Decorator to the stars Martyn Lawrence Bullard on making small look big
A really good interior is something that's curated and makes a cultured blend of things, says the interior designer and reality TV celebrity
Martyn Lawrence Bullard's 250-page glossy interior design tome, Live, Love and Decorate, with a foreword by singer Elton John, provides a peek into the domestic lifestyle of the rich and famous.
It features the glitzy homes of celebrities such as singer Cher and former Jimmy Choo chief executive Tamara Mellon, as well as the tastefully appointed homes of Hollywood stars Edward Norton and William H. Macy. Bullard has also created earthy and stylish mansions for singer Kid Rock, actress Pamela Anderson and Ozzy Osbourne.
"Most of my clients end up becoming friends - it's about having a connection. You have to have a connection with your client from the start, to get a good result," says Bullard, who was in Hong Kong recently.
"If the feeling isn't there, I don't think you can understand each other and create a beautiful space. I don't have a signature in my design style. I want my design style to be your design style. I want it to be what you love because I'm decorating for you. So it's really about understanding your clients, you have to get into their heads, work out their design dreams and become the implementer; make it happen."
The debonair British-born designer, with his signature tucked scarves, manicured salt-and-pepper stubble and designer jackets, is a celebrity in his own right (Bullard is part of the cast of US reality TV shows Million Dollar Decorators and Hollywood Me) catering to wealthy clients with velvet-gloved ease and brass-knuckled get-the-job-done spirit.
The decorator to the stars didn't aspire to or study for the role he now performs. He went to Hollywood 23 years ago for the same reason millions of others do - in the hope of becoming a star. "I was going to follow my father's footsteps - he had been an actor and an opera singer - so I put myself through drama school, buying and selling antiques and objects on the side, for theatre stage sets. Then I thought, right, I'm going to go to Hollywood and become a movie star. So I moved to Hollywood … I didn't become a superstar. I sort of flailed around, trying to get bit parts here and there, and eventually I got cast in a movie - a very small part, but it was ever so meaningful at the time."
I proffer the old adage that there are no small parts, just small actors. "Well, I was a very small actor then, my dear," he says with a notable English accent he's not shaken off despite living in LA for more than two decades.
"I became friends with the producer and his girlfriend (I think she was, at the time) and they ended up coming to my little flat one night. They loved what I had done. I didn't have any money then, so when they asked me to do their house - of course, I said yes. It was kind of a Casablanca, Moroccan vibe."
It's a vibe that he continues to spread with his homes dotted with 18th century Tibetan monk sculptures, antique French apothecary jars, mother-of-pearl inlaid trays, garden sofas upholstered in Zanzibar from his fabric collection, glass lanterns from the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and Tibetan tapestries woven in pure gold thread.
But can most residents in Hong Kong, with flats the size of Eva Mendes' closet, relate to this?
"I love small spaces - there's something cosy and wonderful about them. One should never be restricted by space; it's all about dreaming big. Just because you have a small apartment doesn't mean you have to live in a white box with a couple of chairs. It's about being inventive."
And invention means bringing elements of the outside inside. "Colour is a really important tool and can turn a small space from a white box into an amazing jewel. I always tell people to experiment. It changes a space. A great trick with a small space is rather than just painting the walls, paint the whole thing. If you put [the same] colour on the ceiling and the walls, you create this extraordinary cocoon effect. It makes everything feel bigger."
Bullard says his work both for television and for international clients often takes him overseas, where he’s had the “pleasure of traversing hidden alleyways in astonishing places” in search of antiques.
"I've kind of got out of the tourist traps and discovered amazing new worlds. Little villages in Jaipur, off-the-beaten paths in Istanbul, deep in the arteries of Europe and Asia you find these little gems."
In Hong Kong, he found similar treasures in Hollywood Road.
"The antiques stores, those little streets with a fish market and then there was a trendy pop-up store, and then there was a deserted former restaurant I think where people were getting tattoos. It was mad but amazing. I mean, what a fabulous feel of life."
He was also struck by the city's mixture of very modern and ancient.
"Being in Hong Kong, I've seen everybody wants everything to be very new. There's no room for vintage here, it's all about brand new and sparkling. But the reality is a really good interior, or really good space, is something that's curated and makes a cultured blend of things. And I think more so than ever it's a blend of cultures that makes any space - a room, a house, a city, a country - interesting."