Thursday, December 30, 2010

"In My Book"

My Mother used to tell the story of how as a little girl, her favorite Christmas presents were invariably books.  While her sister and the other children would play with their toys, she would go off and bury her nose in one of her presents, until her mother would admonish her for ignoring the others. 

I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a family where reading was a deeply valued activity, and like my Mother, my favorite presents were always books, first and foremost.  (OK--my favorite presents starting the year AFTER I got my electric trains.)  Over the years, Christmas in particular would present wonderful additions to what has ultimately become a much treasured collection of books, books mirroring my deepest interests and enthusiasms.  

Thus, sitting under the Christmas tree with a new book is a tradition that takes me back to my childhood, and this year I am enjoying that nostalgic luxury to the hilt!

Modernism, too many candlesticks, and trains

Long before the advent of the Internet, my Mother patronized a favorite book seller, whose shop was housed in a wonderful building marked by a 1920s era fake half-timbered cottage facade with an iron shop-sign of a man tottering under a stack of books.  The shop was run by the nicest older man and his younger partner, and they both looked out for their customers and knew their interests.  Mr. Levinson would phone my Mother and say, ‘Mrs. Kakies, we’ve gotten a book that we think would be of interest to your son’, and on his recommendation Mother would purchase things like the reprint of Paul Frankl’s 1929 treatise on Modernism, FORM AND REFORM, or the two volumes of Martin Battersby’s brilliant summation of the decorative arts of the 1920s and 30s.  Thus did both my library and my knowledge grow apace.

(photo circa 1929)

Sadly, my dear Mother is gone now--as is the wonderful downtown book shop--so at Christmas I have to fend for myself, book-wise (as indeed I do the rest of the year).  The Internet of course is a miracle when it comes to finding obscure, and particularly out-of-print books. I still remember 10 years ago when my dear friend Gail excitedly told me about  Upon seeing 650-plus Cecil Beaton titles scrolling down the page I thought I had died and gone to heaven!  Over time I discovered books I had been searching to find for over 20 years, many of them even at affordable prices!  Ebay, too, has provided some treasures (like CECIL BEATON’S SCRAPBOOK in an immaculate dust-wrapper), though the auction format cuts both ways, in terms of affordability.  In addition, there are the big sites like Yahoo and Barnes & Noble, though they sadly endanger the small, independent book sellers.  But they have their place too, with their often deep discounts on new books.  (I think I ended up paying $4.- for the coveted Yale University Press monograph about Paul Frankl--with free shipping!--and $3.99 for the big Martin Wood photo essay about Nancy Lancaster.)

pressing the precious Beaton dust-wrapper with a warm iron

This year my two favorite presents were--oh you’ll NEVER guess--books, of course!  One was a present “from me to me” (I always seem to know exactly what I want and give terrific gifts!) while the other was a present from a very dear friend who wanted to give me an “extravagant’ Christmas gift.  

The “me to me” present was Adam Lewis’ THE GREAT LADY DECORATORS, a recently published book chronicling the careers and lives of a dozen of the most influential women to grace the decorating profession in the first six decades of the 20th century.  Mind you, they didn’t just “grace” the profession either:  rather they invented and perfected the way it is practiced to this very day, and struck out for the sort of independence and equality in the work force women and men both now know is their due.

Actually, I know of and admire all of these “Lady Decorators” through years of study, and since I bought the book sight-unseen, I worried a bit that it might merely restate facts I already know.  As it turns out, it for the most part does just that--but the writing is so sparkling and so well researched, that I am finding it a delightful read.  Besides many beautifully reproduced photographs, the book also provides wonderful thumb-nail portraits of its subjects, each approached in a different light and all enriched with wonderful quotations.

the table set for Christmas dinner
with my Mother’s (now my) library in the background

The second Christmas book is a biography of one of the great Modernist Industrial designers, Donald Desky, the man who is perhaps best remembered for his iconic interiors for the Radio City Music Hall.  I neglected to buy this book when it was published in 1987, in pre-internet and post-Levinson’s days, and it has since appreciated in value to the point where a copy in an undamaged dustwrapper brings upwards from $250!  

Parenthetically, I once had a wonderful correspondence with an English book seller who observed how convenient it would be to know which books were going to appreciate so dramatically in value, as  one could then squirrel them away for future profit. I suspect her musings were in regard to the slim little volume about Syrie Maugham by Richard Fisher, (also pub. 1987) which consistently brings prices in the mid three-figure range--if you can even find a copy for sale! 

At any rate, I stumbled across the coveted Desky book while mooning over vintage Christmas ornaments on ebay.   Reduced from “market price” to a special (what on ebay is termed a “buy it now”) price, it was being offered at what seemed an immensely attractive discount.  I knew it wouldn’t last long--and indeed it didn’t, because I quickly snapped it up!  And then came the offer of it as a present!  How ‘in the spirit’ of Santa Claus (which at a certain point of course turns out to be the generosity of our loving parents!) is that?

Christmas and Modernism collide
miniature cardboard ornament in the shape of the Empire State Building
Czechoslovakia, c. 1932

So under the Christmas tree I sit, delighted by the urbane and sentimental Nancy Lancaster; marveling at the foibles of the eternally gamine Madeleine de Castaing holding court in her shop on the Rue Jacob; seduced by the luxurious work of the erudite “Mrs. Eleanor S. Brown”; marveling at the sheer idiosyncracity of Rose Cumming (cellophane draperies cascading from under mirrored Venetian pelmets!); and once again struck by the creative power of these remarkable women, working in what was as yet a largely uncharted field. 

Switching gears, I pick the monograph chronicling the career of Donald Desky, and get to marvel how he transitioned from creating interiors featuring a particularly luxurious and monumental American take on Modernism, to become the designer (in the 1950s and 60s) of corporate logos and products that equally reflected their time.  (Think CREST toothpaste tubes for Proctor & Gamble and Maxwell House Coffee labels for the General Food’s Corporation.)

Now to my mind, the great thing about books is that one book usually leads to another; and the marvelous thing about having built a good library is that as one sits and reads, other books often come tumbling off the shelves to underline and enrich the reading experience.  

Unfortunately, I don’t know who I am paraphrasing when I say it, but, ‘Books are like drink to me--they go right to my head!’  (Actually, upon reflection I DO know--it’s Lord Peter Whimsy explaining to his beloved Harriet how the investigatiion of crime affects him.)  

At any rate, to my way of thinking, reading is a source of the most endless delight--at Christmas and throughout the year--or at least that’s how it is...

“In My Book.”  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a heavy date with 250 pages and a sofa...

Franklin John Kakies
Christmas Week, 2010

My thanks go to Jon Harris for the wonderful Christmas photographs and to my favorite Turkey for unwrapping Christmas early.

Recommended reading for those who find this posting of interest include:

THE FINEST ROOMS -- Katherine Tweed, with an introduction by Russel Lynes (The Viking Press. 1964). Interesting “period” photos including those rarities showing the work of Rose Cumming, Marian Hall, and Mrs. Henry Parish II.

SYRIE MAUGHAM--Staging the Glamorous Interior -- Pauline Metcalf (The Acanthus Press, 2010).  The divine Mrs. Maugham in all her splendor.

SYRIE MAUGHAM -- Richard K. Fisher (Duckworth, 1987).  A book which never looses its allure--and I’ve got an spare copy for anyone with deep pockets...

DONALD DESKY--Decorative Designs and Interiors -- David A. Hanks with Jennifer Toher (E.P. Dutton, 1987) 

FORM AND REFORM -- Paul T. Frankl (Harper & Bros., 1930/Reissued by Hacker Art books, 1972)

PAUL FRANKL AND MODERN AMERICAN DESIGN -- Christopher Long (Yale University Press, 2007).  The chapter on Skyscraper Style is worth its weight in Modernist furniture.

CHRISTMAS IN THE COUNTRY -- Barbara Collyer and John R. Foley/Pictures by Retta Worcester (A Little Golden Book/Simon and Schuster, 1950)

THE REAL SANTA CLAUS -- Marguerite Walters/Pictures by Meg Wohlberg (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Inc., 1950)

Monday, November 8, 2010

San Francisco in the Fall

Every October I happily say that I’m going to the “Glittering and Glamorous San Francisco Fall Antiques Show”, and come rain or shine, come feast or famine, it always is exactly that.

Since the first year of the show I’ve played a game based on Baron Philippe and Baroness Pauline de Rothschild’s affectionate competition as to who could spot the penultimate item first.  The rules of the game are that you can have any one item from the show that you want--cost being no object:  but the catch is that you have to decide the moment you see “it”, and not go through the entire show first before making up your mind.

Of course it’s an absurd conceit, but over the course of 28 years I’ve amassed an incredible collection of fantasy buys, always of course playing by the rules.  The very first year of the show the “prize” went to the great New York dealer Garrick Stephenson and his pair of gilt and patinated English Regency perfume burners, standing the height of a man, their gilt bronze flames billowing in an imaginary breeze.  They were quite superb, and I have never seen their equal anywhere.  Stephenson carried off the honors the second year as well, with a set of four gilt-wood Russian Empire chairs, their arms carved as eagle’s wings.  These came from a set of eight formerly inhabiting the dining room of Sir Phillip Sassoon’s grand country house, Port Lympne in Kent, and were sat on by such notable behinds as Winston Churchill’s and Lady Diana Manners'. 

Lucky Mrs. R. to have owned them for 27 years!

Other Octobers the prize has gone to one of the remarkable shops San Francisco has long been known for.  I will never forget a 12-fold Coromandel lacquer screen depicting Portuguese traders at the court of K’ang Hsi exhibited by Lola Bauer, who had a wonderful shop on Union Street--now, like Atlantis, lost beneath the waves.  One sometimes sees Japanese screens with European traders as their subject, but a Coromandel lacquer screen with this subject is quite above rubies.  “Le gout de Madame” if you’ll pardon my French.

"What are we--Rothschilds?"
Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel
One year there was the Cecil Beaton gouache on brown paper of Wallace Windsor (no, not THAT Cecil Beaton gouache on brown paper--but close) offered by jolly old Glen Smith.  (Oh, how we miss HIS Fillmore Street shop, with its axis of Palm Beach/New York/London taste.)  And last year, tho my pick was the circa 1928 lacquer and silvered bronze writing desk and chair from Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper line (they even retained the original embossed brass “SkyScraper”  labels!)  the close second was the dazzling little window seat “in the manner of Thomas Hope” offered by Kentshire Galleries in New York.  This I could have even fit in the back seat of my car, following that nicety of Victorian manners which stipulated that gifts should always be taken home and not sent.

Of course some years the call of a single specific object is less insistent.  This year I admit to being very smitten by a bureau plat in the manner of Jules Lelu offered by Carlton Hobbes, and also very drawn to a pair of remarkable 1930s chrome plated arm chairs designed by R.C. Coquery, and manufactured by Thonet...

Noël and the Lunts
“Design for Living”
(If that chrome arm chair is not Coquery, then it’s Gilbert Rhode)
(and if that coffee table isn't Paul Frankl I'll eat my hat)

...but there was no sudden flash of recognition like the black and red lacquer “Skyscraper” bookcase by my über-hero, the great Modernist designer Paul Frankl, which I first saw reflected in a mirror at the 2004 show and recognized as a piece I had coveted for over 20 years.  Glimpsed in the first five minutes of the show, I instantly knew that this was indeed “it”, and even the subsequent viewing of a scagliola table top from a design by Marion Dorn--the expatriate American who is so renowned for the carpets she designed for Syrie Maugham--or the canteen of Puiforcat silver comprising a service for 12 in the height of French 1930’s style could have dissuaded me from my original choice.

on the precept that one’s furniture should reflect
what one sees from one’s windows
Paul Frankl/c. 1928
(Marina Schiano c. 1983)

One of many great Bay Area treasures is the Berkeley shop run by Bonnie Grossman, featuring such oddities as “outsider” and “tramp” art.  This year her Ames Gallery was exhibiting three small architectural renderings done by the great architectural fantasist A.G. Rizzoli, whose work, stored in the rafters of an old garage, she literally rescued from oblivion.  Rizzoli worked for a San Francisco architectural firm, and in his spare time developed an incredible fantasy world where he depicted his friends and neighbors as buildings and monuments, all rendered in meticulous detail. His great works really belong in museums where his astonishingly inventive fantasies and beautiful draftsmanship can be appreciated by a wider audience.  However, the little renderings--a single unit and a block of proposed flats in the Marina, a hospital complex in Marin County--were things he did for his employer in the early Thirties, and have all the charm of a minor drawing by a Robert Adam or a Kem Weber rendering.  And they didn’t even require a Rothschild pocket-book, tho unfortunately I had already spent my budget for architectural drawings for the year...

I do vividly remember that Tony Hail always said that with antiques the time to buy something is when you see it, because you might never see it again.  In this--as in so many other things--he was quite correct.  Hail was to the decorating world what Ed Hardy, Therien & Company, Norman Sheppard, and Evelyn Conquret were to the Antiques world--all great irreplaceable treasures who leave permanent gaps in the landscape.

Of course, as we know, nothing is forever.  When I first started my career, most of the great shops were located in Jackson Square, and the design showrooms were all cozily housed in the old Ice House complex north of Broadway and the financial district.  Over time, in response to increasing property values and the need for more space, the showroom district shifted to the (then) undeveloped south of Market Street area, and eventually many of the great antiques shops followed suit.

Then there are always the inevitable changes in fortune (like economic downturns) and surprise developments like the Internet.  I mean, who would have thought 20 years ago that the solution to virtually every problem would be to look it up on something called Google?  Not that it always works, mind you--I mean, try finding information about the General Electric House of Tomorrow built in the Berkeley Hills in the 1930s...  But that’s why some of still have libraries.

the tomorrow that never was...

On the subject of change, an interesting recent phenomena has been the opening of two huge, retail showrooms in the very heart (as opposed to on the mere periphery) of what has traditionally been the wholesale design district.  One is a flagship store of the enormously successful Restoration Hardware.  This is housed in a fabulous Tuscan-style edifice, built by, and formerly housing the shop of Ed Hardy, the aformented grand, Internationally known S.F. antiques dealer.  Ed closed his business about two years ago citing how the internet has changed the world of dealing and collecting, observing that people now shop price first, with quality--always his stock in trade--running a distant second.  

At Restoration, everything is over over-scale and enormously heavy, based on antique models but all brand spanking new.  12 foot linen upholstered sofas and glittering nickel-plated klieg lights, vast antique maps and retro bath fixtures (think more glittering nickel) on marble slab consoles, and massive wooden cabinets with iron hinges.  Ed's beautiful beige interior with the antique pine moldings, and his faded Venetian pink exterior have been relentlessly painted the color of wet cement, with not even a touch of gilding to enliven things, and the look is more than a bit somber.  Indeed, I found it quite oppressive.  I also find it somewhat puzzling as regards which customer base has the enormous spaces required to house all this over-scale.
The other shop is called COUP (as in coup d'etat) and features a mix of repurposed industrial cast-offs, quirky antiques, and just plain bizarre stuff.  Their offerings are housed in a space done in raw cement blocks, with salvaged pine plank floors, the interior again painted a very dark gray and lit by dim, turn-of-the-century style, exposed filament bulbs.  Both shops are very stylish, but intensely brooding, again more than almost to the point of being oppressive.  Even younger eyes than mine must have trouble reading the tags in the gloom, tho when you do manage to read them they are kind of staggering.  

the Industrial Salvage equivalent of
the Adam knife urn
(you definitely have to float a loan for these...)
I'm not quite sure who is paying $6000. for a bank of old military lockers, tho they are admittedly the best damn looking beat up old lockers you have ever seen.  It's definitely a look for the young, living in vast industrial lofts (purpose built as the majority of them now are) and possessed of both deep pockets and strong backs.  (All that industrial chic weighs a TON.)  I must say I found Coup fascinating and singularly attractive, but I walked out into the fall sunshine with a genuine sense of relief.  I did covet the pair of benches with hocked legs ending in hooves (so ‘Bill Blass in the country’), and I would love to build a patio around one of those big, cast iron baskets, repurposed as a fire pit--so the mise-en-scene at Coup did stir my imagination.  

However, afterwards I had to go to Cowtan & Tout and look at the Colefax and Fowler silks, in pale ashes of lilac and aqua green, embroidered with flowers in glowing colours, to shake off the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world feeling that all that atmospheric gloom had engendered.

Mind you, I LIKE dark colors, particularly grays and black, but from long experience I know that they absolutely have to be enlivened in some way, either with  color or flashes of gilt or something.  I also know from experience that Battleship gray is an extremely difficult colour to live with.

My own living and dining room have been gray for over 20 years, but it is a pale French gray with lots of violet in it which gives it enormous life.  The color was inspired by reading John Fowler’s comments on the differences between 18th and 19th century grays, and the color was matched to the French gray faille (bought from the much lamented showroom of Judith Kindler) I used to upholster the sofa.  The gray walls and sofa give a sense of unity to what is a relatively small room, but there are also gilt-framed mirrors, and lots of art (most of it unfashionably figurative); and the heart of the room is my Mother’s favorite Art Deco Chinese rug, depicting a lilly pond rendered in the most vivid Ballet Russe colorings.  The floor is close-carpeted in a tightly woven Wilton (gray) and the rug absolutely sings against the pale, neutral back-ground.  The room is also very understated, a quality that always strikes me as being enormously attractive, and what’s more, eminently livable.

my Mother's antidote to gloom

Anyway, I’m thinking of welding myself a Christmas tree out of rebar, which I will decorate with vintage light sockets bearing exposed filament bulbs, and old copper toilet floats covered in verdigris, and I will probably hang the Puiforcat silver flatware on it for extra sparkle.  It will of course stand in front of the Coromandel lacquer screen flanked by Regency perfume burners, and under it will be a pair of Retour d’Egypt candlesticks from Eve Stone, a fabulous gilt wall bracket and some rolls of hand-painted 18th century Chinese wall-paper from Ed Hardy, and of course an A.G. Rizzoli water-color.

However, I draw the line at painting my walls the color of wet cement.  Period.

French gray--and no rebar
Thanks to Paul Ellerbeck of Henry Calvin Fabrics and Kaci Smith of Sloane/Miyasato for encouraging me to go exploring in the design district; and thanks to my old friend Collier Gwin of Foster/Gwin Antiques for the reminiscences of a vanished Jackson Square and recollections of many editions of the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


At long last the eagerly anticipated book about the decorating career of the fabled Syrie Maugham is out!  A triumph of scholarship, brilliantly researched and intelligently written by the designer and historian of the decorative arts, Pauline Metcalf, it takes a prominent and welcome place on the shelves of designers and design aficionados across the world.  One suspects there may have even been dancing in the streets the day the book was released--certainly on the Upper East and West Sides, and on the King’s Road and in Mayfair--tho in the Faubourgs St. Honoré and Germain the event was more likely greeted with cheek kissing and cries of “c’est formidable!”

And ‘formidable’ it is.

For years the only concentrated source of information about the fabled Mrs. Maugham and her work has been the slim, 78-page monograph by Richard K. Fisher, published in 1978.  It is a great treasure, as well as an enormously sought-after one, and a copy in good condition with dust wrapper can run upwards from $250.-  (I’ve seen them bring as much as $1200.- which works out to a cool $15.66 per page!)  The book is illustrated with fascinating period photographs, many provided by Millar & Harris and in 1978, previously unpublished.  In addition, the Fisher book was written while many of Mrs. Maugham’s friends and admirers (Sir Cecil Beaton, Christabel Aberconway, John Fowler, and the Countess of Rosse, just to name a few) were still alive, and the text draws on their living memories.

I first read the Fisher book in graduate school, and 10 year later, browsing through the library at my alma mater with friends who were design students there, discovered that it hadn’t been checked out even once in the interim!  I longed for it for years, but it was only with my introduction to the international community of booksellers on the internet that I managed to find my own copy, discovered on bookfinder and bought from a charming man deep in the English countryside.

Aside from the Fisher book, for many years one has had to content one’s self with the odd printed reference to the work of Mrs. Maugham:  Beverley Nichols’ slightly embroidered fantasias in THE SWEET AND TWENTIES; references in letters written by Noël Coward and others of her contemporaries; passages and photos in books regarding her work for such clients as Steven Tennant and the Harrison Williams’; quite a few lines in Martin Battersby’s THE DECORATIVE THIRTIES (the book that introduced many of us to the ’glamorous’ decade with which we became so enamored); and of course, Cecil Beaton’s oft-quoted encomiums to his friend and mentor in THE GLASS OF FASHION.

“White and off-white”
reproduced from Cecil Beaton’s

“With the strength of a typhoon she blew all colour before her.  
For the next decade Syrie Maugham bleached, pickled, or scraped every piece of furniture in sight.  
White sheepskin rugs were strewn on the eggshell-surfaced floors, huge white sofas were flanked with white crackled-paint tables, 
white peacock feathers were put in white vases against a white wall.”

Cecil Beaton

My suspicion is that it was THE GLASS OF FASHION that provided my first introduction to Syrie Maugham.  I was lucky enough to grow up in an age before libraries de-accessioned books on an assembly-line basis, and I was 11 or 12 when I stumbled across a copy on one of Mother’s and my semi-weekly trips to the downtown library.  Mother and I would rummage through the stacks, each pursuing our own interests (her’s were more “serious”, involving the likes of Hannah Arendt and Louis Mumford, while I was theater-mad and obsessed with “glamor‘) and then return home on the bus,  our arms laden with books.

Years later, when I started frequenting out-of-print book stores and fleshing out my Beaton collection, I recognized the illustrated end papers depicting “Black” Ascot, and remembered what an impact reading about the likes of Rita de Acosta Lydig, Mrs. Syrie Maugham, Coco Chanel, and Jean Michele Frank had on an impressionable mind, fixated on the idea of elegance.

Many of the people Beaton wrote about in his usual prescient way have continued to wield influence on our world long after their deaths, and Mrs. M. is high on that list.  One never knows where a reference will appear, either:   a pair of Syrie Maugham sofas, formerly the property of the actress Ina Claire, resurface to grace a famous Venetian palazzo; the Louis Bofferding’s and Todd Merrill's of this world offer amazing pieces with the Syrie Maugham provenance; and in this year’s edition of the San Francisco Decorator Showhouse, each looking smart as a band-box,  there were three luscious upholstered sofas designed by the late Michael Taylor heavily based on Syrie Maugham originals, the rights to which he owned.

Chandelier commissioned by Syrie Maugham
One of a pair from the he entry hall of Brook House
Lord and Lady Mountbatten’s London penthouse apartment
(collection of Lee Mindle)

The apogee of 1930s mirrored furniture
(offered by Todd Merrill, New York)
How satisfying to trace the line from Taylor, with his great sense of theater and his acknowledged admiration for Maugham, back to the lady herself and her brilliant and defining design work of the 1930s--work in which she seamlessly blended her own somewhat irreverent view of tradition and a particularly English take on Modernism.

The fascinating thing about English modernism is that it was an entity unto itself.  Obviously influenced by what was going on across the channel in France, but “quieter” and essentially conservative (sometimes even a bit stogy in a particularly delicious English sort of way), but eminently livable and with its own set of charms.  And in the vanguard were the rooms designed by Mrs. Maugham, rooms which were quintessentially modern, especially in terms of their use of color, their playfulness, and the freedom with with she mixed period furnishings (often updated in some way) with the best of contemporary design.

a Syrie Maugham assay in bleached mahogany
(I believe this piece was sold through the shop of Todd Merrill 
tho the photo was sent to me by a friend, without credit)

Of course, any decorator worth their salt knows that Syrie Maugham was famous for ”inventing” the all-white room, as well as for infamously bleaching and “pickling” antique furniture.  (Elsie de Wolfe acidly--and famously--remarked that one day her dear friend Syrie would be pickled in her own coffin).  Mrs. Maugham is also often remembered for the extraordinary upholstery work she specified.  No less than John Fowler maintained that she did the best upholstery in London, and to this day any society upholsterer worth his salt should be able to whip you up a Syrie Maugham sleigh bed without asking anything but whether you want the seams edged in single or double moss fringe.

Syrie Maugham cartonnier
from the estate of Diana Vreeland

If you want to see a pure Syrie Maugham bedroom, rent "The Divorce of Lady X" with Merle Oberon and Laurence Oliver. Binnie Barnes has a bedroom done all in pale blue slipper satin, with a Syrie Maugham bed and everything!  And it’s “simply divine!” (to use a favorite catch-phrase of the 20s).

I recently bought the photogravure of a picture from a Cecil Beaton fashion shoot done in the famous white drawing room, and was delighted to realize that the model was Cecil's sister Baba, and not Syrie's daughter Liza as I had always thought.  Mrs. Metcalf includes a fabulous two page spread of this photo in her book, mirrored screen and all, and it is a pip!  (Unfortunately the dress is not credited--tho it might well be Molyneux--but Baba wears it to perfection, as she does the obligatory diamond clip and the freight of diamond & emerald bracelets...)

Martin Battersby tells the story of how the long, narrow strips of mirror on the big screen were affixed with some sort of mastic that would soften in the heat of a party, and fall off to the danger of unsuspecting guests!  In light of subsequent world events one is tempted to say, “If only that had been the most dangerous thing about the 30s...”

Clearly Syrie Maugham deserves much wider attention as part of that pantheon of trailblazers who invented the way decorating is practiced to this very day, as she was not only an innovator but an important disseminator of ideas--and what is more, (because) her work remains both topical and influential more than 50 years after her death.  And now she has a new Champion who has done her proud in 299 beautifully written and printed pages!

Reading the book I was reminded of  a recent letter from my friend Johanna Spillman where she regrets that much contemporary design work lacks what she refers to as  “the originality that once was a bulwark of our industry”.  Of course Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe  et. al. practiced their art in the days before interior design had been transformed into an industry.  And while there are many benefits to the increased professionalism that exists today, the fact remains that the originality and ‘flair’ that are hall-marks of the great designers are not things that can actually be taught.  Mind you, these qualities can be encouraged (which is why access to museums and well-stocked libraries is so enormously important, and why a good design school education can be so helpful), but I believe they have to exist in embryo.  

Now-a-days everyone seems to be an Interior Designer, but the problem is that when everybody is a designer (or conversely, an artist), it waters down the concept.  Don’t get me wrong--I’m all for good design being made available to everyone.  That’s what all those Industrial Designers were striving for in the period between the wars, and also what is in back of the contemporary mania for designers of all stripes licensing their designs for production.  I also think that creative activity of all sorts should encouraged, because creative activity is life enhancing and (as Edith Wharton maintains in THE HOUSE IN GOOD TASTE) actually fosters intelligence.  But lets face it, wielding a brush does not make you a Sargent or a Tiepolo, nor does choosing paint colors and pretty fabrics make you a Mark Hampton or an Elsie de Wolfe.   

Now I realize that there are those who will argue with me and perhaps accuse me of elitist attitudes.  To whit, I would cite a recent conversation with an otherwise intelligent man who simply could not accept that there was such a thing as “good” or “bad” design, or even good or bad proportion, because to do so was being “judgmental”.  I asked him if he had ever heard of the golden mean, but naturally it was Greek to him.  I even suggested that I would rather see people enjoy their own taste, bad or good, ill-proportioned or exquisite, if they had actually arrived at it for themselves after having done a little exploration; but I opined that to do away with standards all-together under the guise of a mis-guided egalitarianism is not only a mistake, but is condescending as well.

Of course it is far easier to criticize than it is to create,  In this vein Betty Bacall once observed (in a letter to her friend Noël Coward) that for critics, criticizing was after all their only moment in the sun--a comment echoed by many creative people.  But talent is in its very essence elitist, even if the bearer of it remains humble.  And it must be hard to sit at the top of your profession and not succumb to at least a touch of arrogance (or what can be viewed as such).  Certainly it requires a huge single mindedness of purpose to maintain the clarity of one’s vision while wrestling with the difficulties of bringing a project to fruition; indeed, this is at the heart of the continual struggle involved in producing the sort of creative work one wishes to carry one’s imprimatur.  (Nicky Haslam once commented--referring to John Fowler, actually--that good designers have to be as tough as fighter pilots, insisting at all costs on what they know to be right, a comment which I think hits the mark.)

At any rate, the new Syrie Maugham book is a rare treat, both inspiring and thought-provoking--and yes, a little humbling, in the way that grand success and a degree of immortality often are.

Most definitely well worth the long, patient wait!  

Big bouquets of lilies--white of course, preferably arranged in the manner of Constance Spry in plaster vases by (or after) Jean Michele Frank--to both Mrs. Metcalf and to The ACANTHUS PRESS for a wonderful and long over-due achievement!  One suspects that Syrie Maugham would be very pleased, indeed.  

Oh, and I must say the bound-in white satin book-marker is a very nice touch.  So Syrie.

Somewhere in the South of France?  (Mrs. M--by Cecil)

(For anyone who is interested in back-ground, foreground, side-lights, etc. to this period and to the major & minor players, here is my “short list” of books:  

THE GLASS OF FASHION--Cecil Beaton (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London/Doubleday & Company, New York/1952)  Truly an education unto itself.  The American edition has drawings only, while the English edition features drawings AND photos, both.

THE WANDERING YEARS--Cecil Beaton (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London/Little, Brown & Company, New York/1961)  Beaton’s first volume of published journals, and an inspiring tale of self-invention. 

SYRIE MAUGHAM--Richard K. Fisher (Gerald Duckworth & Company, Ltd, London/1978)

THE DECORATIVE THIRTIES--Martin Battersby (Walker and Company, New York/1971)  The companion volume to his THE DECORATIVE TWENTIES, and still an important and reliable resource. 

SERIOUS PLEASURES--The Life of Steven Tennant--Philip Hoare (Hamish Hamilton. London/1990)  Contains a two-page spread of wonderful Beaton photos of the Syrie Maugham decors in their first (original) incarnation, with text references to Maugham and her client.

“Art Education and the Creative Process” (Transcript of a lecture delivered by Archibald MacLeish at the Museum of Modern Art. March 20, 1954)  Deals with the question of whether  creativity can actually be taught.

SOCIETY IN VOGUE--edited by Josephine Ross (The Vendome Press, New York/1992)  Contains an article on “Adaptable Rooms” written by Syrie Maugham, as well as several of the photographs reproduced in the Metcalf book.  On my bookshelves, it is companioned by THE TWENTIES IN VOGUE, THE THIRTIES IN VOGUE, and (you guessed it) THE FORTIES IN VOGUE.

THE SWEET AND TWENTIES--Beverley Nichols (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London/1958)  Unfortunately, one can never take Nichols completely at face value since, much like Mrs. Vreeland, he tends to embroider and “improve” his history at the expense of the truth.  This perhaps makes for more amusing stories, but it is not exactly an aid to scholarship.  (See Dorothy L. Sayers BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON for related arguments.)

THE HOUSE IN GOOD TASTE--Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr. (Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York/1902)   More than 100 years after it was written, the ideas behind the advice are still relevant and thought-provoking.