The Hollywood interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard is musing over the must-haves that his A-list clientele currently demand for their homes. ‘For a minute there, I became known as the Glam Room King, because everybody suddenly wanted a glam room,’ he says. It’s a trend partly driven by his work with the Kardashian-Jenners, most of whose homes he has decorated.
‘With these girls, their homes are their sets; they’re filming there every day,’ Bullard continues. ‘So we had to learn how to instal lighting that looks decorative but is also the kind of lighting you need for TV, that makes you look amazing the whole time. There’s quite a process to that; you have to have three different types of light bulbs to be able to give morning, afternoon and evening light. So you create these “glam rooms” where you’re customising to the nth degree to make people look even more beautiful. And it’s not just about make-up: it has to be a room where they can entertain, learn their scripts, watch a TV show, catch up on gossip. That’s a very fascinating thing to do.’
His next revelation is rather more unexpected. ‘We’ve had a lot of requests recently for sex rooms, which is interesting,’ he says with a raised eyebrow. ‘That seems to be the current trend. Of course, ours are very luxurious. One person, who shall go unnamed, requested a sex room that looked like a Chanel handbag, complete with quilted patent-leather walls, an ultrasuede bed platform and gold-plated sex toys.’
It’s all a far cry from Lewisham, where Bullard, now 56, was born, and Greenwich Market, where he started out with his own stall at the age of 12, buying and selling antiques and knick-knacks.
‘I convinced my dad to rent the stall for me. I’d use my pocket money to buy things I thought were pretty from other dealers and local junk shops, and I’d rearrange them on my own stall. I’d lay it all out, make it look nice, and then these bemused and amused American tourists would arrive and I’d spin a story and sell all my stuff. I did that until I was 16.’
This formative experience was, he believes, where he developed an eye for putting things together in a room; but it also funded his first dream, to become an actor. After earning enough from his stall to pay for a year and a half studying at the Lee Strasberg drama school in London, he acted in plays and adverts for a few years, supplemented his acting with a bit of modelling, and then decided at the age of 21 to move to America, where his plan was to become a Hollywood star.
‘It became shockingly obvious that instant movie-star fame wasn’t quite as easy a path to follow as I’d thought,’ he concedes. After ‘going to auditions and flailing around for a bit’, he landed a role as Eartha Kitt’s toyboy in the film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. But his career took a different turn when the film’s producer visited Bullard’s home, ‘a tiny little place I’d decorated from the flea markets’, was impressed with the decor, and asked him to do up the production company’s offices.
‘I thought to myself, I’m going to do their office and I’m going to get a role in another movie,’ Bullard recalls; but in fact, it led to Bullard decorating the offices of another producer – Liz Heller of Capitol Records, who became a friend. It was at Heller’s wedding that he was introduced to Cheryl Tiegs, known as America’s first supermodel.
‘Cheryl had interviewed all the top interior designers in America to do her house, and by the end of the wedding, without even looking at one photograph of my work, she hired me,’ Bullard recalls. ‘Nine months later, I was on the cover of six magazines around the world and my career was born. Within a year I was working with Sigourney Weaver, Edward Norton and Christina Aguilera. Because I started with an American celebrity, my entire career took this celebrity slant – because in that world, it’s all done by recommendation.’
In the years since, his client list has grown to include countless other celebrities, including Cher, Elton John and RuPaul. Yet despite his remarkable success, it seems he still can’t quite believe his luck. ‘As a young boy from south London, I had no idea that one day I’d be having dinner with people like Elton John and Diana Ross,’ he says. ‘Their music was the soundtrack to my life when I was growing up, and suddenly I’m sitting there with the people who created it. It’s extraordinary.’
Decorating a person’s home can be an intensely personal experience, and many of Bullard’s high-profile clients have also become his friends. When we meet, he is fresh from a week aboard Tommy Hilfiger’s yacht off the coast of Monaco (Hilfiger and his wife Dee are ‘kind of like family now’), and had spent the previous evening at dinner with Sharon Osbourne.
Several of his client-friends have also allowed their homes to be featured in his new book, Star Style, in which he looks back on his three decades of design. Cher wrote the foreword, in which she recalls the time when Bullard went to a salvage yard in Jaipur, acquired the entire façade of an Indian palace that had recently been torn down, and relocated it to her apartment in LA.
‘Cher is an amazing client, as you can imagine, because she lives her life as if she’s always on stage,’ says Bullard. ‘When I asked her how she wanted to live, she said, “I want to live like the first wife of a maharajah.” I said, “Why the first wife?” She said, “Because she’s the one who gets everything.”’
As this anecdote suggests, what sets Bullard apart from other high-profile decorators is that unlike, say, Kelly Hoppen or Rose Uniacke, his clients don’t come to him for a signature style. ‘I don’t have a “look”; I like all of it,’ he says. ‘And I find all of it so exciting.’
Each of the homes pictured in the book is different from the next: RuPaul’s is ultra-glamorous, with a striking monochrome kitchen, 50 custom-made disco balls hanging in the dining room, and a closet housing 3,000 dresses; Tommy and Dee Hilfiger’s Palm Beach home is in the style of a Mediterranean villa, transported to Florida; Kylie Jenner’s house in Hidden Hills, LA, is young and playful, inspired by the eponymous make-up brand that made her a billionaire at the age of 21, with dining chairs upholstered in graduated shades of pink leather colour-matched to her lipsticks.
‘I love every new challenge; that’s what makes it fun,’ says Bullard. ‘My poor team never know what’s going to happen next: are we cladding the inside of a plane in zebra print for Gwen Stefani, or doing a pink patent-leather bar for [the American rapper] Machine Gun Kelly?’
Bullard’s job, as he sees it, is not to impose his own taste, but simply to let his clients’ imaginations run wild and make their decorative dreams come true.
‘I always say don’t follow trends, set trends, which really means you should go for what you love and not care about what anybody else thinks,’ he says. ‘You want a purple sofa, pink curtains and a leopard carpet? Sounds good to me.’
There have been some requests, however, that have been a little too out-there even for him – for example, the client who asked for the inside of their garage to be clad in gold leaf, ‘so that when they were driving in it felt like they were entering a golden box’. There has also been the odd example of bad behaviour – although, he insists, this is rare. ‘I had one actor, a man, who was really rude to all the people who were working with me, spoke down to them, and I had to walk away from the job. Life is too short. If people don’t want to respect the people who are working hard for them, I’m not interested in working with them.’
The biggest challenge of working with celebrities, he says, isn’t diva demands, but getting them to understand the concept of time. If they want their homes to be bespoke (and they do: ‘Kourtney Kardashian doesn’t want you to have the same bedspread she’s got, so we have to make sure that it’s custom-made in a way that makes it uniquely hers’), it can’t be done in a week.
‘We have artisans making things for us all over the world,’ he says, ‘and particularly since Covid, there can be huge delays with shipping. At the moment I have something that’s been sitting in customs for six weeks because there’s such a backlog. But you tell that to Sylvester Stallone, who wants us to finish his house so that they can shoot it for his new TV show.’
This, perhaps, is one of the reasons why he particularly loves the historical projects that can also come his way, such as the restoration of a Georgian manor house in Ireland, which took three years to complete. ‘We flew around the world to buy back Irish 18th-century furniture and art from auctions all over the place, so it was this wonderful experience of really bringing history back to life; I’m quite passionate about that,’ he says. ‘As much as I love the fun stuff, to be able to go into a dilapidated Georgian house, restore it and bring back that extraordinary history is an amazing thing.’
The largest budget he’s had for a project so far has been $40 million; but he has turned his hand to decidedly lower-budget projects, too. As well as starring in the hit American reality television show Million Dollar Decorators a decade or so ago, he also made the ITV show 60 Minute Makeover with Peter Andre around the same time, in which his task each episode was to transform the home of an unsuspecting member of the public in an hour.
‘It nearly bloody killed me,’ he says. ‘The homeowner would go off to the shops, and we’d come in with a van and completely redo their house in one hour, with a budget of £3,000 or something. These poor people would come home – I don’t know if they were dazzled or horrified. But it gave me a great education on working with a budget.’
His television career has continued since then; his next show, with Disney+, which he describes as a travel show that explores design styles from around the world and helps you bring them into your own home, is currently on hold due to the US writers’ strike, but will eventually be broadcast internationally. ‘That part has been very fun for me,’ he says; ‘the fact that I went to Hollywood to become an actor, and it didn’t work out, but I’ve ended up with a TV career.’
He’s come a long way from that Greenwich market stall, but some of what he learned there continues to inform the way he works and lives. ‘Because style is not about money; style is about the way you put things together, it’s about the way you edit,’ he says.
‘And I have learned over the years that you don’t have to have millions to get a fabulous interior. The most important thing in any interior is lighting, and you can control lighting with a £20 dimmer switch from Homebase. So there are ways to be stylish without spending a fortune.’ He pauses, and grins. ‘Spending a fortune is fun, though…’
Star Style by Martyn Lawrence Bullard (£65, Vendome) is out on 12 October