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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

The man who designs for Cher, the Kardashians and other A-listers

Ahead of his keynote talk at Downtown Design next weekend, Martyn Lawrence Bullard talks about his A-list clients, why he loves a 'Morrocan moment' and why lessons learnt in a London market have held him in good stead over the years

Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Photo by Maria Mikulasova
Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Photo by Maria Mikulasova

It’s there in the arched window and graphic, monochromatic tilework of California’s Sands Hotel & Spa; and again in the powder room of actress Ellen Pompeo’s Hollywood home, which is clad in antique terracotta tiles and cabinetry crafted from mashrabiya panels sourced in Tangier. It’s in “the modern Moorish fantasy” that is Khloe Kardashian’s Calabasas base; and in the screening room of Mr and Mrs Tommy Hilfiger’s Connecticut property, which features custom-made, red silk, Ottoman-style seating.

“I have always loved a little Moroccan moment, whether an inlaid table or a pierced lantern,” admits Martyn Lawrence Bullard, the British-born, Los Angeles-based interior designer behind all these projects. “I find these items create romance and exoticism. I love North African design elements, from the tiles to the colours and fabrics.”

Martyn Lawrence Bullard - The Sands - Lobby. Photo by Tim Street Porter
A "Moroccan moment" in the spa lobby at the Sands Hotel. Courtesy Tim Street Porter

He’s quick to clarify – these Moroccan touches are not his signature, per se. They are just one part of his eclectic, all-encompassing, worldly aesthetic. “Really, it’s more about a feeling than a place... design to me is a global experience. I am inspired by all design, periods and cultures.”

Bullard is also a great fan of fashion, although he admits that his laid-back LA look is perhaps more casual than that favoured in other cities around the world. “My uniform tends to be a black V-neck T-shirt, jeans or coloured cotton chinos, but always accessorised with cool sneakers, a belt and a watch from my collection. I often dress this look up with a great jacket or cashmere sweater.

“I do, however, look to fashion for colours and patterns. The looks on the runways will often translate into home fashions, and I love to decorate rooms in colours that my clients love to wear. If you look good in a certain colour when you wear it, you’re going to look even better in a room decorated in that colour.”

Proof of the interior designer’s versatility is perhaps best highlighted by the two very different homes that he designed for two Kardashian sisters with very different tastes.

When Kourtney acquired her 11,500-square-foot Tuscan-style property in Calabasas, California, a couple of years ago, she enlisted Bullard to help create a cosy but sophisticated family home that highlighted her penchant for classic 20th-century design pieces, from chairs by Pierre Jeanneret and Oscar Niemeyer, to a desk by Jules Leleu.

When Khloe snapped up a nearby, nearly 10,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival house from Justin Bieber a month or so later, she wanted something far more rock ’n’ roll. Bullard created the aforementioned modern Moorish fantasy, featuring layers of Moroccan, Turkish and Middle Eastern decorative elements. A favourite nook in Khloe’s bedroom features a traditional star-shaped lantern and mother-of-pearl table, while a woman whose face is almost entirely covered in swaths of white fabric stares out enticingly from a frame on the wall.

Bullard’s portfolio of A-list clients extends beyond the Kardashian-Jenner clan to songstress Christina Aguilera, actress Eva Mendes, model Alessandra Ambrosio and legends such as Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne, actress and author Joan Collins and singer Cher, who he tells us was “the ultimate design dream”. He worked on two homes for the “goddess of popand, in a sneak peek into the bedroom of one of those Los Angeles abodes, Cher can be seen reclining next to a 17th-century Tibetan monk statue, with a 19th-century pure goldthread Burmese tapestry behind her. A statuesque bed made from antique Indian panels sits on a platform crafted from limestone, flanked by bedside tables made from inlaid doors. In her kitchen, mashrabiya screens are used to keep appliances tucked out of view, as Chinese lanterns drop dramatically from the ceiling.

“I couldn’t have had more fun decorating for you all these years filled with laughter, love, drama, fabric and feathers,” Bullard espoused in a heartfelt message posted on Instagram to mark Cher’s birthday in May.

Unfortunately, his dream project is one that cannot be realised, although this does not stop him from wondering about its endless possibilities. “I always fantasise about the idea of creating interiors for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé,” Bullard reveals. “Their incredible style, love of all things decorative and extraordinary personal collections made them a designer’s dream. So much personal style and love for luxurious exoticism are so very enticing. They would have been dream clients.”

The starting point for Bullard’s career could not have been further from these celebrity circles. At the age of 12, he started buying decorative objects, or “oddments” as he likes to call them, and then selling them from a stall in London’s Greenwich Vintage Market. By the age of 16, he had developed a strong assortment of clients and collectors, including a buyer for Ralph Lauren Antiques. There were plenty of lessons learnt in those early years that have continued to inform Bullard’s career to this day, he says. “The vintage markets of London taught me much that I have been able to parlay into my work today. Most importantly that grouping beautiful objects together not only enhances each one, but also creates a scene that’s alluring and decorative, no matter the origin or value. If they are beautiful and have a synergy, then they become magnificent and inviting when grouped together. This is how I look at my interiors now. This knowledge has helped in the understanding of how rooms work, and how to create natural, cohesive yet at once interesting interiors.”

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Nonetheless, interior design was not Bullard’s first choice when it came to a career. He wanted to be an actor and, after a stint at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in London’s Covent Garden, used the money that he had continued to earn trading his oddments to fund a move to Los Angeles.

Once there, he was cast in a number of film roles, but his design skills also caught the eye of some key Hollywood movers and shakers, and this quickly snowballed into a thriving business. His acting skills didn’t completely go to waste, as the British designer has gone on to star in the hit Bravo series, Million Dollar Decorators, and host Channel 4’s Hollywood Me in the United Kingdom, as well as a number of other design-focused television programmes. He has also published two books: Live, Love & Decorate (2011) and Design and Decoration (2016).

South Ridge Pink by Martyn Lawrence BUllard and The Rug Company. Courtesy The Rug Company
South Ridge Pink by Martyn Lawrence Bullard and The Rug Company. Courtesy The Rug Company

Over the years, he has expanded his repertoire to include indoor and outdoor fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, and home accessories. He has designed several collections for fabric house Schumacher, tiles for Ann Sacks, a collection of dinnerware with porcelain-maker Haviland Limoges, and wallpaper for Cole & Son. His second collaboration with The Rug Company is a collection of five carpets whose names, Marrakech, Coachella, Stevie Mac, South Ridge Pink and Teal, allude to the multiple influences that infuse his work. To mark the global launch of the collection this month, Bullard will be in Dubai to give a talk at The Rug Company’s Al Serkal Avenue store. He will also present a keynote speech at Downtown Design, as part of Dubai Design Week.

So what is the British designer’s definition of a great interior? “To me, it’s a space that is welcoming, comfortable and filled with personality. A true extension of the owner’s style and tastes; a perfect window into their soul,” he says.

His own homes are a perpetual work in progress, he continues. “My interiors are a constant evolution. My homes become my experiment pads, places to display the things I love, and then mix and match as I collect and my tastes change. I probably fully redecorate about once every three years, but the spirit of my rooms is always changing with the addition of new things either added or taken away. It’s all about the edit; that makes it fun for me.”