Words by Lisa Freedman:

Home Maker – Sophie Ashby is winning admirers for her ability to weave together contrasting elements and create interiors with soul. Lisa Freedman meets her. Photographs by Philip Sinden.

Careers advice has a reputation for being rather unimaginative, but Sophie Ashby was fortunate. Searching around in late adolescence for a life plan that would indulge her passion for painting and pay the mortgage, she encountered a family friend who said, ‘It’s obvious – you must be an interior designer.’ He continued, ‘You have to go to Parsons School of Design, study AutoCAD and learn to speak French.’ 

Ashby followed his instructions to the letter (stopping off first to take a degree in art history at Leeds University) and, by the age of 25, felt sufficiently prepared to set up her own practice. Two years on, Studio Ashby is flourishing – in London, elsewhere in the UK, and Europe. 

‘I only spent a few months at Parsons, but it taught me about perspective, proportion and scale,’ she says. ‘What I didn’t learn there was how to manage a tricky client or anything about the financial side of the business.’ 

Ashby is a keen believer in learning on the job, however, and a further apprenticeship with Victoria Fairfax, a doyenne of the country-house tradition, and a stint at Spring & Mercer, a firm known for its up-to-date urban chic, furnished her with a more rounded CV. 

She has managed to synthesise this diverse experience into a distinctive mix of her own, and, unlike many interior designers, is happy to admit that she has a ‘house style’. ‘I never do the safe thing,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t do anything too hotel-esque. My look is very homey. It has to be somewhere with a soul.’ 

Ashby’s view is that real people tend to accumulate objects at random, and the job of the designer is to weave these into a coherent visual story, a story called ‘home’. The tale will vary according to personality and place, but it will always be highly personal. 

Recently, for example, she was asked to design a house in France for a client with a passion for narrowboats. ‘He had bought a run-down cottage beside a canal in the Languedoc and virtually rebuilt it from scratch,’ she explains. ‘I had to think about what the area meant for him. It’s not like the South of France – there’s no showmanship, no airs and graces – so the interior needed to be quite laid-back and casual, and I introduced materials such as pine and added touches of blue to give it a nautical link.’ 

When she was working in France, her mentor’s third rule of career progression came in handy: ‘I’d still say my French is pretty bog-standard – despite having had a French boyfriend – but I can communicate with builders and order supplies.’ 

Another recent project – an expansive, Grade II-listed holiday home in Devon – required an equally empathetic appreciation of the owners’ priorities. ‘The family had two young children and a dog, as well as a wide network of relations nearby,’ she says. ‘They’d been going there all their life and the house meant a huge amount to them. They wanted something not too shouty or showy, just really practical and comfortable – a place that could be beachy in summer, and cosy and hunkering-down in winter.’ To reflect these requirements, Ashby ensured there were lots of cosy little nooks to curl up and read in, and took full advantage of the house’s position, perched over turquoise waters and white sand, with seating and bedding carefully arranged to capture the views. 

In London, her look is perhaps more chiselled, more in its party shoes, but it remains both approachable and stylish, whether deployed in a Chelsea townhouse or a flat on the South Bank. ‘I’ll often start with the owner’s collection of art,’ she says. ‘I find it really exciting to learn what they love about their things, and to help edit and display them for maximum impact.’ Her look is also distinguished by its tight control of colour. She designs as she dresses. ‘All my clothes are within a certain palette – I would say I’m really inspired by earth tones – which means when I buy something new, I don’t need to think: oh, I’ll have to find something to go with this. Everything can mix and match.’ 

Her signature style is evident in her own flat in Notting Hill, a cool, inner-city base she shares with her boyfriend, the fashion designer Charlie Casely-Hayford. Here the couple have assembled a picturesque jumble of sculpture, pictures, books and plants. ‘You could say the flat is a bit cluttered,’ she says, ‘but I love it.’ 

Modernist furniture is one of her passions (‘I like the sharp, masculine lines’), and a childhood partly spent on a vineyard in South Africa has inspired her enthusiasm for tribal prints and all things ethnic. 

Her first love, however, is art. Her mother is a sculptor, and although her own creativity has been channelled in a more vocational direction (‘I was terrified of ending up a penniless artist,’ she says), she recently became a Young Patron of the Royal Academy, and the visual arts remain integral to her approach. ‘I go to graduate shows and support emerging young British artists,’ she explains. ‘I also have a close relationship with a number of galleries, who understand what I like and send work in my direction.’ 

Like the artists who inspire her, Ashby is uncompromising in her vision: ‘I couldn’t design something unless I believed in it. If I wasn’t passionate about it, I couldn’t do it justice.’ 

How to turn a house into a home:

Be human in your approach 

‘When you understand what the people who live somewhere want, you can create a space that is both intelligent and emotional: a coherent whole.’ 

Don’t set limits 

‘I like to select furniture, lighting and art in a variety of materials and textures, layering books, plants, accessories and soft furnishings. In my view, this is how you create a warm, friendly space with depth and character.’ 

Respect the poetry of materials

‘Whether it’s a slab of marble, a slice of burred elm or a simple mohair, I like to use natural, authentic materials. They’re inherently beautiful, so they do all the work for you.’ 


‘The home is a space we curate with care and devotion over a lifetime, surrounding ourselves with things that reflect our personality. The best interiors are those that represent their owners’ quirks and passions.’ 

Christie’s Interiors magazine Issue 10 – March/April 2016.

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