Back in 2012, I stood amid the chatter and clinking glasses at an art event hosted by Native Land at its London flagship development NEO Bankside, when a woman appeared and asked whether I would take a look at a show apartment she had just completed a couple of floors above. I was instantly struck by the confident use of colour and curation of art and objets as she guided me through the space – a refreshing change to showhouse greige. But what hit me most that evening was the youth of the designer: at that time Sophie Ashby was just 23. I made a mental note – she would be the one to watch.
Now, seven years later, we are sitting in the elegant meeting room of Studio Ashby in Ladbroke Grove, while her team work flat out in the studio next door on projects that are predominantly focused on huge private residential developments in central London. A burgeoning business is not the only milestone Ashby has met during that time – last year, she married fashion designer Charlie Casely-Hayford, the son of the late Joe Casely-Hayford OBE, with whom he was in partnership. Last year, the trio opened a Casely-Hayford concept store next to Chiltern Firehouse, where visitors can browse luxury menswear and womenswear collections by the Casely-Hayfords alongside Ashby’s curation of vintage furniture, art and accessories. At 5ft 10in, she admits to being thrilled to have found a partner who is 6ft 6in. “We met on a blind date through a brilliant friend who said, ‘You’re both very tall and very creative, so you have to meet!’” she says.
Ashby was just 17 when she embarked on her career. “I was one of those lucky people who made a decision and stuck with it,” she says. Having chosen to study history of art at Leeds, she travelled to New York for the summer holidays of her first year to take a course in interior design at Parsons School of Design. Following graduation, her first job was assistant to Victoria Fairfax, doyenne of the grand-country-house style. “Victoria is an amazing designer with the most incredible projects all over the world, so I learnt a lot,” she recalls. Ashby had a chance to show where her own aesthetic vision lay when she landed a role with the creative agency Spring & Mercer, which appointed her to grow its first interior-design division. “It was a small company starting to make its mark and wanted someone young and hungry – a case of right place, right time,” she says. “My presentation at the interview included lots of colour, bold art and collectable design… everything eclectic and layered. Thankfully, they took a chance on me.”
Ashby designed showhouses and apartments for a roster of clients at the company, including Native Land, and its director Nicholas Gray has been a supporter since her NEO Bankside debut, commissioning her work more recently for Holland Park Villas. “Sophie has an innate understanding of different cultures and she creates spaces abundant with materials, textures and contemporary world art, which our buyers love,” he says. “Her interiors are not there for marketing purposes – they are places that people really want to live in. She creates interiors that are one of a kind.” Ashby likes to work with those brave enough to allow for some risk-taking within the schemes. “I meet a lot of developers who say they want something bold or cool and different,” she says. “But once they encounter anything that doesn’t fit with what I call the ‘safe, luxe-simple aesthetic’, they back away.”
While she makes no secret of the fact that she enjoys working for developers – recent ventures include One Crown Place, a Spitalfields development for CBRE, and No 3 Upper Riverside at Greenwich Peninsula for Knight Dragon – she has also acquired private residential commissions since going solo five years ago. Currently, these include a Grade II* Arts and Crafts house fronting Hyde Park (where JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan), a contemporary coastal home in Hove, a luxury pied-à-terre in Mayfair and a large villa in Holland Park, plus properties in the Lake District and the New Forest.
The designer’s big break came when Spring & Mercer was offered a private project that it could not fulfil on grounds of budget. “I was absolutely gutted at the time. Then the client offered the job to me directly and as the design fee was equivalent to a whole year’s salary, in a sense I had nothing to lose,” she says. “I bought a laptop, started working from cafés and within three weeks I’d landed a second big project in Salcombe, Devon – what had felt like taking a huge punt with no safety net turned out to be one of those meant-to-be moments.” Indeed, that first client is now one of her closest friends.
Another landmark moment came in the form of an invitation to a dinner party hosted by gallerist Rebecca Willer in honour of Ty Best of Caste Design. “The calibre of the people in that room was extraordinary. I found myself seated opposite interior designer Chester Jones, with Veere Grenney on one side and John Pawson on the other,” she recalls. “I was completely overwhelmed that Rebecca had thought me remotely good enough to be in the company of people like that – I was so awestruck I went home and burst into tears!”
Willer, meanwhile, saw something special in Ashby from their first meeting. “She’s deservedly managed to establish her place among the most exciting designers working today – and in record time by creating not one ‘look’ and repeating it but by being brave and having an expansive vision,” she says. “That, and the fact she’s a pleasure to work with, is why she has justly risen to the top.” Therein lies the secret to this designer’s success. She undoubtedly has a great eye and sense of style but she is also thoroughly nice. Ashby recalls being a “goody two-shoes” as a child. “I don’t remember ever screaming or shouting,” she laughs. She was born in London to a British father and South African mother, and spent her formative years between the two countries. By the time she had left home, her parents had bought and sold 14 houses. “That’s a common thread among many interior designers I’ve met – they often have a nomadic childhood,” she says.
Ashby’s biggest love next to design is art. She’s a collector – particularly of contemporary African pieces – and a Young Patron of the Royal Academy. Invariably, she takes a work of art as her starting point when designing a space, drawing out the colours, textures and forms as she designs. She does not claim to be an art scholar but is confident enough about her taste and knowledge to buy for clients when they request it. “We recently bought 108 pieces of art for a client with a spend that ranged from a few hundred pounds to about 20,000,” she says. “I love all periods and styles, but I need to feel emotionally connected to something myself – I don’t buy pieces that leave me feeling bewildered or confused. In that sense, I am more Frieze Masters than Frieze.”
Three years ago, Ashby was commissioned by the Robertson Small Hotel in South Africa, her first hospitality assignment and one into which she threw herself with gusto. “I ensured the design was 100 per cent local in terms of artists, designers and makers – it was a challenge but also rewarding on so many levels.” She puts much of her success down to an uncompromising approach to her aesthetic – an elegantly eclectic balance of antiques, colour, art and contemporary design. “We don’t do bling, garish, über-luxe, glam or anything overly fancy. I have a conviction in what we do and say ‘no’ more often than I say ‘yes’ because I can only design if I really believe in a project,” she explains.
She is her usual tactful self when it comes to questions about how she has achieved so much in such a short space of time. “I think people make assumptions about me because I sound posh and privileged – they think I must have had a helping hand financially, but my parents always made it clear that they expected me to stand on my own two feet, although they are hugely supportive on an emotional level,” she says. “I have been in scenarios where people have asked my age when it didn’t seem relevant – but that may just have been down to the thought of transferring huge sums to someone who seems rather fresh-faced!”
Ashby now employs 14 people and her current focus is on being a better businesswoman. “I love what I do and I intend to do it for a long time. Firstly, our design and creative offering needs to stay fresh, but I also need to ensure the business is established in such a way that is solid,” she explains. “We have enquiries coming in thick and fast, and if everything in the pipeline lands, we need to know we can handle it.” The first step from business to brand was the launch of her debut furniture for The Invisible Collection, a high-end online showcase of bespoke work by renowned international designers, earlier this year – other offers are rolling in.
Home is a short walk from the studio in the refurbished former BBC Television Centre, where she and Charlie have a tiny flat. “It’s like living in a hotel suite but we love it,” she says. Downtime is spent at art galleries, walking in London, reading for her book club, travelling and planning the next stage of the Ashby empire – she would love to open her own hotel and restaurant some day. What would the 17-year-old Sophie think of this life? “She would be really shocked! She’d never believe it would have happened so fast and would be very proud that she has her own home and car,” she says. “But, if it all goes pop, I have a roof over my head and transport – and a gorgeous husband, of course!”