With his chiseled features and broody looks, Martyn Lawrence Bullard epitomizes a handsome version of a Hollywood actor. Even though the big screen beckoned only once, Martyn seems perfect for a starring role in Lawrence of Arabia. This soft-spoken British-born designer is passionately conceptualizing homes and commercial properties, thereby living his dream. He spoke exclusively to Upscale Living magazine about his rise to super-stardom and the joy that he feels in creating marvelous spaces.
Martyn, Tell us about yourself.
As a child, I loved traveling with my parents, and when visiting new places, making trips to museums and country houses. Those visits sparked my interest in beautiful, interesting objects. By the age of 12, I had convinced my father that I could use my pocket-money to go around to various antique markets, junk stores, and car boot sales to buy things, anything that I thought was pretty and unusual. This took place in London and the countryside of Kent. I would storm the antique markets and would set off to buy things from people’s stalls. I eventually set up my booth and sold my wares to most unsuspecting American tourists (laughs).
Did you manage to turn a profit?
Yes, it was terrific. People were fascinated by this precocious child, decorating a stand and selling all these objects while spinning a story for everything. It became a lot of fun when I started turning a profit.
My interest just grew and grew, and I continued doing that until I was about seventeen, by which stage I had made and put away enough money to put myself through drama school because I wanted to become an actor. My father, who was an opera singer and an actor, didn’t want me to go that path. But I was determined, so I used my ill-gotten gains from the antique market and put myself into the Lee Strasberg Theatre School and continued my way in doing that by still buying and selling. Then it got a little more interesting when I began buying and selling antique jewelry. It’s much easier; you just put it in your pocket as opposed to packing boxes of china and bric-a-brac. Unbeknownst to me, those years were the training ground for who I am today. It taught me where things come from, it taught me how to gather, it taught me to hallmark, origin, period, and it gave me the foundation for my interior design career.
Did you have an influence in your youth that shaped your career path?
One of the great things that happened was our extensive travels because of my father’s business. I got to see the world from a very young age – all of Europe and Australia, Africa, and I think the travel with my parents and them indulging my interests to go and see crazy summer palaces in Russia was a significant part of my inspiration.
Are you an only child?
I have three sisters. My youngest sister is 13 years older than me, so I came along at a time when my sisters were all grown up, and by the time it came to traveling, I was the only one that did that with my parents. I got to be the one that was most indulged; they indulged my passions, and it was a beautiful thing.
When and why did you decide to become an Interior Designer?
I have always loved interior design and never thought that it was something I could do. I thought you had to be trained, and you had to go to school, and by the time I realized it could be a way to make a living, I had passed that stage.
When I was 22, I moved to LA to continue following my initial passion for being an actor. Like everybody else, I thought I would go to Los Angeles and become a movie star! I ended up working in a coffee shop like everybody else. Eventually, I got cast in a movie alongside Eartha Kitt, playing her boy toy. The producer of the movie and his girlfriend came to this tiny apartment I was renting at the time, which I had decorated with goods from the local market called The Rose Bowl. They loved what I had done with the small space and asked me to come and decorate their new offices, called the Hollywood Film Works.
My initial reaction was that I had no idea what I was doing, but maybe I’ll do this, and they’ll put me in another movie. I decorated the whole 5000 square feet with a Casablanca goes to India via Hollywood Flea Market look. They loved it. I had just completed this when I got a phone call from a lady, Liz Heller, who worked at a record company, asking if I could come and look at her offices in the Capitol building. This was so crazy – I’ve always wanted to be a pop star, and I thought if I decorate her offices, she’ll make me into a pop star! I met with Liz; we fell in love; she is still one of my closest friends, and I started to work for her. About a month into doing her project, she was getting married at home, and her wedding planner over-dosed a day before the wedding; true Hollywood story and Liz called me in a terrible panic ‘what am I going to do’?
I jumped in, went to the flower market, bought big bags of rose petals, flowers, a staple gun, and I helped put her wedding together. She asked me to stay for the wedding and sat me next to a lady called Cheryl Tiegs. I had no idea who she was; I thought she looked like an actress from Charlie’s Angels. By the end of the evening, it turned out that Cheryl was the world’s first supermodel and an American icon. She hired me to do her house!
Within nine months, the house appeared on the covers of six magazines around the world. I was declared a new design star, opened my offices, and that is how my business started 23 years ago.
What and Who inspires you?
Travel is my greatest inspiration. It doesn’t have to be travel to somewhere exotic – everywhere you go when you keep your eyes open; something will inspire you, whether it’s a bowl of fruit or an incredible palm tree with dew dripping off of it; elements of different things that you see, smell, touch, people that you talk to, somehow it all adds to my palette for inspiration. Going to new countries inspire me – the smell, the atmosphere, it all builds up in that great dictionary that I keep pulling from. The most important part is to keep your mind open, always.
For you, When it comes to design, honesty is the best policy.
I believe it’s imperative to be honest with your client. If they have something that they love, but just doesn’t work, you have to tell them. If there’s an element to their house or their apartment that doesn’t make any sense, trying to work around it, you’re never going to get the perfect results. You have to correct things upfront with people, and I believe that’s the best way to work.
On the other side, people have things in their lives that they want to keep – things they have inherited or some-thing they collected, but as a designer, you have to know how to incorporate that. You have to have that honest conversation with your client about how you are going to incorporate it and how you will design around it. With honesty, you get useful results.
What are and have been the biggest challenges in your career?
Being creative and running a business and understanding how to balance your finances and make money while being responsible for your employees. It’s essential to balance the business and the creative side. That’s something I understand every month when my American Express bill comes in (laughs).
There must have been important lessons along the way?
The most important lesson for a designer is the understanding of scale and size. If you’ve convinced your client to buy a sofa and it arrives at the house, and it won’t fit in the door, or it’s too large for the room, or too small for the room. It’s vital to formulate real plans that are to scale to not only the room but to your client. I have clients that are 6’5 who cannot sit in some groovy low to the floor 1970’s chair. Fundamentally, it’s understanding scale all the way around.
Apart from designing the most fabulous interiors for celebrities and commercial properties, what is the favorite part of your job?
It’s the people. It’s the meeting and getting to know your clients. As a designer, you learn as much about the people you work for as you teach them about the design. I have some extraordinary friendships and relationships that have evolved around our clients’ relationships. The design does change people’s lives, and that’s a useful thing.
You have done incredible interiors for the Who’s Who of Hollywood – Tommy Hilfiger, Cher, Ellen Pompeo, and most recently, Kylie Jenner. It’s probably easy to form a friendship when working so closely on such a personal project. What did you enjoy most about working on these different homes?
You do become extremely close, because you are working with them in a very personal manner, down to having to work out where your client’s underwear is going to go, it’s that personal. You formulate these incredible relationships.
With Tommy Hilfiger, as a fashion designer, he is used to creating new collections every three to four months. He understands the fast-moving process where we delve in and out of trends and vibes. I’ve worked on three different homes with Tommy, each being a different experience, and that’s a beautiful thing. People in fashion understand that we have multi-facets to our personalities, so is Tommy’s case, I created an old English country-house manor and a 1970’s disco house in Miami, showcasing two different sides of his personality, and that’s a fantastic experience to have.
When I first met Cher, she said to me, ‘I want to live like the first wife of the Maharajah.’ It’s exhilarating working on projects like this, especially when people have extravagant personalities like Cher, and they want to continue that in their home life, wishing to create their fantasies. Whether it’s Cher’s Indian palace or Tommy’s disco 1970’s apartment, it’s wonderful to have those directives.
With Kylie Jenner’s home, it’s the world’s most-seen interior design story in the history of interior design magazines – it has over a billion traceable views already, which is extraordinary. When designing something for a then 20-year-old, you are formulating something for a different era in somebody’s life. She’s thirty years younger than I am, and the excitement is that you’re creating a home that works for that age group, for that entertaining, for that lifestyle, for the young mother. It’s creating something that, as an older person, you have lived through and gone through in your own life. You create something that you wish you had for her. Her home is younger in spirit, with a sophisticated springboard for the rest of her life.
The Four Seasons private residences commercial project sounds exciting, albeit quite challenging.
It’s an inspiring commercial, residential property, and we’re creating homes for people who we don’t know who they are. You have to come up with a vision that’s acceptable for lots of different people, that doesn’t scare anybody, but also inspires people. We’ve been involved with this from the very concept of who the buyer is, what is the vibe; it’s exhilarating to create residential sites where you help formulate the way someone is going to live in the future. The Four Seasons has a reputation for quality, and it’s an evolving company that wants to keep up with the 21st century. We look at every aspect, every element that modern-day luxury can provide. The apartment price range is from $5 million to $55 million. It’s a very high-end experience.
Your home(s) must be phenomenal! What was your decorating style for your different homes?
I have different styles going on in each one. The Palm Springs house is a house from the 1960s; it belonged to Roger Moore and then to Hugh Hefner, so it’s got quite a storied past. I’ve decorated the house I feel it would have been in the ’60s, so I’ve collected beautiful vintage furniture from that period from great American and Italian designers, there’s lots of plexiglass, chrome, and shiny surfaces, but also wonder-fully organic shapes. These things are very comfortable, because, for me, the ultimate luxury is comfort. It’s enjoyable, with bright pink and lime green, and to balance it, beautiful pale greys that reflect the light.
My home in Los Angeles is a 1920’s Villa that has a mix of Moroccan meets modern experience where it’s very comfortable, and it exhibits wonderful collections of mine, juxtaposed with a combination of Moroccan architecture, displaying all of my contemporary photography collections. They’re very personal spaces, but they’re very curated; I try things out on myself first before subjecting it to my clients.
Your travel for business and hopefully pleasure too. Which has been your favorite place to travel to that have left a lasting impression?
My favorite city in the world is Rome. I’ve always gone to Rome for every reason, from the beauty you encounter there to the people, the food, the atmosphere, the sexy ambiance.
I like an exotic flavor also, so my favorite cities to visit for that are Istanbul, Marrakech, and Jaipur. I love them for the inspiration and just general splendor.
Your dog, Daisy, is the cutest, sweetest companion.
She’s my baby girl. I love her to bits. She’s a Wheaten Terrier.
I read your guilty pleasures include dark chocolate, big chunks of parmesan cheese, pinot grigio, and Perrier Jouet Champagne. What is in your pantry?
It’s so funny; my pantry has a very English substance – baked beans! I’m so lucky – I have a chef at home who cooks for me, and I’ve eaten at some of the best places in the world, but I still love a baked potato with cheddar cheese and baked beans on top.
Is there an Oscar Wilde admiration?
I love his wit. That moment in history – the whole Belle Epoque era; I love the way people dressed, it’s fascinating. If ever I had a dinner party, my favorite dinner guest would be Oscar Wilde; it would be so exciting to experience talking to him in person.
What do you do for fun, apart from traveling?
I’m a huge movie-goer, and I love watching movies – they inspire me. I find it very relaxing. I get to vote on the BAFTA during their awards season. I see a couple of hundred movies during the year, and that is something that I thoroughly enjoy.