amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: syrie maugham

by Amy Azzarito

Image above: Illustration by Julia Rothman, inspired by a 1920s photo of Syrie Maugham

Syrie Maugham was the leading British interior decorator of the 1920s and ’30s, and yet she didn’t even launch her business until she was 42, a detail that I find inspiring. (My favorite late-life starter was Julia Child, who didn’t even enter cooking school until she was 37! Proof that you don’t have to have everything figured out by your 30th birthday.) Like many artists and designers, Syrie recognized that her own home had the potential to be her greatest advertisement. And after six years in the design business, Syrie made the biggest splash of her career by hosting a midnight party at her London home, where she unveiled her all-white living room decked out with white lilies, mirrors and glass — and everything glittering in candlelight. After we delve into the history of Syrie, I’ll present my own little all-white round-up in her honor!

Image above: Gertrude Lawrence in Syrie’s shop from Syrie Maugham

I first discovered Syrie only in relation to the great British novelist, playwright and poet Somerset Maugham — the two married in 1917. It was Syrie’s second marriage, and it became an extremely unhappy one. Maugham was in love with an American man, Gerald Haxton (fully known to Syrie), and the couple spent much of the marriage apart, finally divorcing in 1929. Perhaps to fill the long days, Syrie became interested in design and opened a shop. Her prices were extremely high — she charged whatever she could get away with — but the location was perfect and her style seemed new and innovative. The venture was a success, and Syrie began to get requests for full-room designs.

Image above: Syrie’s all-white London living room via Vogue Daily

Syrie is often credited with being the first designer to use all white, and while that isn’t entirely accurate, she certainly did her part to make it extremely fashionable in the ’20s and ’30s. Syrie’s all-white rooms were never stark white — she loved to play with shades of white and mix in pale greens, peaches and blues. She also loved to modify pieces and would strip, paint, pickle or crackle everything she could get her hands on; even the most precious of antiques were made to conform to her decor scheme. Her favorite pieces were French provincial antiques, and once any dark wood or paint was lightened or removed, they became the perfect complements to her rooms in shades of white.

CLICK HERE for more Syrie Maugham + an all-white round-up!

Image above: Breakfront designed by Syrie from Todd Merrill Antiques

The all-white room hit an apex in 1932 but by 1934, it had already gone out of fashion. Somerset Maugham attributed the end of the white craze to “when people discovered that white became grubby and the house had to be redecorated.”


Syrie designed rooms for Noel Coward, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but one of her most glamorous spaces was created for poet Stephen Tennant, one of the most glittering Bright Young Things of the ’20s. Say what you will about the excessive use of satin — this was one decadent space. Stephen became reclusive and apparently spent much of the last 17 years of his life in bed at the family manor. Confession: I usually write from bed, so I find this perfectly acceptable. And I think Syrie, who also worked from bed in the morning, would have felt the same way.

Books to Read

Syrie was known for her signature all-white rooms. If you’re looking for inspiration for your own white rooms, don’t miss the Best of White Living Rooms from the Sneak Peek archives. And here are a few of my favorite white accessories:

Image above: 1. Hanging Test Tube Vases, $36; 2. Pigeon Light, $114; 3. Material Good Little Shirley in Rainier White, $20; 4. Heart Mug by Reiko Keneko, $24 (see Reiko Kaneko’s sneak peek!); 5. Ivory Flower Pot, $22; 6. Java Cream and Sugar Bowl, $24; 7. Small Peach Paper Bowl, $18; 8. Binchotan Toothbrush, $6

Image above: 1. Farmers’ Market Baskets, $20–38; 2. Letter Boxes (A–Z), $15 ea.; 3. Star Sticky Notes, $3.50; 4. Feather Pen, $65; 5. Raven with Wire, $33 (Clothes hanger! Love this!); 6. Ritz Alarm Clock, $99; 7. Petra Lamp, $99; 8. Ceramic Olive Oil Bottle, $32; 9. Spoon Mug, $3.95; 10. Tourne Serving Bowl, $55

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  • Fascinating post! I hadn’t heard of Syrie before, what an interesting lady! How timely this post is for me…I’m starting a History of Decorative Arts class tonight!

  • From Maugham a biography:
    “…glad to have escaped from France, Maugham settled into a suite @ the Dorchester Hotel. One day he ran into Syrie ( his ex wife) in the lobby. About to leave for America, in an effort to enlist his sympathy ” oh Willie, I know I shall be torpedoed”! Then said Willie, ” I have only one piece of advice to offer you, keep your mouth open & you will drown the sooner.”
    Luckily for both she found a rewarding outlet with interior design & he continued to write instead of a carreer in medecine pursuant to his early,university studies.
    It appears there was no love lost between them, either that or he was exceedingly satirical or both.

  • I didn’t know about Syrie, your post is so interesting.
    Very nice the white selection too, I especially love the pidgeon lamp, so funny

  • Thank you for this humorous and well written post. I had to laugh though at your line about not figuring everything out by age 30. My role model is Grandma Moses who didn’t figure anything out until age 70. That’s my goal.

  • Love it! Life is change and it is exciting to know that you can do whatever you want if you want it!

    All of those rooms are so glamorous. Makes me want to live in a 1920’s movie set ;)


  • It’s so funny to discover this lady. My name is Siri and i have decorated my home all white! Glad I ran across this.