An Evolution of Style: Legendary Ladies

Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham, and Rose Cumming

sc00095d4dRose Cumming’s bedroom by Jeremiah Goodman


Back when our profession didn’t officially exist three vivacious ladies broke ground each in their own right and made design history – legendary ladies indeed!

They rebelled against the stodgy, old fogey and overstuffed interiors of the late 19th century and cleared out the overwrought – in favor of a light, feminine approach to interiors.  Each brought a signature philosophy to decorating and would stand their ground to fight for what they believed in.  They were in no way push overs and were committed to their visions of how best to live and entertain.  As arbiters of style, each reigned supreme in splendor and élan.

tumblr_mfcmto8Imx1qzn0deo1_1280Villa Trianon, Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie de Wolfe loathed the blah, heavy Victorian melange of dark woods, fussy fabrics and window treatments.  She espoused light, delicate French furniture, floral chintzes and painted finishes.  Her rooms were like her personality – glamorous and sophisticated.  Her associations through Stanford White, Henry Frick and the like elevated her to a stature probably never before seen for a woman.  Her international status also beckoned her to great success and notoriety on both continents.  She became a bon vivant – a celebrated lady of society who happened to also be a great decorator.  She was brazen and strong-willed – no shrinking violet!

It was she who discovered Tony Duquette in 1941, advising him: “You work for who you see, you are in a luxury business, no point living like a starving artist in a garret.  Nobody is going to hire you if you live worse than they do!”

During her career she published a number of books, the first in 1913, ‘The House In Good Taste in which she applauds the principles of harmony, proportion, and simplicity.

There is a Pinterest board for each of the ladies.  Here is the link to de Wolfe’s board.


2talk-maugham-tmagArticleSyrie Maugham

Syrie Maugham took the notion of white to the limit, though she never produced an all white room but for herself.  She also made mirrors her trademark by which her rooms were transformed into kaleidoscopic wonderment.  Her look was chic and urbane.  She embraced the moderne vernacular and mixed it freely with the 18th and 19th century styles.  Syrie was not afraid to use color and fanciful appointments throughout her work.  Plaster pieces were a favorite of hers as well.  She also popularized craquelure techinique, a painted finish.  Here is a capsulated video of her life and career for the viewing.

Unlike Elsie who was more formal in her approach, Syrie took more liberties and had more courage to be free and creative.  What she did have was great aplomb when it came to her work.  Like the others, she juggled a social calendar and career with ease and with success.  She too was  strong-minded and could be quite the snob but her highly charged creativity sparked many notable collaborations with the likes of Jean-Michel Frank, David Adler, Frances Elkins, Oliver Messel and Constance Spry.  And though she was based in London, she had made a celebrated name for herself here in America.

You can view her Pinterest board here.


rose cumming drawing roomRose Cumming’s own Living Room

Rose Cumming was probably the first to mingle different styles all together in one place.  She had a great deal of likes and wasn’t afraid to work with them all.  Her work was considered unforgettable in it’s beauty.  As she had many likes, she also had a great deal of dislikes.  In her eccentric manner she created some of the loveliest rooms imaginable full of flair and good humor.  She too was lauded as a grande dame and held court in her home and antique shop as celebrities would come to pay homage.

She was a nonconformist; never fearful of mixing the macabre with the sweet.  Her take on surrealism and drama made for sumptuous and tantalizing rooms.  Taking risks was the norm for her.  She was by far the most idiosyncratic of the three.  Rose had also designed a line of brilliantly colored chintz and silk fabrics which sadly has been diminished by a lack of appreciation in today’s marketplace.

You can view her Pinterest board here.

Did their bigger-than-life personalities factor into their successes?  I would have to say so.  Each was distinct, outspoken, and dedicated to their callings.  No one could forget them, and today they still command a high place in the evolution of style in interior design.

We are indebted to them for their contributions and legacies.  So many designers since have been greatly influenced by these three legends.  I can only hope that the new generations of designers will take a look back on their careers and be inspired by their talent and work ethic.

There is so much more that I could write about each of these ladies but I hope to leave you with the desire to find our more about them.  There have been a number of insightful books on their lives and decorating careers.

Do take the time to discover more about each of these remarkably, deliciously talented ladies.   You owe it to yourself to become inspired by their work.


Written by Carl Lana