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 The book is illustrated with fascinating period photographs, many provided by Millar & Harris and in 1978, previously unpublished.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.