaces we inhabit; this is ultimately what I hope for the residents who will live in these unique homes.”
Ashby traces this focus on art back to her peripatetic roots, growing up between Cape Town – where her mother is from – London and Devon. “I moved around a lot as a kid, and I’ve found that to be a common thread with interior designers,” she says. “It’s that ritual of unpacking and figuring out what needs to come out of the boxes to make this new space feel familiar and like home again. Sofas don’t last forever, and dining tables don’t fit in every property – those things felt transient and changeable, but there were a few artworks, which are of no major value to anyone but my parents and our family, that would be important to go up. They would set the tone for the space.”
As well as adopting this approach for her clients, it’s a practice she now preaches in her own home with one artwork in particular, a striking photograph by the Nigerian artist Lakin Ogunbanwo. The image has followed Ashby and her menswear designer husband Charlie Casely-Hayford from their one-bed flat in the former BBC Television Centre in White City to their current rental house just off Brick Lane, which used to be the home of the British interior designer Jocasta Innes. “There’s a yellow hat in that picture, so now we have a yellow sofa,” she says. “I’ve had that photograph for years – wherever it goes, I just draw off that for inspiration.”
Art was Ashby’s first love – inherited from her mother, a “very creative person” who retrained as a sculptor in her fifties – and she studied History of Art at Leeds University before doing a short interior design course at Parsons in New York. “For a minute, I thought maybe I wanted to be an actual artist, but then I was put off by the uncertainty. I quickly realised interior design was the path for me.” After graduating she spent a couple of years working as an assistant to the interior designer Victoria Fairfax before heading up the interiors at start-up Spring and Mercer. Two years later she went freelance, which quickly morphed into setting up her own business.
Unsurprisingly, she cites her biggest creative influences as artists rather than fellow designers. “Nothing makes me feel more inspired than going to an art show,” she says. “When I went to the Milton Avery exhibition at the Royal Academy, I could feel my heart starting to beat faster. The colour combinations and the shapes – they make me start thinking not only of ideas for fabrics and rugs and furniture, but also for an entire interior mood.”
Weekends are spent browsing galleries with her husband, his daughter Rainbow and the couple’s 18-month-old daughter Gaia – “luckily Charlie loves it too, so that helps” – and building up her own collection of contemporary African art. She lists South African artists Amy Rusch, who’s known for using discarded plastic bags as her canvases, and Michael Taylor as particular favourites – and their work can often be spotted on the walls at her studio-showroom-shop in SW1.
While some may have thought Ashby was mad for wanting to open a retail space post-Covid, Ashby said it made sense when she was looking to find somewhere for the brand to set down permanent roots. “I’ve wanted to have a shop my whole life – finding a gem of a little independent boutique is one of life’s great pleasures for me, wherever I am. When we were looking for a new space, it became obvious that a really good way of doing that was to combine our two worlds, the studio with the retail space.”
Described as “part playground, part shop”, the Blewcoat showroom is the living embodiment of Sister by Studio Ashby, the brand’s homewares line which launched online in 2020. It’s designed to appeal to a younger demographic, who may not be able to afford the full Studio Ashby experience but still want to emulate its bold look in their own homes. Named in honour of Ashby’s younger sister, Rose – who Ashby tells me is the “goofiest, funniest person” she knows, in spite of having a rather serious job as the Executive Chef at Skye Gyngell’s Spring restaurant in Somerset House – it has become a go-to for style-savvy Londoners looking to pick up a beautiful bowl or a quirky lamp.
This is perfectly epitomised in the collaborative retail projects you might find there, including the recent partnership between Sister by Studio Ashby and Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that makes beautiful handmade gifts in British prisons. The limited-edition collection of homewares combines Sister’s playful designs with high-quality needlework carried out by prisoners across the country. “As soon as I learnt about Fine Cell Work, I realised what an amazing cause it was,” says Ashby. “The more we can work with suppliers who are ethical – not just in terms of sustainability, but also helping people in the community – the better.”
In 2020 Ashby co-founded United in Design with fellow interior designer Alexandria Dauley, a charity to tackle the lack of diversity in the interior design industry. “It started after the murder of George Floyd, out of a need to do something as a company,” says Ashby. Businesses sign up by ticking at least three of their seven pledges, which range from offering mentoring schemes and career open days to internships and apprenticeships. Over 170 companies are now involved, including big names like Farrow & Ball, Colefax and Fowler and David Collins Studio. “They all came on board instantly – it’s a no-brainer. It’s baby steps, but we’re definitely seeing progress.”
Despite running her own design studio, shop and charitable organisation, as well as having a young family, I get the sense that nothing fazes Sophie Ashby. When I ask how she manages to juggle everything, she admits “you probably never feel like you’re doing anything quite right, but I wouldn’t change it.” Her husband, she says, is a huge support. “There are a lot of similarities between our two worlds, so we can really be there for each other, to chat things through and plan our future together.” As for her biggest achievements, she doesn’t mention her numerous awards or accolades – House & Garden’s Interior Designer of the Year 2021, Elle Decoration’s Interior Designer of the Year 2021, for example. “For me, it’s the day-to-day stuff with my team – the moments where it feels like it’s all good, you’re in control and everyone’s working well together. That feels pretty grown up and special.”
Studio Ashby, Blewcoat School, 23 Caxton Street, Westminster, London SW1H 0PY