Decorating Shabby Chic or Cottage Style

Shabby chic living room and sunroom
Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Cottage style, or what is often referred to as shabby chic, got its humble beginnings from the look of coastal, country and lake cabins (or cottages) decorated with furnishings and decor that were leftovers or cast-offs from the main house. Cottage owners took their old, worn items and slipcovered or painted them, and often used them in new, unique ways.

Unbeknownst at the time to these frugal and carefree cottage owners, this led to one of the first boons of “recycled” furnishings and “green decorating” trends.

In the 1980s, entrepreneur Rachel Ashwell identified this look and coined the decorating style phrase “Shabby Chic,” which is now her registered trademark.

The cottage or shabby chic style is a comfortable and casual decorating style, originally made to withstand wet swimsuits and crowds of people with barbeque-slathered plates. Though collectibles and antiques are a huge component of this style, nothing should be too precious or too pretty.

The main characteristics of the cottage or shabby chic decorating style are simplicity and casualness. Items have a soft, comfortable appeal. Though items can be well-loved or even weathered and worn, a shabby chic space is never dated or tattered.

Though the cottage or shabby chic style is often confused with the eclectic style, the cottage style is actually more defined in its color palette and decor than the eclectic style. The eclectic style is a blending or mix of styles that encompasses a wide range of colors and furnishings, while the cottage style has an established palette and look.

And don’t confuse the cottage style with the Victorian style. Victorian style decorating acknowledges a particular period that celebrates feminine features, jewel tones, and dark woods.

Typical characteristics of a Cottage style space:

  • Slipcovered, overstuffed furnishings
  • Soft color palette using pale greens, pale pinks, pale blues, soft grays, creams and white.
  • Painted and/or distressed furnishings and decor
  • Fresh flowers and florals
  • Vintage or handmade items
  • Tea-stained or faded fabrics
  • Carefully controlled clutter
  • Mix of patterns and plaids
  • ”Rumpled elegance”
  • Architectural detailings – moldings, columns, etc – often reused in unique ways
  • Painted or rusted wrought iron
  • Collectables