How to decorate a rental flat:interior designer Sophie Ashby's top tips on adding art, prints, colour and antiques to rented homes

Forget trends — set your own with art, plants and preloved furniture given a makeover. Interiors expert Sophie Ashby reveals her top design tips.

“Pastels and pretty are not my style,” declares interior designer Sophie Ashby. However, Ashby is the epitome of pastel and pretty herself, in the rented Notting Hill flat she shares with her boyfriend, menswear designer Charlie Casely-Hayford, son of famous Joe, who was awarded an OBE for services to the fashion industry in 2007.

But Ashby, whose rise has been stellar since setting up from her desk less than three years ago, is clear on the distinction between catwalk and home, saying: “I don’t go in for trends, either. It makes more sense with fashion, but with your home, as soon as you follow a trend, you’ll soon be out of date. Just go for what you like. That’s how you create individuality and personality.”

Studio Ashby, which now has a staff of nine, is currently working on 12 projects. They range from a hotel in Robertson, just outside Cape Town, to a new-build mews house in St James’s on the Crown Estate, to Endless Love and new-season Poldark star Gabriella Wilde’s house in Somerset (“all roll-top baths”).

And shortly, Ashby will be working on a big development near Liverpool Street as part of the architectural design team doing top-end flats in this increasingly fashionable part of the City.

It’s a big mix but she’s clear-eyed about her style: old and new, antiques and modern, plenty of books, art, and a strong palette of muted accent colours — rusts, greens, smoky blues, yellow — nothing so overwhelming that people can’t live with it.

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Make it personal: Ashby's rental home is a masterclass in how to accessorise with books, prints, plants and antiques (Charles Hosea)

Like most Londoners her age, Ashby rents so she can’t go too wild with colour. She was allowed to paint her apartment so she went for a modulated grey in the hall, a good foil for numerous pictures. The rest is white, with a charming living/kitchen space featuring country-style cabinets, a simple bathroom with pretty pink handmade tiles, and a white bedroom with a wrought-iron bed.

As a renter she has learnt to accessorise to make it personal with glossy design books, a few antiques and, in the bedroom, a big marble-topped burr-walnut chest. She bought mid-century modern pieces online and re-covered them in African-inspired fabrics from posh companies, put down a geometric Berber rug and scattered beautifully crafted South-African beadwork mugs, plus lots of prints and plants.

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Art with heart: Ashby and her boyfriend, menswear designer Charlie Casely-Hayford (Charles Hosea)

“Charlie came with only four things,” she says, “which was lucky.” Having moved to London, 18 months ago Ashby met Casely-Hayford on a blind date. “A friend said he knew two tall designers, so he introduced us to each other.” Ashby had just rented her flat, and Casely-Hayford helped her move in.

WHITE CITY ADVENTURE

Ashby moves next year into the flat she bought off-plan in the former BBC complex at White City, Stanhope’s huge development of 5,000 apartments — practically a small new town.

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African-inspired meets country style: Ashby recovered mid-century modern furniture in bold fabric in the living space (Charles Hosea)

“It’s Grade II, with Crittall windows and polished floors. The good thing about buying off-plan is that you pay in stages, 10 per cent at a time in this case, so it’s more affordable, and I bought before the stamp duty rise.”

Born in London to a South African mother and an English father, Ashby and three siblings grew up between South Africa and London.

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Neutral tones: a soft, cool palette in the kitchen (Charles Hosea)

The family came to England when she was 12, settling near Totnes in Devon. “We couldn’t handle London after living on the side of a mountain.”

She wanted to be a shoe designer, so she studied art, and did history of art at Leeds. She loved art and architecture but didn’t want to study for seven years, or be broke, so she went for interior design.

She did a term at Parsons design school in New York, and had two interior design jobs in London. Then at 25 she struck out on her own.

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Accent colours: plenty of white works with muted accent colours in a bedroom (Charles Hosea)

“It was a bit ballsy, but I went at everything with conviction, as I know what I like. There really isn’t a right or wrong. People ask me all the time, ‘Sophie, should I buy this?’ I say, ‘If you really like it, buy it — it will enhance your life.’”

Straight after moving into her flat she got a job dressing a townhouse near Trafalgar Square for a developer — and the work just keeps coming.

HOW TO RESTYLE YOUR RENTAL HOME

Inspiration is everywhere in London.

Ashby advises: “Go to visit art galleries, look in design shops, visit antiques dealers, read design books… it’s educational and helps you get your own look.

“We fell in love with a particular dirty yellow after visiting the exhibition by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy in 2014.

“I love The New Craftsmen shop in Mayfair. They make incredibly beautiful things, in Britain. They are quite expensive — but go there to be inspired.”

ADD ART

“Everyone is afraid of buying art, and it can be expensive, but frame posters from art gallery shops. Or go to Saatchi Art. It’s a great resource with original works for a few hundred pounds — we bought a Michael Lentz drawing. Alternatively, buy pieces from student art shows.

You can even cut a picture out of a second-hand book and frame it. Allposters.co.uk has half a million posters and pictures.”

ADD COLOUR

As long as your landlord agrees you can change the paint colour — though you may have to paint it back at the end of the tenancy. In the hall, Ashby used paintandpaperlibrary.com which is relaunching and has a new palette.

RE-COVER ANTIQUES

Ashby covered her chair in African-inspired linen from Pierre Frey and a stool with Tulu linen from Zak + Fox.

Antiques from Brownrigg Antiques; Kempton Park Racecourse; The Peanut Vendor in E3, and 1st Dibs.

ADD LOTS OF PLANTS

“Orchids are beautiful but overplayed.” Ashby gets plants from Early Hours and Columbia Road Market.

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