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Best in Craft: Martyn Lawrence Bullard

by Jonah Staw

Ultimate Ears Talks With Interior Designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard About Craftsmanship in His Work

Our offices and homes are extensions of ourselves where we can take risks, evoke different moods, and mix styles together. Next up in our “Best in Craft” series is our conversation with award-winning interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who has created interiors for celebrity clients including Sir Elton John, Cher, the Kardashians, and Tommy Hilfiger, and hotels such as The Colony Palms in Palm Springs, Hotel Californian in Santa Barbara, and The Prospect Hotel in Hollywood.


Bullard, named one of the world’s top 100 interior designers by Architectural Digest and one of the top 25 designers by The Hollywood Reporter, is a craftsman that uses color, flow, rhythm, texture, and sound to create transformative spaces that reflect the personalities of his clients.



We spoke to Bullard about his career, his ever-evolving taste, and his approach to working with unique spaces and the individuals that inhabit them. We were even able to pick up a few design tips for ourselves along the way!


ON BEST IN CRAFT

This is a series called “Best in Craft.” What does “Best in Craft” mean to you?


"Best in Craft” for me means the very finest quality within that genre. It means the best of the best. It means the thing that... Well, let's face it, I must have.


What is your craft? What are you best at?


It's not just interior design. It's actually the tapestry of making design become part of people's lives. We actually enhance their lives, where it becomes the thing that they love the most about their lives. When I know that the interiors that I've created, whether they're for a residence or if they're commercial or a hotel, give people the emotion of feeling good, of loving the way they experience life more within those interiors, then that to me is best in craft.



I thought I wanted to become an architect when I was in college. I worked on a project with Frank Gehry, but after 4 years there wasn’t even a shovel in the ground - then I realized there’s no way I could sustain that. We at Ultimate Ears think we are design leaders. What is design to you in your craft?


Design is something that you create that makes you happy. Design is about creating beauty. It's about creating enhancement to life. I truly believe that modern luxury is comfort and comfort is the one thing that we all look for in our homes. We look to create our own nests, our own sanctuaries, and for me to create the perfect sanctuary. Different people see, taste, see design in different ways. But for me, it's about finding that. It's about discovering that within somebody and being able to extract it and add that into their home or their environment. So it becomes the perfect mirror image of their personality.


So does it start with a personality test or a self-assessment? How do you know who they are? If I say “Hey Martyn, here’s who I am” you’re going to call BS.


It is really important for me to get to know my clients or to understand the project before we start designing it. I never want to be one of those people that you walk into a room and you go, "Oh, Martyn Lawrence Bullard designed this." I want you to be able to walk into the room and go, "Oh, my God, this is amazing. It is perfectly you." It's a real individual experience. And to get to that, to get to the understanding of that is asking questions. I have a list of things that I ask people. Like what's their favorite restaurant? Where do they like to go on vacation? What's their favorite hotel? What is it about that hotel that they love? What do they love about their current home? What do they hate about their current home? What do they love in their best friend's house? Slowly but surely you get all of these jigsaw puzzle pieces that you kind of can put together and create a new picture. And that picture becomes very individual to each of those clients. And really and truly it’s the way that you get that personal sanctuary, that personal touch, that window into their soul.


Before I did this I actually worked directly for Tommy Hilfiger. I know Tommy really well, as do you. You actually know Tommy in a totally different way--I know him in front of a dry erase board in his office, you know him based on building his sanctuary. Tommy’s house in Miami blew my mind, for so many reasons. Tommy’s got bananas on his wallpaper in a bathroom in Miami.


By the way, those bananas are scratch and sniff. 


And is that a ‘choose your own adventure’ you have to find it out? Or Tommy’s gotta give you the secret code? Or everyone knows just to go scratch? 


It was really designed so that their son would go in and not mind brushing his teeth before bed, because he'd had something else to amuse himself with by scratching the bananas.


I picked Tommy not just because I know him but because he is obsessed with music and mixing fashion with music. We are serving the music in a real way. I wanted to talk to you about music in a whole bunch of different ways. Who are some of the amazing musicians you’ve worked with? 


I've been so lucky to work with the most amazing musicians in my life, because music is deep inside of me. My father originally was an opera singer, so I've been surrounded by every form of music since I was a very young child. When I first moved to the States and took up my design career, I was thrown into this extraordinary experience of working with unbelievable performers. I worked with Patti LaBelle - I went out on the road with her, actually. I got to sit in on all of her concerts and then we'd go backstage and there'd be people like Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross and all these unbelievable soul singers that I had listened to since I was a little boy. That suddenly I was surrounded by them and their music.


I find that the correlation of the passion of music is so similar to the passion in design. It's all this wonderful force of nature. I worked with Cher, for instance, who has lived her life on the stage since she was 17 years old. Her music has been everything to her, even though she's won Academy Awards for movies, but it's all centered from the music. When you get to work with people like that, they want to bring that expertise. They want to bring that joie de vivre of their music into their own homes as well. So we get to design these wonderful, almost fantasy sets within their homes that sort of become a mirror of what they do.


It's really been extraordinary. And of course, I've got to work with unbelievable sound because everybody wants the best sound they can have in their homes. From their home theaters to their home recording studios. So that's been an amazing learning curve and something that is so exciting. It's another facet to what I do. 


Who are some other folks in the music industry you’ve worked with?


Some of the most extraordinary people that I've worked with in the music industry of course have included Cher. I'm currently working with Gwen Stefani, who's amazing. And Blake Shelton, my first sort of venture into the country world, which I'm loving. Although I did work a little bit with Kid Rock along the way, which was kind of an adventure.


One of my great favorites was Diana Ross. My God, unbelievable to have that energy of that icon around me. Early in my career, I worked with Christina Aguilera, and it was amazing to work with a person who's so young and finding themselves, and also finding their music.There has been an amazing array of different musicians across the board that I've worked with, and it has been for some fantastical threads in my own personal tapestry.


I wish I had a Sir Elton John moment, but I can’t say that I do. What would be your Sir Elton John moment?


He's one of the most extraordinary men you could ever imagine. He is filled with passion in every sense of that word. And I know I love to use that word because I am so passionate about what I do, but this man is passionate from his music to the way he looks after everybody around him.


He's a professional on every level and a collector. As a big collector, his homes are filled with wonderful expressions of things that he loves. It was a dream. It's a dream.


When you make a song, there are layers. Some people start with a beat, some people start with the lyrics. And when I look at your work, there is just an incredible richness to the spaces you create. When you’re on tour with artists or you spend time with musical artists, do you find that you’re thinking about the world in a similar way and you're finding your harmony together? What is the process like with musicians versus other clients?


The creative process with musicians is always so interesting because they're constantly looking to reinvent to keep creating. So when you're surrounded by that kind of energy, it energizes you as well. I tend to find that I bounce that energy for myself to them and then back. And it really helps us with the process of the interiors because musicians tend to be more adventurous almost than anybody else. I use rhythm within my interiors. I love the way interiors flow. I believe that colors and shapes and forms should flow. And it's the way that sort of musical notes flow as well. So it's a wonderful kind of hand-in-hand process.


It is not only the musical prowess of writing and singing a song, but also about the image that's projected with that. I'm currently working with RuPaul, who obviously is the world's most famous drag queen, but he's also an amazing musician who has had some major hits in his career. When creating this music, he's doing it in a way that it's adding to the genre of his overall appearance, of his overall brand. And that's how I believe interiors work, actually.I believe that interior is part of the expression of our personality, and part of the expression of our own personal brands. It is that unison that ends up making the most beautiful spaces as well as the most beautiful music.


When you’re doing your work do you listen to music?


I am surrounded by music all the time. I love music on every level. Sometimes I'll kick back in, I'll listen to classical music. I'll listen to something light like a little Mozart. Other times I want to listen to stuff that kind of meant something to me as I was growing up. Sometimes it’ll be Seal's first album. Those kinds of things that really connect with you, that are part of your soul. Other times, I'll listen to something that's completely brand new and wild.



Yesterday, I really felt like I needed an energy boost. So I listened to Lady Gaga's new album, which is this total dance album, which was really fun. I was doing a whole collection of color yesterday, and for some reason, this music just really helped propel me into finding that. I think different music helps feed me creatively in different ways at different times.


I look at these pictures in Architectural Digest and I can’t imagine actually living in these spaces because I would destroy them in a second. How do people actually live in these spaces? Do you design them with a special space or one room that people can mess up?


I don't think that I design with a special “mess it up” room. We design and create spaces and homes to be homes. Most of my clients have kids, so you have to make everything kid-friendly and user friendly. I actually don't believe in the old fashioned analogy of keeping things for best. You remember how mom and grandmother used to keep all their special china to only bring out Thanksgiving or Christmas or on some special occasion? I believe that today is our best and that we should use and enjoy everything we have. And I really, really instill that in my clients. So I don't like to create rooms and homes for people where everything's so perfect that nobody wants to sit in it, or they're scared to touch it. I believe that you should be able to lie on, lounge on, drink on, do whatever the hell you want to on, and in and around, everything, because this is life and we have to live it and we have to live every day to the fullest.


I never want an interior to be intimidating to people. I want to make sure, obviously it looks beautiful and some people like to keep their rooms totally pristine. And other people like to have their rooms where they're interactive and evolve. So it's all about, again, a personal choice of how they want to look and how they want to live in it. But for me, it's important to instill that these homes are homes. They're not museums and they're places for people to live in and enjoy. And one of the great things today is that we have the use of technology. So there are amazing new fabrics that are performance fabrics, that you can use both indoors and outdoors, that repel stains and you can drop wine on them and it all cleans up and everything stays perfect, even the most pure white fabrics. 


I have an English Tudor home, and I joke that I didn’t pick it but it picked me because the housing market is so aggressive here in Oakland, CA that you just bid on houses and hope that you get one. I’ve struggled personally trying to figure out how to make it mine - I love Mid-century modern style. What I’ve seen in your work is that you’re not afraid to go after any surface - take a ceiling that was boring and put Moroccan print on it. You’re not afraid of using color in new ways, so I have been inspired by your work. 


Remember in life, it's all about a mix. It's all about diversity. It doesn't matter if nobody else likes it. If you love it, it works for you. There was that great saying by Oscar Wilde who said all beautiful things belong to the same age. And I sort of take that as an analogy in design, meaning that you might have a Picasso drawing next to a vase from Crate and Barrel sitting on a 19th century table in a 1970s house. But if you love all of those things together, it doesn't matter if one of them was $5 and one of them is $5,000. It's all going to work because you love it. Put together it's a composition of your own. The reality to things is learning how to edit and not have too much. Allow things to breathe. And if you're going to mix things, mix them in a way that makes sense to live with them.


When you’re working for yourself, a commercial client or a personal client, do you have a huge warehouse filled with stuff? How is this possible? You’re filling these houses with so many things. You can’t just go on a shopping spree and fill these houses. 


I do have a warehouse full of stuff, much to the horror of my accountant because I can't go anywhere and not shop. But really and truly again, each one of our projects is completely customized to each person. It's totally 100% individual. And because of that, it means most of the stuff that goes in it is either custom or specifically created for that person or that home. So that's why design is a process. I can't go in and kind of create a whole home in a month. It's just not possible. It takes time to create and find, curate, and collect these things. 


I still have clients that even two, three years later, if I am shopping in the flea market in Paris, for instance, I might see the perfect object, the perfect glass that is going to match their bar. And so I call them or Zoom them or take a picture of it and send it to them and go “I think I've just found what we've been looking for for the last two years!”


It's so different when I think about how you do what I do as a past time professionally, as complex, and back to the analogy, as rich as the songs that we listen to. And you’ve got to build, if a house is an album, the whole album rather quickly. And that seems overwhelming. 


Design from the ground up is a very complicated process. And that's why quite often people need to hire, like people like myself, they need to hire professionals to help them get through it because there's many, many levels to this. When you custom make a chair, for instance, you have the vendor who creates the frame. You've got the vendor who does the upholstery. You have another vendor where you're going to buy the fabric. You might have trim on that chair that comes from somebody else. There might be studs that you need to purchase from somebody else. So one chair can have gone through six different vendors until you get the final example, the final piece. So it's not like just going down to your local main street and buying something off the shelf.


You can just go into any old store and buy these earphones, for instance. These have been custom created for my ear. You had to take an inner and outer ear measurement to create this thing that fits me perfectly in a way that fits nobody else because I'm an individual and my ears are unlike anybody else's. And so that's one of the things that is amazing about your company and amazing about these earphones. And that's the other thing that's amazing about my custom chair is because I made it perfectly for that interior and for that person.


Now that we’ve all been stuck at home, the importance of your design is more important than ever. I imagine you’ve gotten some text messages and calls from folks who have a new level of appreciation for what you’ve created. 


Yes. Having gone through this whole pandemic period where people have been basically stuck in their homes in a way that they never have been before, it's been really interesting. In fact, I had a conversation yesterday with Alessandra Ambrosio, the magnificent Brazilian supermodel, whose home I finished last year. We did this amazing cover shoot for Architectural Digest. Yesterday we texted each other and she said, I cannot tell you, I never spent this amount of time in any of my homes, and now I've been here for three months and I love this house so much more than ever. I can't thank you enough. And suddenly I realized my God, that's amazing because that's what this was all about, was to create these sanctuaries for people.


On the other hand, we've had people calling up going, Oh my God, I've been using my living room now, rather than just having friends over for drinks before a dinner party. I've been working on my laptop in here and I need to make the room more versatile, or I need to make the room a room that is more usable on a daily basis. Or I decided that I know I insist on having those bright pink sofas, but I can't live with a bright pink sofa for three months. So can we make the sofas beige? There have been lots of different reactions from people, but most of it has been people just wanting to fix things up a little bit.


I have found myself pushing my couches into new places just so I had something else to look at. We talked a lot about multiple sides of people’s personalities. What about you? 


I believe that there is a right place and a right moment for everything. And I love to learn from the history of art and the history of decoration and look at ways to reinterpret that into my own work, in a fresh, new way. That being said, for myself, it's interesting. I'm very fortunate. I have a few houses and I've been able to express different sides of myself in those. It’s wonderful because also my homes become like an experiment pad. So right now we're in my Palm Springs house, which is a Mid-century house. I couldn't decide really what the vibe was in terms of what I was going to do with it at first. So I suddenly decided to embrace the fact that one of the most famous James Bonds used to live here, and it was Hugh Hefner's desert hideout.


I went with that whole 60s, 70s vibe - that sort of Rat Pack, cocktail party vibe. It was fun because it gave me a genre that I hadn't decorated in before to create for myself. And through that, I learned so much about that genre and I learned how to live in it and how to create it and how now to do it for others. So that was a wonderful thing. My taste is ever-evolving. And I guess that means that I will never stop decorating for myself.


ON WORKING WITH ULTIMATE EARS

What style of earphones did you select? 


I got this kind of amazing mother of pearl color because I thought everybody I'm sure gets black gold to be a little bit different. Being in design, you always want something that's a little bit different, a mirror of your own personality. And I also loved that the mother of pearl kind of blends in with my gray hair. So it was a whole moment. 


You’ve had your Ultimate Ears earphones for about a month. What has your experience been listening to music with them?


I have to say I've had my earphones now for, I think, about a month. And from the first second really of putting them in, I realized the difference. I realized the extreme quality of this product, the craftsmanship and the elevated experience that I was getting. And it's not just from listening to music, it's even from having a telephone conversation. There's a whole other level to this. There are decibels that I feel like I never heard before. I love them. For me, one of the moments when I get lost in music and one of the things that kind of really relaxes me is if I'm on the treadmill and I'm listening to my music and I'm kind of working out and the difference with these, with that, it's amazing. By the way, I feel like I can sing like a rockstar with them in which is probably a problem for everybody else.


Love that. So you wanted to be an actor, you became a decorator and a designer, and now you’re going to become a singer. It’s gonna be full circle thanks to Ultimate Ears. 


Yeah. It's that Hollywood story in reverse.



Best In Craft: Stories Celebrating Craftsmanship and Artist Collaborations
At Ultimate Ears, we take pride in the fact that our in-ear monitors and custom-made earphones aren’t manufactured, they are crafted. In celebration of the heart, dedication and skill required in craftsmanship, this series showcases stories of individuals who represent what it means to be “best in craft.”
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