The name Laura Ashley evokes images of flowered dresses, eyelet petticoats, Cotswold cottages, and simple country pleasures such as walking in an open field or along a pebble-strewn beach.
''I hope it helps people think about making their own bread,'' says Laura Ashley, a devotee of the domestic arts.
This Welsh-born founder of a multimillion-dollar clothing and furnishings business remains close to her homespun ideals despite her commercial success. Warm, unpretentious, and serene, Mrs. Ashley chats easily during a short visit here about her home life and her role as creative head of the Laura Ashley Company run by her husband, Bernard.
For the Ashleys, the joys of ordered, genteel living expressed by their company image are a reality in their own lives. They keep a family apartment in Brussels, a farmhouse in Carno, Wales, and a chateau in the Picardy region of France, about 100 miles north of Paris. The couple spends about half the year at the chateau, which is furnished with 18th-century antiques.
''It's quite spoiling,'' says Mrs. Ashley, who enjoys embroidering, reading, cooking, entertaining guests, and gardening.
From this French setting of pastoral tranquillity, the Ashleys hold company meetings and oversee their business, which has grown to more than 140 shops worldwide.
''We've always tended to be romantic and slightly eccentric,'' says Mrs. Ashley, dressed in a simple black suit with a high-necked ivory lace blouse and jet drop earrings. ''Sometimes I like to be very eccentric (in my designs), but I don't always get away with it.''
Working within the structure of the family business, Mrs. Ashley must clear her ideas with her oldest son, Nicholas, who is design director of the company.
The Ashleys' second son, David, is the company's senior vice-president for marketing. He lives in New York and oversees the rapidly expanding American operation.
The Ashleys' eldest daughter, Laura Jane, does free-lance photography for the Laura Ashley catalogs, and their youngest daughter, Emma, is studying fine arts in London.
The Laura Ashley Company had its beginnings more than 30 years ago in a small London flat, the Ashleys' first apartment.
''Before I started the company I used to do patchwork,'' Mrs. Ashley says. ''I couldn't find the prints I wanted, so I decided to learn to print them myself. That's absolutely how it started. I never got back to patchwork - I became too busy - but I still adore it.''
She and her husband began to silk-screen the quaint florals and small geometrics that have since become the Laura Ashley trademark. The fabrics were used for home furnishing and household linens.
''We became keen on period textiles,'' says Mrs. Ashley, who is an authority on 18th- and 19th-century fabrics. Her research into historical clothing and textiles at the Platt Museum in Manchester, England, evolved into a book published last year called ''Fabric of Society: A Century of People and their Clothes, 1770-1870,'' by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt (Carno, Powys, Wales: Laura Ashley Ltd.).
Each year Mrs. Ashley works with her son Nicholas to decide on new additions to the home-furnishings collection. The 1984 collection consists of about 130 country furnishings cottons, 25 drawing room fabrics, 8 chintzes, and 118 wallpapers. Many of the prints draw inspiration from the 19th century. Others include fabrics based on a French silk from the late 18th century, a flame-stitch embroidery first used in 14th-century Florence, and contemporary-looking prints dating back to 17th-century India.
Once the design themes are chosen, the company buys or borrows a home to decorate and photograph. The Ashleys' own residences are used, in addition to cottages and homes in locations such as the French seaside and the English and Welsh countrysides.
''Once I see the rooms, then I design the fabrics,'' Mrs. Ashley says. She keeps a watchful eye on the initial printing process to ensure clarity of design and perfect coloration.
''It's important to get the heart into the fabric so it looks beautiful instead of looking flat and dreary or lifeless,'' she says. ''The workers have to print it until I'm satisfied. With one print we had to (run it through) 38 times. That particular print is still one of our most popular patterns. Once the engraving is right, you can roll hundreds of yards and it will always be right.''
In addition to the home-furnishings line of fabrics and wall covering, the business encompasses clothing, bed and table linens, fragrances, tiles, lamps, and porcelains reflecting times past. In 1982, a home-furnishings line exclusively for professional decorators was added.
The company has textile and sewing factories in rural areas of Wales, Holland , England, Ireland, and the US. Workers are usually hired from nearby small villages and the cotton and woolen supplies are bought from local mills.
In the past few years the company has produced bolder fabric designs with more complicated colorations. Mrs. Ashley's own favorite style is Italian Renaissance, with its rich colors and handsome motifs. Even with the addition of more grand and formal prints, the collection still retains the peaceful spirit of its originator. ''When you create something you always express yourself,'' says Mrs. Ashley. ''You can't disguise it.''