Risk Boldly, Charge Appropriately

Shortly after her 42nd birthday, another broken marriage and scandal, fate was finally kind to Syrie Maugham. She credits her daughter as the creative impetus for her decorating career. “I began it all in Liza’s nursery when she was a baby girl. I had plenty of time on my hands and I just began to play about with colors and designs for the house.” When a friend of Syrie’s was about to throw away a large group of fluted wrought iron garden furniture, she rubbed it down, painted it white and sold it for a huge profit. Other small jobs followed and eventually she opened a small shop at 85 Baker Street in London getting the bulk of her inventory and capital from the sale of her home, along with small loans from friends.

Her friend Elsie de Wolfe said, “You’re much too late, my dear. Much too late. The decorating field is already overcrowded.”

But Syrie had just arrived.

In 1927, she presented her all white room at a midnight party at 213 King’s Road for the most fashionable and stylish guest of the day. Harper’s Bazaar devoted an article to her house, describing the music room as having white walls, white satin slip covers, white velvet lampshades and a pair of white porcelain camellia trees four feet high. The dining room’s pine paneling had been striped and waxed, providing a background for rock crystal white painted chairs.

She even went to the extreme of having her living room canvas draperies dipped in white cement and filled the room with massive flower arrangement of all-white flowers: lilies, stock, gardenias and chrysanthemums. It was a totally impractical design yet theatrically dramatic. That night, Syrie became known as the White Lady. By 1930 she had design shops in London, Chicago and New York and her style was copied everywhere, including on the Hollywood screen in Jean Harlow’s boudoir.


Syrie’s all-white living room, via Vogue Daily.

Syrie had a flair for decorating, but her real genius was her ability to market her designs. She used every social contact and social encounter, especially her infamous dinner parties, to create a glamorous mystique around her profession. She did not invent the all-white room, but she was the first person to market this idea so successfully that it became her signature. Where others just used white, Syrie used parchment, ivory, oyster and pearl.

“If she bought a thing from us for say seventy pounds, she’d probably charge seven hundred for it,” wrote Victor Afia who worked with her in the early twenties. “But she was clever, she knew that she could get away with it. After all it wasn’t the stuff so much as her talent she was charging for…”

And the moral of the story is, take your inspiration from Syrie.

Start telling the story of what you do in the way only you can. Ignore the noise and opinions of those who tell you it can’t be done. Push your creative vision to the edge. Risk boldly. Charge appropriately.

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