Having access to products and ideas from around the world sounds, in theory, like a good thing. But for British interior designer Sophie Ashby, it has its downsides too. “I think the globalization of trends and styles is really depressing,” she tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “Whether you’re in Dubai or New York or Sydney, for interiors to just look the same and have an unidentifiable ‘global chic’ look, I don’t find it very inspiring.”
Ashby’s design world—full of vintage stools covered in Ghanaian cloth and landscape artworks by South African contemporary artist Anna van der Ploeg—is quite the opposite. Her bold, playful style was inspired by living in London, South Africa and Devon, a small “hippie” town in South West England. She opened her own firm, Studio Ashby, in 2014 at the age of 25, jumping from one office lease to another before setting up shop in an 18th-century schoolhouse. Today, the two-story, red brick building serves as an appointment-only studio for her clients and a shop for Studio Ashby’s sibling line of decorative furniture and decor, Sister.
Though Ashby’s aesthetic is quintessentially British, recently she has taken on projects in the U.S. and has noticed some striking differences between the markets. To start? America’s not cheap. In California, Ashby was quoted a hefty price for what she thought was a simple upholstered bed frame. “We hoped that this piece at-trade would cost 5,000 or 6,000 pounds [$6,000 to $7,300] at the worst,” says Ashby. “The first quote I got was for $26,000, and I could not believe it. I was mortified to tell the client.” But to her surprise, the client was not shocked at all. This highlighted a massive opportunity for Ashby, who realized it was cheaper to ship a container of furniture from the U.K. to the U.S., even after factoring in shipping and duties.
That’s the business. The aesthetics are different too—especially at large-scale retailers like RH. “I think as a nation when it comes to interiors, most of us don’t want to take it that seriously,” says Ashby, who explains that in Britain, people prefer to mix and match furniture and ceramics from local shops instead of one-stop shopping. “I went to the Restoration Hardware megastore in San Francisco, and I just got the giggles.”
Yet for all the transatlantic cultural design differences, Ashby also observed plenty of similarities. Designers in both the U.S. and the U.K. are grappling with higher prices and longer lead times due to ongoing supply chain issues. To her advantage, Ashby has always been brutally honest and transparent with clients during initial conversations, something she says they appreciate “nine times out of 10” to help set realistic standards for the project. Another shared challenge in the U.S. and U.K. design industries is a lack of racial and economic diversity, something Ashby is working to help tackle head-on.
In 2019, she co-founded a charity called United in Design, which partners with businesses to improve recruiting policies and provide paid internships and mentoring with an eye toward promoting diversity and giving opportunities to young designers from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. For Ashby, the program is an opportunity for creatives to gain experience while earning, and to exemplify that interior design as a career path can be just as lucrative and respected as that of doctors, lawyers and businesspeople. “There is a notion that interior design is a bit risky, like saying you want to be an actor, a musician or an artist,” says Ashby. “But it isn’t. It is a proper industry.”
Homepage image: Sophie Ashby | Courtesy of Studio Ashby