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Before There Were "Million Dollar Decorators"

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Pauline C. Metcalf speak about the legendary designer, Syrie Maugham. Pauline authored the 2010 tome, Syrie Maugham: Staging the Glamorous Interior. Along with Elsie de Wolfe, Sister Parrish and Dorothy Draper, Syrie was one of the grand dames of interior design. She is most credited with originating the all white interior. But I propose that her legacy also includes some less than honorable business practices, the same that tarnish the interior design profession today.

First, let's acknowledge Syrie for the things she did that revolutionized design. When Syrie started her solo design career in 1922, Art Nouveau was on the wane and a new modernist style, inaugurated by the Weiner Werkstatte and Bauhaus was taking fold. The serious dark oak furniture and serpentine forms that characterized Art Nouveau did not suit the opulence and glamour of the embryonic Art Deco style. So, when Syrie debuted her all white living room in her King's Road London flat, with its mirrored screens, chevron sculpted carpet and lawson-style sofa, it was quite revolutionary.

                       

                                                                                         Image via Vogue Daily

Syrie also popularized what we now refer to as "eclectic" style: combining furniture of different periods, including antiques with modern forms. She could make a piece of furniture suit any decor by cutting it, stripping it, painting it, lacquering it, pickling it or craqueling it, often without regard to its intrinsic value and provenance as an antique.

Finally, Syrie adopted a signature upholstery style, a softened version of Victorian tufted upholstery, characterized by waterfall skirts with inverted, buttoned pleats. This style is still quite popular, and it's not uncommon to hear something described as "Syrie Maugham style."

                               

                                                                          Syrie Maugham Sofa by Michael Taylor Designs

So what do we know about Syrie Maugham, the business person? That she passed along fakes as antiques. That her fees were high and set at what she could get away with. That her attitude . . . well, this might sum it up: She once told a client, "If you don’t have ten thousand dollars to spend, I don’t want to waste my time.” (Note: $10,000 then is approximately $135,000-$160,000 today).

When I heard this, I couldn't help but think how we must still work to convince clients of our honesty and integrity. On the other hand, I couldn't help but think how there are designers who still operate this way. Can you think of anyone in particular?