A bona fide legend of British interior design, Sasha Waddell has embarked on a charitable project designing beautiful textiles which will benefit impoverished children in Delhi – and are used to glorious effect throughout her own home.

As soon as the front door opens, the unadulterated joyfulness of this St Leonards-on-Sea artisan’s cottage just glows. Entering a gloriously bright open-plan white living room it’s hard not to gasp at the deceptive simplicity of it all.

A sofa, bench and period chair well-stocked with plump cushions you want to sink straight into. A simple white-painted wooden table flanked by matching painted chairs on one side and a mahogany antique bench on the other, covered with thick white cushions. Fresh, white walls – and everywhere, gorgeous throws and curtains in simple blues and whites.

It is elegant, modern, timeless, cosy, relaxed and simple all at the same time with that oh-so-casually thrown together vibe that is so perfectly, cleverly and carefully done you suspect this home must be the work of someone with great skill when it comes to designing interiors.

No surprises then to learn that Sasha Waddell is indeed one of the UK’s leading interior designers. The term ‘legend’ is often overused but in design terms she truly is that. One of 12 interior designers listed in The Best of British Women, in the top 100 Interior Designers by House & Garden magazine – where she is also credited as one of the most influential designers of the decade.

More simply put, Sasha is the woman credited with bringing pared-back Scandi chic style to the UK through her legendary eponymous shop in West London, a global best-selling book New Swedish Style and numerous TV and radio appearances. Then there are all the design commissions, including the furnishing fabrics for the Venice-Simplon Orient Express train ad, revamping The Organ Room at Glyndebourne, as well as many private homes belonging to high-profile clients (although she’s much too discreet to say who…).

Sasha’s inspiration was the essence of 18th and 19th century Swedish ‘Gustavian’ style – a cool and simplified interpretation of ornate French classical decoration created by the Swedish king Gustav III after a visit to Versailles in the late 1780s – to bring fresh interiors, full of light, to this country.

Inspired by the ‘informal domestic elegance’ of Swedish manor houses, Sasha’s signature is all about pared-back clean lines, lashings of white, painted wood and tactile textiles. Sasha calls it ‘bringing the outside in’. And her St Leonards home is a masterclass in how to achieve it.

As you take in this extremely sophisticated simplicity, in Sasha’s open-plan space, another theme jumps out at you: throws, curtains and cushions in different patterns of stripes, paisley, florals and checks.

And it’s no coincidence that they all go together so beautifully, as all of them were designed by Sasha as a range called Room 100, specially to be made by local women through a charitable foundation in Delhi, India. The foundation supports women by teaching them creative skills to empower them, so they can make a living of their own (and of which, more, further on).

Despite her extraordinary design pedigree Sasha is wonderfully unpretentious and funny, cheerfully confiding that her attic is “of course rammed full of stuff, so that I can live this tidy life.”

Once the eye has adjusted to different shades of white in the main room’s palette – bright, soft, creamy, zesty – the detailing starts to pop out. Those pale stripped wooden floors. Surely expensive white limed oak, I ask?

“No, very cheap”, confides Sasha. “Skirting boards. They make great floors because the boards are nice and wide. The effect comes from washing them with a special Swedish product made of white lye that my daughter sells in her shop Pale & Interesting, in Rye, to get that limed look. Anyone can do it.

“I love simple effects. I work at the table in here every day. The top is just white-painted MDF and whenever it gets a bit grubby I repaint it.”

The bespoke country style bookshelves in the alcoves are covered with chicken wire, another super cheap but effective Sasha trick. “It just sort of diffuses the contents so they don’t pop out at you.”

Encouraging furniture to ‘recede’ is another of Sasha’s tropes: “It’s more relaxing and makes a space look bigger.” Another tip is to have furniture on legs, hence wooden benches, showing the floor beneath, creating a feeling of flow.

The wonderful thing about Sasha’s style is that it’s so easily achievable and inexpensive. No wonder the country fell so in love with her. The Scandi look she has championed since the 1980s is now so firmly entrenched in the UK as equalling comfort and relaxation, it’s hard to imagine a time without it.

But before Sasha dragged us into our Scandi-inspired futures she reminds me UK homes “were full of festoon blinds, with yards of chintz you could strangle yourself in, everything was squishy and cluttered. It was so formal, with reproduction period furniture, and separate dining rooms and kitchens.”

She was a trailblazer. “It was very unusual to be a woman in the interior design world, working on site. I had to be handy to convince people I could do it. One of the first jobs I ever did I created a big moulding above a door. The builder working with me said it wouldn’t work so I lost my nerve and made it smaller. It looked horrid, so I insisted we take it off and do it my way. And of course, the builder said it looked beautiful.”

A former actress, Sasha brought her theatrical flair to design in this way, dressing homes “like a set for people to live their lives in, to be more relaxed with how they lived.”

Above the fireplace is a huge ornate French mirror bought as a gift by her foster son, which she loves precisely because it was a present. It was gold, she explains “ but I painted it white…”

Of course, she did. I ask if she ever feels guilty for taking the paintbrush over furniture. “Not at all. It’s about making something as I want it. But if something is of superior quality the way it is, I will leave it as is.”

She points, laughing, to a second ornate mirror – this one antique brass – as proof.

The living room is packed full of books and intriguing ornaments including a 1930s Viennese sculpture, Swedish miniature furniture, little display boxes (made by Sasha), antique Dutch Maastricht dishes (which Sasha found in Sri Lanka) and some exquisite blue and white china bowls which she explains are Spanish monk’s bowls.

“I found hundreds of them in a shop in the US, and I bought them all. I sold some in my shop and kept the rest.”

What’s interesting is that although the look is simple, it isn’t minimalist. Sasha isn’t afraid to show the decorative or the personal, for example a framed birthday card and hats made by her milliner friend Brian Harris (who used to design hats for fashion designer Zandra Rhodes), displayed on the wall.

The same juxtaposition of clean white and interesting objects is visible in the kitchen where three rows of chunky shelving set against plain white brick tiles are used to display more brightly coloured collections of antique pottery gleaned from her global travels.

Sasha’s designer’s eye is clear again in how the different collections are artfully grouped together in little mini displays. A cluster of fruit bowls sits on a small table, covered with a gorgeous blue and white paisley tablecloth by Room 100.

Doors open onto a little suntrap courtyard garden, with a painted chair and table covered with another paisley tablecloth, this one a zesty lime green, perfectly set against the greenery of lavender in vintage pots. Even the storage shed is ‘dressed’ with vintage embroidered linen curtains creating the impact of another room, rather than a utility area.

Retiring to St Leonards nine years ago, to be closer to her family, was life changing for Sasha and one she has no regrets about – but the quiet retirement didn’t quite go as planned. Sasha also has a home in Goa, India and one of her Indian neighbours there is the son of the original founder of the formerly mentioned charity Swami Sivananda Memorial Institute (SSMI), which supports women by teaching them creative skills, feeds 20,000 people a day from kitchens set up in the slums and educates 1,000 children in its own school.

Sasha went to visit their work and was blown away.

“They found a whole family of traditional block printers living in the slums and brought them to the workshop to train others. I could see these products had such potential and I was so impressed by the ethics of the charity. They were selling their products to the Indian market but not globally. So here I come in.”

Sasha has worked with them to set up Room 100, as a range of textiles including homewares, curtains, cushions, table linen, clothing and accessories. “I designed it so as many women as possible would be employed and be able to utilise their skills in embroidery, sewing, printing.”

She’s overseen a new Room 100 website, designed a Delhi showroom (white of course) and has worked directly with the women printers to design new textiles with a more global appeal using soft-as-butter cottons, linens, silks and voile.

“They already did a paisley design, but it was small and busy. I made it bigger, added more space. It’s the Swedish thing. This way the pattern is calmer, it recedes instead of jumping out at you.”

Heading upstairs the Indian textiles come into their own in a new context. Sasha’s bedroom is a glorious cornucopia of soft blue and white cotton throws, curtains and cushions in stripes, checks and florals.

“It’s a bit over the top in here, a bit Doris Day in
Calamity Jane,” she laughs.

Above the bed is a group of framed miniatures which look antique, but it turns out some are old postcards Sasha framed herself as a child and two were hand painted by Sasha’s mum. “She taught me about history through paintings. It was such a good way to learn.”

Two pretty blue-and-white painted mirrors, which go so well with the Indian fabric I assume they must have come from there, were in fact hand-painted by her daughter Atlanta Bartlett (also a notable interior designer, whose work has been featured several times in this magazine) when she was at university.

The small, but delightful, bathroom is another showcase for a more unusual use of the Room 100 textiles. The shower is hidden behind a blue striped curtain, with a delicate floral blind made from the same fabric covering the window. Continuing the colour theme onto the floor is a checked blue-and-white patterned Swedish runner.

Sasha’s office next door marks a change with green painted furniture from her Utility furniture collection. It is inspired by 1930s interiors but still looks up to date and modern.

“That’s the essence of it. It’s simple so it doesn’t date. Everything the Swedes did had been taken from the French style and simplified. So I did the same. I took French furniture and simplified it. I couldn’t design one piece and sell it; I had to design the whole look, lights, furniture ranges, textiles, so that people could achieve it.”

And that’s precisely what she’s now doing with Room 100 and Swami Sivananda. A chance meeting that has resulted in a perfect marriage of Sasha’s design skills and Indian artisan craftsmanship.

To help the range to grow – and with it the benefits to these impoverished families, so they can support themselves – Sasha would love to hear from other outlets interested in stocking the range.

“This is just a start. I want to find stockists across England and Europe. My whole reason for getting involved is to earn money for the charity to continue and grow.

“The children who come in are often so malnourished it can take a few weeks for them to recover before they can even begin learning. They need food and clothing.

“If I can use my skills to help, then it will be a very good ‘retirement’ indeed.”