While previous interior decorators dabbled in it, Syrie Maugham (1879-1955) shot into prominence and ensured a place in design history with her all-or-nothing approach to the all white room. Applying her lively and adventurous vision to gallons of pale paint, bleached and pickled furniture, yards of snowy fabrics and all-white flower arrangements, Maugham’s drawing room in her townhouse at 213 King’s Road, London became the prototype for a style that would later be endlessly reinterpreted, copied, and paid homage to. Indeed, anyone who ever saw that room never forgot it. During the 1920s and 1930s, the rooms of the rich and famous were darkly paneled and furnished, a legacy of the Victorian era. Tassels and tapestries abounded. Maugham transformed all that, bringing a change to public consciousness that has never entirely faded from view. Vogue magazine once wrote that Maugham had “apprehended the sweet uses of light and white.”
Maugham’s 1927 London drawing room. Photo, Vogue magazine, 1932
Born in 1879 to a wealthy London couple (father Thomas Barnardo was founder of a famous children’s charity), Syrie ever knew her own mind. Offering her services, gratis, to Thornton-Smith Ltd. in 1910, she received in turn an education in interior decoration which included furniture restoration, upholstery, curtain design and trompe-l’oeil painting. An unorthodox move, to be sure –especially at the time—and one which induced gossip and upheaval among her social circle, which included Cecil Beaton and Mona von Bismarck. Maugham’s determination did not waver. Indeed, she became famous for being a rule-breaker, an arbiter of taste. Even though she came of age in the Victorian era during which opportunities (other than those brought by a good marriage) for bright young women were rare, Maugham created an independent life for herself. Having endured two disappointing marriages, at age 22 to fabulously rich American-born pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, 27 years her senior, and later to writer Somerset Maugham, a closeted gay man with whom she had a daughter, Syrie was a boldly modern woman.
William Somerset and Syrie Maugham, 1929
By 1922 Maugham borrowed £400 and opened her first store at 85 Baker Street in London, aptly named Syrie Ltd. An eclectic mix of French fabrics, rock crystal ornaments, Chinese paintings, avant-garde rugs and Regency furniture were included in its offerings. Soon she acquired clients in New York, Chicago, Palm Beach and California. Although dubbed “The White Queen” she only employed the all-white look once–in her own drawing room. She did employ other palettes, for example, all blue, in a seaside home. White-walled rooms that were almost bare of ornament, jewel-toned pillows and furnishings and Schiaparelli pink accents were tools in her palette. The combination of traditional furniture with exotic accents and modern pieces became known as “Vogue Regency”. By the end of the 1920s her clients included Noel Coward, Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales.
Key to Maugham’s success was her unorthodox approach to antique furniture: instead of reverence, she deconstructed its preciosity: stripping, pickling, bleaching, crackling and painting were part of her repertoire. Cracks and wood grain became visible, integral to the piece’s new appeal. But austere her approach was not. Narrow-mirrored panes in chrome-plated frames, plump and comfortable tailored cream velvet sofas, bullion fringe, indirect lighting and decorative plaster work, fringed sleigh beds and fur carpets were all touches that brought softness to her spaces. Her aesthetic traveled far afield, influencing taste makers Babe Paley in New York, Jean Harlow in Hollywood and Coco Chanel in Paris, and even extends into the present: in 2017 Karl Lagerfeld used references to Maugham’s ideas such as mirrors and calla lilies as part of his Chanel couture show.
Jean Harlow, in Dinner at Eight
Breakfront by Syrie Maugham. Courtesy Todd Merrill Antiques
In 1939 Maugham closed up shop and moved to Paris. Due to the encroaching war, she fled to New York with her daughter and grandchildren, where she became involved in relief efforts. She completed several more commissions after the war, including ones for clients Bunny Mellon and Lila de Witt Wallace, but by then her popularity had waned. Syrie Maugham died in 1955 at the age of 77. Her enduring legacy has been championed by such designers as Albert Hadley and Mark Hampton.