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‘Light the ‘Money’—Martyn Lawrence Bullard’s Top Design Advice

The Expert Team
a spiral staircase in a modern home

Photo courtesy of Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

Unapologetically theatrical and tailored to perfection: two sentiments that describe designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard’s interiors (and effervescent personality!) to a tee. The multihyphenate needs no introduction—between his iconic zingers on Bravo’s Million Dollar Decorators, countless product lines and collaborations, and an A-list client roster that includes multiple Kardashians (and Jenners), Cher, and Eva Mendes, the California-based British expat risen to the very top of his field.

Mid-century Palm Springs glam pads, ornate Connecticut estates, laid-back Hawaii surf retreats, rustic Tuscan villas, ultramodern Miami beachfront properties, even gilded Swiss palaces: it’s immediately clear that Bullard’s extensive portfolio doesn’t subscribe to a singular signature style. Rather, his decorative language spans continents and time periods. “Architecture always plays a great part in my inspiration,” he says. “It informs the spaces and how the flavor of the interior unravels.” The one common thread: it’s always glamorous.

Bullard shows no sign of stopping, either. A first home for supermodel Winnie Harlow, a Beverly Hills mansion for drag icon RuPaul, a historic mid-century Malibu beach house for actress Ellen Pompeo, and a Mediterranean-inspired home in Palm Beach for longtime clients Tommy and Dee Hilfiger are just a few projects on the books these days. Still, he took time out of his busy schedule to chat to us about his go-to sofa recipe, what to always buy vintage, and the first thing he does when decorating a room.

a living room with chairs and a fire pit
a dining room with a table and chairs

Photo courtesy of Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

Photo courtesy of Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

You’re designing a room—where do you start and why?

My first point is always the light: understanding where it comes from, how it illuminates the room, and how it plays in the space. It’s the number one tool in understanding how to make an interior feel good. Once I understand the lighting and determine if we need more or less of it, if we need to add windows, or close off badly-placed sources, I’m able to evaluate the mood we want to evoke within the space and take it from there.

If your interiors were a fashion icon, who would they be?

Dries Van Noten. His work is so varied, unexpected, and blends so very many influences from sophisticated shapes to ethnic patterns. His designs are always original and layered with beautiful details from exotic embroidery to unexpected button placements or color combinations. Of course, I love many couturiers, but for originality, flair, and an unequivocal lust for show-stopping style, Dries is my fashion God.

What’s the favorite question you’ve ever received in an Expert consultation?

My favorite question came from a client who wanted to understand how she could incorporate her Indian heritage into her home without overpowering it. She owned some beautiful traditional textiles and wonderful inlaid pieces. After a zoom walk-through, I advised that she should frame some of the fabrics to create dramatic and original artwork rather than use them for pillows or upholstery. We decided that the dining room could be the main ode to her culture, which also seemed appropriate since her friends so come over often to enjoy her traditional cuisine. I had her group her artworks and objects together making a statement and creating a moment of major interest in the space rather than interspersing them everywhere, thus creating a magical and very personal room that captured the heart and soul of the home.

Where to save / where to splurge?

I believe that a room is like fashion: you splurge on the important pieces, the mainstays of your closet as it were, and skimp on the less important items that come and go. Good upholstery is vital to a space: it provides architecture to a room, welcomes all who enter, and becomes our personal space for relaxation and rejuvenation. I always ensure my clients spend correctly on this as it’s the most luxurious and personally used aspect of a room. When deciding where to save money, look to the lesser-used or seen areas of the room and pull back on those pieces. As they say in the movies, ‘light the money’ which, loosely translated, means make your biggest investment in the main and most visible pieces—the ones that ground the space and bring the most decorative impact.

a bedroom with a large bed and a green chair

Photo courtesy of Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

What should you always buy vintage? What vintage pieces are you eying right now?

Vintage furniture and accessories give soul to a space and are the biggest personality moments within an interior. They also make for the most original pieces because they are much harder to find and source. Everyone with a credit card can go to a big box store and buy a side table, but a vintage item will make your interiors shine and stand out from the rest.

I particularly love vintage lighting, it becomes like jewelry in a space and adds so much originality. I just found a pair of chocolate brown and cream ceramic lamps in a harlequin pattern with brass bases and cream vellum shades which will grace a leopard-upholstered room for a special client’s office, bringing in a quirky but highly stylish addition to this fashion icon’s home.

Describe your dream sofa: what does it look like, how is it built, and how does it feel?

I like my upholstery to be super deep and down-wrapped—so you are enveloped in softness whilst still being supported—and fully sprung interiors that hold up to the test of time. The shape is always changing since rooms desire different looks and design intent, but my rule is depth and comfort. I like a minimum seat depth of 30 inches, and if it’s solely for TV viewing I like to go as deep as 40 or 45 inches so you can really curl up, wrap in a blanket, cuddle your significant other or beloved dog, and luxuriate in personal time.

What hotel anywhere in the world represents ultimate luxury and comfort to you? Why?

Older, grand hotels hold many memories and reflect a bygone age. Claridges and The Connaught in London both capture old-school glamour whilst mixing modern amenities and 21st-century luxuries. My personal true getaway dreams lie in the hotels with over-water villas like in the Maldives or Tahiti. With nature surrounding you, warm crystal waters below, and the ability to jump straight into the ocean from your bedroom window—these are the things that emanate luxury for me and a sense of total rejuvenation for mind, body, and soul.

Most memorable moment from Million Dollar Decorators?

Million Dollar Decorators was such a fun show to film. It was the first time that real-life design was captured and followed from start to finish with all the dramas and delights that it entails. It was not easy to do, having cameras strapped to you night and day as you navigate between clients, staff, conundrums and catastrophes, but the joy of the reveal was always worth the headaches and the drama.

I think one of my favorite moments must be the story of my sister’s pub, a ruined 18th-century country inn that she wanted to revive and create a new life and business in. The storyline was so personal and the dramas within it so real. The decor of an English pub is a very indigenous thing: there’s historical context and expectations from the locals who populate it. I loved reviving this sleeping beauty and bringing such a magical place back to life, whilst creating a perfect backdrop for my sister and her family to build their now-thriving business.

Favorite room you’ve designed to date and why?

Over my 30-year career there have been many favorite rooms and for multiple reasons, each hold such a special place in my heart. From my first ever real commission of Cheryl Tiegs’ Balinese pavilion with its towering heights and hand-painted columns to the Moorish gilded ceiling of Cher’s Malibu mansion, so many magical interiors have been wrought. The Royal bedroom of the Castillo Santa Eurasia in Umbria and the ancestor bar of the Chateau Gutsch in Switzerland, all conjure such memories of the places I visited and the artisans I worked with.

For creative wonder, the Miami home of Tommy and Dee Hilfiger was so memorable. From a blue striped guest room where the entire room was mathematically designed for precision like a Franz Kline painting to an Austin Power-worthy screening room with orange shag rug, swirling ’60s upholstered fabric walls, and carpets designed to color-match a Basquiat masterpiece, every inch was a design explosion. My favorite spaces, from a zen den in Maui designed around a James Terrell light sculpture to my own Moorish-inspired LA living room, are about evoking memories, and to choose just one would be like naming a favorite child—impossible!

a living room filled with furniture and a grand piano

Photo courtesy of Martyn Lawrence Bullard.


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