Riviera Dreaming

By Maureen Emerson

Riviera Dreaming is the story of the American architect Barry Dierks, his English partner Eric Sawyer, and the stunning houses and gardens they designed on the French Riviera during the 1920s and 1930s, for those who could afford them.


From their own home built into the red rocks of the Estérel mountains and above the Mediterranean, Barry as the architect in the partnership, with Eric as garden designer and business manager, built or remodelled almost 100 houses in the south of France.


These were occupied by Americans, British and French, many of whom have their own fascinating stories. Handsome and sociable, Barry and Eric were ‘the two charmers’ of the Riviera social scene in the years of après guerre and avant guerre, indeed leading a charmed life until the Second World War changed everything and revealed their determination and courage in their respective adventures

Barry Dierks

Chapter Synopsises

A Little From a Summons from Somerset Maugham

The Riviera Embraces Modernism

The Mill House in the Hills, 1938

A Little From a Summons from Somerset Maugham


The Paris Herald, the forerunner of the Herald Tribune, declared ‘the twenties were an era of wonderful nonsense’. Small wonder, as there was so much to try to forget, if even for a short space of time. During the Great War the area had become a vast hospital and convalescent home for the wounded and was now slowly beginning to return to a semblance of its former self. But gradually the old life of catering to privileged visitors returned, although in an increasingly different form. Suddenly everything seemed possible. Moving pictures, wonderfully designed automobiles, new music, liberating fashions, were all exhilarating. By the time the American architect Barry Dierks and Eric Sawyer, his partner in business and life, left Paris and built their iconic house on the red rocks of the Esterel in 1925, the towns along the coast were alive with a fevered post-war excitement. Among the palm trees, oleander and bougainvillea the belle époque, characterised by its ornate architecture and amply dressed winter visitors, was over. Barry at twenty-six and Eric, ten years older, were about to make an enduring architectural influence on the Riviera.


Whereas in the chic towns of Cannes, Nice and Menton, the British and Russian aristocracy had formally held sway, the 1920s was the era of the Americans. The Gerald Murphys at the Cap d’Antibes, the Scott Fitzgeralds, the barefoot dancer Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker ‘the Black Pearl’ cabaret artist, Frank Jay Gould who created Juan-les-Pins as a new, informal holiday resort – the list could go on.


Before Barry Dierks could embark on his ground breaking modernist designs for those clients who were open to such new ideas, he was more than grateful, also in 1925, to receive a commission to remodel an existing house for a name soon to be reckoned with on the coast – the author Somerset Maugham. Maugham had bought a run-down house on Cap Ferrat, once owned by the confessor of King Leopold II, tyrant of the Belgian Congo. Dierks redesigned the overtly Moorish-style house into a fined-down version. While Maugham lived at the Villa Lawrence on the ramparts at Antibes, Barry swept away the façade, creating a two-story house of clean lines designed around a central courtyard open to the sky, where one would be able to dine al fresco under the stars. Around the courtyard ran two galleries with French windows giving onto balconies. Barry’s lovely white vaulted ceiling graced the entrance hall, suspended above black marble floor tiles. From here a curved marble staircase led up to five bedrooms with large multi-paned windows, and four bathrooms. Downstairs were two further bedrooms and another bathroom. Inside the twelve meter long, high-ceilinged drawing room was installed a large fireplace of Arles stone. A staircase tower, with a roof of Roman tiles, was built into the side of the building, housing a round dining room and service rooms. Such towers fell far short of modernism so in incorporating them Barry may have considered they enhanced certain buildings, or he may have simply bowed to the wishes of his clients – for this would not be the only one he would include in his designs. Extending from the tower was a flat roof, upon which was built Maugham’s very private writing room, plain and rectangular, whose only access was by a wooden staircase. All was white and cool apart from the black tiles of the entrance hall.

Eric designed an enchanting garden full of fruit trees and oleanders. Although Maugham himself was proud of his hard-to-maintain lawns, Barry and Eric would lure expatriate clients away from expanses of grass to embrace elegantly designed swimming pools. Maugham’s was large and set into a terrace at the top of the garden. They were the first to launch the craze for garden pools. On the wall at the entrance to the property was a sign, created by Maugham and based on a Moorish symbol designed to ward off the evil eye. A sign also printed in the first edition of many of his books.


For the rest of his life, punctuated by a second world war and much travelling, Cap Ferrat became Maugham’s only home. Not universally liked but much sought-after, he settled down to hold court at La Mauresque. Invitations were received gladly, although situations could occasionally become rather tense. But as long as guests behaved comme il faut and didn’t irritate their host, visits were enjoyed and most left hoping to be invited again. So who were his neighbours in the great houses on the Cap during those years of the 1920s? Among them was Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, who had the villa Les Bruyéres on the same road as La Mauresque. A widower and President of the Boy Scouts Association he was held in high esteem by all who knew him. Accompanied by his mistress Leonie Leslie, the sister of Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny Jerome, the Duke would occasionally dine at La Mauresque.


Others were Therese de Beauchamp who built her Italianate Villa Fiorentina in 1917 on the point of the Cap St Hospice at Cap Ferrat. At the beginning of the 1920s, before going on to buy La Leopolda at Villefranche, she sold Fiorentina to an Australian, Sir Edmund Davis, a mining millionaire and art collector. It is Davis whom one must thank for creating much of the littoral path around Cap Ferrat, which walk gives pleasure to so many people. Davis was also the owner of Chilham Castle in Kent. At the Venetian-style Château St Jean at the entry to St Hospice Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, an acclaimed artist and an Hungarian princess, took long walks with her lion cub Goldfleck. At the Villa Maryland the British ship owner Arthur Stanley Wilson, of the Wilson Line Shipping Company, held grand receptions among whose guests were Winston Churchill, that devotee of the great houses of the Riviera.


Commissions for remodelling of other Riviera houses came hot on the heels of La Mauresque, but it was not until the beginning of the 1930s that Barry’s talent for the pure white, flat-roofed, symmetrical or sinuous creations, so admired by architects today, was allowed to develop fully.


Copyright © Maureen Emerson


Photo by Ted Jones - The Literary Riviera