Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mad About Maugham

I just finished reading Syrie Maugham, Pauline Metcalf's new book on one of the twentieth century's most innovative designers. It was high time that Syrie got a book of her own. Actually, Richard Fisher wrote a book on Syrie back in the late 1970s, but that one is both hard to find and quite expensive. I had to resort to photocopying the Fisher book at my neighborhood library. At least I own Metcalf's book.

Like so many of the Acanthus Press books that I've read, Syrie Maugham is very much a catalogue raisonne of the decorator's work through the decades. There were some Maugham rooms that I was familiar with, but many were new to me too. Of course, Maugham's famous Kings Road all-white drawing room is featured in the book (it's on the cover, too); after all, this was the room that got Maugham noticed by the press and the public on both sides of the Atlantic. But what many people don't realize is that Maugham also used color- vivid color- in much of her work, and this is a point that Metcalf drives home with such examples as the living room of Ina and William Wallace and even Maugham's later residence at Chesham Place. In addition to color, other Maugham hallmarks include tufted upholstery (Syrie never overlooked comfort), sleigh beds, mirrored screens, fringe, and fabulous window pelmets, all of which are seen throughout the book.

Another interesting point made by Metcalf is that at times, Maugham's work "overlapped" with that of Elsie de Wolfe, Frances Elkins (someone with whom Maugham occasionally collaborated), and even Dorothy Draper. Look at photos of all four designers' work and you'll see the influence that each one had on the other.

I know that there are those of us who are fascinated by the history of design and those who are only interested in photographs of gorgeous rooms. No matter which camp you're in, I think this book will be well received by both. After reading it, you'll realize that Syrie Maugham was not just a one trick pony. Although she'll be best remembered for that white room and pickled furniture, she did so much more than that. Thanks to Metcalf for showing us that.

The famous all-white party room at Maugham's Kings Road home c. 1932. Once this look ran its course, Maugham was smart enough to go in a different direction and decorate her home in a whole new way:

Vogue Regency in the Entrance Hall at Chesham Place, Maugham's address from 1937 to 1939. If I didn't know better, I might think that this space was decorated by Dorothy Draper.

Rose wallpaper struck a colorful note in the entrance hall at yet another Maugham home, this one at 24 Park Lane.

And one more example of rich color, this time in the living room of William Wallace and his wife, actress Ina Claire. This space dates to the early 1940s.

I find this Maugham decorated drawing room so charming, and I just had to include it because this home belonged to Lady Rose Leveson-Gower and her husband; she was the older sister to the late Queen Mum.

The Manhattan apartment of Grace and Harry Payne Bingham. If only I had traditional windows in my apartment, I would copy that pelmet in a heartbeat.

(All images courtesy of Syrie Maugham by Pauline C. Metcalf, Acanthus Press publishers.)


  1. John J Tackett8:31 AM

    So many are not aware of Syrie Maugham's decorating range and the extent of her decorating influence. I hope there is at least a bit on her very colorful personal life as well. I am really looking forward to Ms Mercalfe's book!

  2. I love Miss Maugham's design style. She was a rascal by all accounts and she and her husband hated each other! Now that makes for good design...and doing exactly as you see fit!

  3. I can't wait to see this book! I own a dramatic over-mantel mirror with blue mirrored border and silver leaf frame attributed to Syrie and I've never been able to confirm its' provenance. Syries' documented work is tough to find. I'm in the midst of reading The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings and I highly recommend it...not a very flattering portrait of Mrs. Maugham I might add! Thanks for the heads up on this new book!

  4. There is a section of the book that is purely biographical, and that's most interesting.

    Roy, your mirror must be stunning!!

  5. So jealous you already have your copy - am awaiting mine! She was definitely a force and way ahead of her time in every way!

  6. And add "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" by Selina Hastings to your reading list. It was recently published and is truly wonderful.

    A "laugh out loud" classic with which many of your devoted readers will be familiar is "Little Me" by Patrick Dennis.At one point in the "autobiography" its delusional, grasping, off kilter, off base "authoress" describes how, during her brief marriage into the English aristocracy, she hired Syrie Maugham to strip, pickle and paint white her husbands patrimony of museum quality Chippendale and Boulle furniture. It is interesting to me that at the time "Little Me" was written, Syrie Maugham had become something of an inside joke, remembered more for her depredation of antique furniture than for her truly excellent, cutting edge taste.It's nice that this new volume has done much to straighten the record.

  7. This looks like a very interesting tome to read...I love the different design looks and like the charming room with all the chairs...note the blue room also had very blue curtains, I sort of like the way the curtains match the wall color, it gives the room a striking appearance.

  8. I enjoy reading your blog, it's always keeping me on my toes, learning something new!
    Not having grown up in English speaking territory I see how many things I can still learn!
    Thank you for enlightening me!

  9. I'm looking forward to getting this book, and meeting Ms. Metcalfe at the book-signing party I'm attending this week. And yes, I echo Magnus' recommendations--both of them. Reggie

  10. I pre-ordered it the minute I heard about it. I have always been a huge fan of Syrie Maugham. Can't wait to find time to fully dive in.

    Thanks for the preview