Bromley-born Martyn Lawrence Bullard is the American A-list’s favourite interior designer. Eve Barlow hears about his colourful career on a rare visit to his film-star-luxe LA home.
Martyn Lawrence Bullard, British interior designer to the rich and famous, lives in Hollywood, but when I visit, he may as well be in Scunthorpe. You can barely see the Hollywood sign for the sheets of rain. Saddened by the tarpaulin he has had to put over his home’s Moroccan entrance, Bullard cries: “My poor garden is getting wrecked.”
This is how one of the star designers to La-La land’s wealthiest inhabitants really lives. Inside the front room, the log fire burns. The crooning of John Mayer is disturbed by calamitous honks. “Nobody can drive in this weather,” says Bullard, who has lived in LA for more than 20 years. A car smashed into the wall of his office earlier in the day, and the fluster of it all led him accidentally to sit on a bottle of perfume he’d received as a gift. “So excuse me if I smell like a French whore.”
Bullard’s home is set in a Tuscan-style cul-de-sac and was built in about 1919. A black-and-white portrait of the actress Gloria Swanson hangs by the front door. She lived here before the writer William Faulkner and after the actor Rudolph Valentino. Nowadays, the living room is filled with English sofas and exotic objects.
“I love eclectic things,” the designer says, pointing to a 12th-century Tibetan Buddha. A string of red beads rests over an Indian table. Against the wall are 18th-century Italian mirrors. Books such as Jewels of the Romanovs and Bullard’s own Live, Love & Decorate fill the nooks. A crown sits by the fireplace: the French silversmith Christofle asked Bullard to design a collection of them for the 150th anniversary of Napoleon III’s crown jewels. “I ended up with my own crown, which I wear occasionally,” he laughs.
The last time he did was at Christmas, which he spent in his house in Palm Springs — “crazy modern 1960s, 1970s and 1980s”. Usually, Bullard spends Christmas chez Cher, who is one of his clients. “One year I took RuPaul and Eva Mendes,” he says. “We were in her living room waiting for two hours. Cher came down in a skintight leather bodysuit and went, ‘Oh! I didn’t know anybody was here.’”
Christmas Eve is always at one of his other clients’ — the Kardashians. “Kris [Jenner] gives everyone an amazing gift. This year I got a beautiful Gucci bag and a silver egg with a set of cutlery inside.”
Bullard holidays with Elton John, considers himself “family” to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne (“I just did their new love nest — that was a rollercoaster”) and was once Pamela Anderson’s wedding present.
“Kid Rock bought Pam a house in Malibu, but I was the gift,” he recalls. “Of course, I got invited to the wildest wedding ever, with Pam getting married in her bikini.” The pair had three weddings and got divorced just a week after the third. “So, in great rock-star form, Kid Rock kept the wedding gift and I ended up decorating his house.”
For Bullard, hobnobbing at weddings has generated a constantly surprising
career. When he came to Hollywood, it was to be an actor. His fascination for hunting down “pretty, sparkly things” funded his pursuit. He grew up in a “mock-Tudor burlesque house” in Chislehurst, in the southeast London borough of Bromley, and at the age of 12 convinced his father to let him rent a stall at Greenwich market. “I’d run around buying from everyone’s stalls, bringing stuff back to my own and selling it to American tourists. Buying old cups and saucers gave me my tools.” By the time he was 17, he was shipping trophies and riding gear to America for Ralph Lauren’s windows on Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive.
He put himself through drama school and continued to trade jewellery on the side. His acting brought him to LA to play a minor role as Eartha Kitt’s toy boy in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. Becoming friendly with a producer on set, Bullard invited him for dinner at a tiny house he was renting in Hollywood. “I had no money, so had decorated it with flea-market crap.” The producer loved it and asked Bullard to decorate his office, with a budget of $30,000. “A huge amount then, but now that’s enough for a sofa.”
The day he finished, Liz Heller, then president of Capitol Records, popped by and asked Bullard to help with the Capitol Building. “I thought Capitol meant the Capitol — as in the White House,” he laughs.
A month into the project, Heller had another request when her wedding planner overdosed the day before the ceremony. Bullard wound up pulling it all together. At the wedding, he sat at a table with the American supermodel Cheryl Tiegs and — you guessed it — she asked him to do her home. “Within nine months, we were on the cover of six magazines around the world.”
The next two decades saw a never-ending domino effect. Now things have turned full circle: Bullard has his own TV shows, including Million Dollar Decorators, Channel 4’s Hollywood Me and a yet-to-be-announced series on an American network this year. “I’m still a showman,” he says. “I help people envision, create and understand a fantasy.”
Today, Bullard does what he did on the stall, except with the world as his shopfront — he spent 200 days travelling in 2016 — and his customers living in palaces. He has coloured the walls of Christina Aguilera, William H Macy, Edward Norton and, most recently, the reality stars Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian.
Khloé’s place was previously owned by Justin Bieber. “It had a bouncy castle inside, and the dining room was set up with pinball machines,” he says. “If I was 19, with that much money, why not?”
Of the Kardashians, Bullard notes: “I’ve done just about everyone in that family now. They’re extraordinary.” Having just completed Kris’s house, he reveals he’s almost finished with the model Kendall Jenner’s, too. He offers a few details of her interiors. “We’ve got 1960s and 1970s vintage mixed with street art. A famous graffiti artist came and did an inside wall. Her taste is sophisticated — edgy but sexy.”
There’s a balance between Bullard’s own theatrics and respect for his clients’ privacy. Fame can be almost prison-like, and the home is their only sanctuary. In helping to design a dream reality, Bullard likens himself to a therapist. “Cher asked me to decorate her home as though she was the first wife of a maharajah. Such a weird thing to ask for, but why not live out your fantasy?”
Cher’s bedroom and bathroom were conceived without a wall. “We devised a button that you press and gold embroidered curtains drop from the ceiling around the bathtub. So, if she’s invited someone up, all they see is her amazing naked form behind this beautiful gilded cloth.”
Before starting work on a project, Bullard gives his clients homework to create “this brilliant jigsaw puzzle”, determining their taste. He asks what their favourite hotel or restaurant is, and where they go on vacation. In 25 years, he’s never been sacked, but he fired a client once for asking him to gold-leaf a garage — “super-tacky”.
One job that was not beneath him was building a “sex room” resembling a Chanel handbag. He quilted it in black patent leather, designed chains to look like straps and had the toys gold-plated. “It was for someone extremely famous who we can’t mention. You touched this fingerprint on the dressing-room mirror that cracked a door open. Very chic.”
Today, the company is less starry than Bullard’s regulars, but no less entertaining. A puppy named Daisy (Bullard’s “daughter”) comes bounding in with his partner, Michael. “She’s allergic to everything, including wool,” he says as she does somersaults on a rug.
Do Daisy and Michael have any say when it comes to this house’s interior? Bullard shoots me the kind of look I’d expect if I’d smashed his best vase. “When Michael moved in, he was allowed to bring a toothbrush — but I got rid of it because I didn’t like the colour.”
For 2017, Bullard invites you to abandon all rules.“Modern luxury is comfort,” he says. “There should never be anything in someone’s home that you can’t sit on, jump on, lie on. Nothing should be too precious to touch.” A modern home must be multifunctional and there should never be a room that’s out of bounds. “Create the flow of a kitchen and a living room together, so it becomes a family environment that can morph with you. Do what you want.”
Then he shows off a tiny room upstairs that has been converted into a
“two-person-and-a-dog” screening room. “That used to be Gloria Swanson’s shoe closet,” he laughs.
Despite the roll of fabric leaning against the wall, Bullard is slowing down on touching up this house. Having lived here for 10 years, he’s looking for somewhere bigger close by. He’s also hunting for a pied-à-terre in London while the dollar is strong.
Splitting his time between celebrity clients and commercial work, Bullard has his plate full, with hotel projects in Santa Barbara, the Cayman Islands and Miami (for Tommy Hilfiger). He’s also opening his first store on Melrose Avenue to house his collections this spring. “And I’m doing a little job for Pierce Brosnan and his wife in Malibu,” he smiles.
He’s certainly not fleeing back to Blighty just because Trump’s been elected. “It’s important to be careful with politics, because I don’t know what all my clients believe,” he says. “Let’s just put it this way — I certainly wouldn’t decorate the White House if I was asked to do it now.”