I first came across Abigail Ahern when I was working for a glossy interiors magazine in South Africa. I saw a picture of a dark, moody living room with a statement chandelier that made my jaw drop. It was completely at odds with the light-filled seaside schemes that were de rigueur at the time, but for me it was love at first sight.
It seems I was not alone. Known for her eclectic decorating style and love of deep inky hues, with her Islington boutique, a trendsetting blog and a slot on TV (she’s now the co-presenter of Channel 4’s makeover show Get Your House in Order), Abigail is a veritable rock star of the interiors world.
Mercifully all this fame does not seem to have gone to her head. “The eclectic style has been around forever so I am not doing anything that unusual but I am pushing the boundaries and people are responding to that magical vibe,” she says in an attempt to explain why her work seems to have tapped into today’s decorating zeitgeist.
“I think there’s also been a mental shift because of the economy. People are not moving as much as they used to so are not thinking about decorating to re-sell. Instead they are looking to create more unusual, personal spaces.”
Her prose is just as straight-talking as the woman herself and in her new book, Decorating with Style, she takes us back to basics, helping us identify our own unique decorating hand-print.
It starts with establishing five looks that people are generally drawn to: classic; glamorous; boho; rock ’n’ roll and eclectic. Kooky and kaleidoscopic might be her signature, but this is not a book about decorating like her; instead the focus is on how you can mix and match elements from these genres to hit upon a look that’s authentically you.
Encouraging us to forget rules or trends, she then shows us how to take our interiors to the next level by mixing and layering different styles and eras; injecting life into a room with her trademark maximalist lighting or eye-catching art.
It’s a pictorial feast, but there are a few key messages that run through the whole of this book that Abigail insists are the key to “making a space amazing”.
Firstly, to enchant you have to experiment. “Don’t worry about making mistakes – I’ve made tons of them especially with paint,” she says. “I know they’re often a waste of money but you need to embrace them and learn from them.”
The other main point is don’t stop decorating too soon. “Most people do,” she explains, “but the more layers you add to a room, the more interest there will be. You want the eye to be darting all over the place not knowing what to take in.”
But while that certainly sounds exciting, if you’re not a savvy stylist, sometimes it’s hard to know how to accessorise with attitude. Rather than leaving us in the decorating wilderness, she spells it out for the uninitiated.
“Start with rugs,” she instructs. “My fallback is Jonathan Adler’s Zebra rug. The second most transformative thing you can do is buy a table lamp – BHS and B&Q have great high-street offerings. You then need one quirky item – check out Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters.”
Quirky is where Abigail excels and she admits to hitting Sunbury Antiques Market at Kempton Park regularly at 6:30am with a torch to find the unusual and one-off. “You have to get there when it opens if you want to find the bargains,” she says. Other favourite haunts include Porte de Vanves flea market in Paris “for leather chairs and old art work” and the international antiques and collectors fairs at Ardingly, in the south-east of England, and Newark in Nottinghamshire. “You can pick up a piece of furniture for about a quarter of the price you’d pay for it new and then spray it.”
There are plenty more practical tips in the book. “Every room needs a focal point,” she explains. “If you don’t have something grounding like a fireplace or a large window, decide what that might be.
Salon style art on a wall works brilliantly.” And when it comes to bathroom mirrors, her suggestion is to supersize. “Even in a small room, often I’ll find a huge frame and get glass put in, or you can just buy frameless glass and take it up as high as you want,” she says.
“People are scared of things looking out of proportion, but the whole reason for playing with scale is so that they do. We want it not to make sense.”
Scale is also the secret to pulling together a stunning tableaux, but again, she doesn’t expect us to be able to conjure one up on our own.
Her prescription? Stick to two or three colours (clustering by tone, shape or material), layering items as opposed to lining them up and not being afraid to go large.
At the end of the day, Abigail insists that it’s all about confidence and her book gives us carte blanche to have a go. The braver we get the more we’ll try and that’s certainly the case when it comes to the use of colour.
Her tried-and-tested theory is that four key colours for walls is a winning combination whether it be the seductively sombre hues that are her signature or earthy neutrals.
“I’d always go for an inky charcoal, a burnt chocolate or olive on a wall,” she says. “Against that I would use three tantalising shades – probably a yellow, teal and orange. Highly saturated shades make a space amazing.”
It might take a period of trial and error before we can work up to that kind of palette, but with books like this showing us how it’s done, it won’t be long before our homes are the luxuriously layered and personality-filled places we all seem to want them to be right now.
• Decorating with Style by Abigail Ahern is published by Quadrille, £16.99 in hardback, out now.