“I have this anti-waste thing,” says Sophie Ashby. “As an interior designer, you encounter horrendous waste. A client wants to tear apart a brand new penthouse or an amazing mansion that isn’t to their style. I do as many rescue missions as I can — even plants.”
True enough, Ashby is sitting — on an antique armchair re-covered in Pierre Frey fabric — below a salvaged spider palm in the west London offices of Studio Ashby, the interiors business she founded in 2014. “Clients overwater them, they don’t look beautiful any more and they want them replaced,” the 29-year-old says.
The workspace contains yet more rescued palms and schefflera, along with what she calls a “research library” of recovered materials and cut-offs. In one mesh drawer there is a peacock feather which she plans to suspend in acrylic resin to incorporate into furniture designs. Next to it is salvaged gym flooring. Another drawer contains old rope, crocheted by a maker from Cape Town. Such items are the foundation of her style: beautiful finds, whether repurposed or antique, inserted into modern spaces.
The roots of this approach are grounded in Ashby’s childhood. Half-British, half-South African, the designer grew up living in 14 houses from Cape Town to Devon in south-west England.
“My mum saves everything,” she says. “Her house is full of the things she’s repurposed. I always ask the studio’s curtain-maker for all the scraps back. He says I’m the only interior designer he works with who does this. It’s a direct result of living in Africa.”
We discuss how many greats of African contemporary art use waste material in place of traditional supplies, because of the former’s abundance. Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, for instance, creates wall-hangings from discarded aluminium bottle caps, arranged into images of maps and polished to a high shine.
As for Ashby herself, before founding her studio she studied interior design at Parsons School of Design in New York, then worked for designers and agencies until one day her boss turned down a client’s latest project. “They came to me [instead] and said, ‘If you were on your own, I would work with you.’ I had no savings, no investment. But the fee for that one project was the same as my annual salary. I bought a laptop, got a membership to [London club] Soho House, and worked from there.”
In such a competitive and saturated industry, does her relative youth ever raise eyebrows? “I’m not aware of it. I think the way that I’ve dealt with that is by hiring people senior to me. I feel extremely confident in any room, knowing we can do anything because of them.”
Today she employs 11 staff, and has worked on luxury boutique hotels in South Africa, penthouses and developments in London’s Battersea and Mayfair, and actors’ country estates.
Studio Ashby is currently working on its largest project yet: designing the interior of No. 3 Upper Riverside, a 126-apartment tower on Greenwich Peninsula in south-east London; fittingly perhaps, the area is one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe. Alongside, Ashby has collaborated with six UK-based makers on a limited-edition furniture range that includes paper light fittings, handcrafted wooden tables and — true to form — recycled plastic chairs.
“I don’t like everything to be too perfect,” she says. “For me, beautiful interior design has that feeling of visiting someone’s house: you can feel what they’re interested in. You understand that they have a thing for collecting vintage cameras or a certain type of art; an aversion to things as well as love of other things. There’s a soulfulness, and a richness, in that.”
Photographs: Alfredo Piel; Philip Durrant; Hannah Norton; Getty Images/iStockphoto; AFP/Getty Images