‘Perfectly Imperfect’

A guide to recreating the English style in your own home, from Ros Byam Shaw’s new book
May 25, 2021 Updated: May 26, 2021

Imagine standing in the entryway to the living room of a country cottage—rain streaming down the tiled windows, long drapes flowing to the floor—as a dog snores, curled up on his master’s lap in front of a crackling fire.

Porcelain jugs hold the weight of a dozen plump roses, and a grandfather clock ticks like a heartbeat. These are the images that are conjured in Ros Byam Shaw’s “Perfect English Style: Recipes for Rooms that are Comfortable, Pleasing and Timeless,” a guide on styling rooms that embody elegance, without sacrificing comfort—encapsulating the essence of the English style.

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“Perfect English Style: Recipes for Rooms that are Comfortable, Pleasing and Timeless,” by Ros Byam Shaw, published by Ryland Peters & Small 2021.

The interior design writer outlines fundamental characteristics of the style, and provides tips on how to emulate it. Whether you live in a grand mansion, a small cottage, or even a tiny studio, Shaw demonstrates that anyone can add some English flair to their living spaces.

Created in England, Popularized in America

The English style is commonly referred to as the English Country House style. It was established in the 1920’s as a way to embrace comfort while retaining traditional elements. While it stemmed from the UK, it was an American heiress residing in England by the name of Nancy Lancaster who popularized the look after purchasing the English interior decorating firm Colefax & Fowler in 1948. She worked with interior designer John Fowler on restoring and decorating her first estate: Haseley Court, a large country house in Oxfordshire, England. Working together for over 20 years, they eventually epitomized the look of the English style.

“She brought forward an element of domestic luxury to the large, 18th-century homes which she owned and decorated,” explained Shaw in an email interview.

For example, Lancaster pioneered the practice of installing ensuite bathrooms to guest rooms and comprehensive whole-house heating systems. With her seamless ability to mix furnishings of different styles and periods, she introduced informality and comfort to rooms that might otherwise have appeared intimidating.

“All Nancy’s homes were renowned for being as lovely to inhabit as they were beautiful. She set new standards of warmth and convenience,” said Shaw.

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A kitchen with patina. (Jan Baldwin © Ryland Peters & Small)

The style embraces the use of mismatched furniture, and exhibits a fondness toward ruggedness and patina. Lancaster believed that a little informality went a long way in the pursuit of comfort and relaxation.

The style has remained perennially popular all around the world due to it not following a strict set of principles, but rather, being open to interpretation and creativity on the decorator’s part.

Features of the English Style

Imperfection

“The most important component of English domestic comfort is the lack of perfection,” said Shaw.

The English style is “perfectly imperfect,” and is a representation of English modesty, she added. It lacks any pretentious qualities, and embraces the shabby chic aesthetic typical of a lived-in family home. Nancy Lancaster once said every room should have “something ugly.”

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Mismatched furnishings. (Jan Baldwin © Ryland Peters & Small)

Family heirlooms are desired—no matter how worn—as they provide the necessary charm.

For example, an English-style sitting room would feature a soft, well-worn sofa with a distinct pattern, paired with a few vintage mismatched cushions.

Patina

A fond appreciation for time-worn furniture and personal possessions is another key feature of the English style.

“Signs of use, a little wear and tear, curtains that are faded at the edges, furniture rubbed to a sheen by generations of dusters and polish, floors that show the passage of feet—surfaces that reveal their history,” wrote Shaw.

As interior designer John Fowler once described, the English style embodies a sense of “pleasing decay.”

Patina represents authenticity and serves as a key reminder that the past is real.

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A timeworn rug is part of this English-style dining room. (Christopher Drake © Ryland Peters & Small)

“Antique furnishings are integral to this style of decorating, conveying a comfortable aura of continuity and tradition, and the impression that possessions have been slowly accrued,” she wrote in her book.

The weatheredness gives items character and life. By possessing a timeless piece, you respect and value the item for where it came from and the years of memories it holds, Shaw noted. Therefore, patina is an important feature of the style, and particularly cherished by the English in their homes.

Bringing the Garden Indoors

The English have a deep appreciation for gardens and the countryside. In the English home, this is often expressed through floral paintings, patterns, fabrics, wallpaper, or vases with freshly cut flowers displayed in rooms, Shaw said.

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Flowers in the dining room. (by Gavin Kingcome © Ryland Peters & Small)

Mixing Furnishings From Different Styles and Periods

The English style favors mixing and matching furniture, making it easy to incorporate what you already own into the decor. It is also a very English trope, as England has always been a melting pot of cultures and styles. The style can combine “the old with the new, the plain with the fancy, the rough with the smooth, and also by using different fabrics from different countries, such as Chinese silk, African cloth, or embroidered suzanis from Central Asia,” Shaw wrote. Adding these elements to a room is like “pepping up a rich stew with a sprinkling of spices.”

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Antique china repurposed as flower vases. (Ben Edwards © Ryland Peters & Small)

Mixing up different period styles also provides contrast and adds interest to your living space. Too much antique furniture can make your room look like a museum, Shaw said. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance by introducing differing furniture, such as placing a wicker chair in a room filled with antique portraits. This addition brings a sense of approachability and homeliness to an otherwise overly grandiose room.

Consider adding “a modern lamp on an 18th-century console, a mid-century-modern table surrounded by 19th-century chapel chairs, or an antique patchwork quilt, hung on the wall behind a newly-upholstered bed head,” wrote Shaw.

Individuality

The English style prides itself on creativity and character, so don’t be afraid to be a little eccentric and add your own individual flair, Shaw said. A true English-styled home “paints a true reflection of the tastes, enthusiasms, and way of life of its inhabitants,” she wrote in her book.

While the English style has its particular characteristics, it’s also incredibly flexible and open to interpretation. Favoring informality and creativity, it’s a style that can be universally appreciated and incorporated into any home.