A peek behind the curtains
Designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen talks to Emily Hourican about marriage, minimalism, a disastrous screen test for The Devil Wears Prada and how world peace might be achieved through scatter cushions
'How that poor man sits in that studio every day, I don't know. It's so sordid looking." Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has just come from a radio interview with Ryan Tubridy, and is waxing lyrical about the ugliness of RTE interiors. It seems very typical of him -- the camped-up outrage is really only half mockery.
So what would he do? "Just anything. To me it's extraordinary that anyone can occupy such an uncomfortable-feeling space. I'd have to do something about it. Put up a picture at least, just to feel that you've left a bit of your own DNA, scent-marked it slightly. You need to occupy rather than just perch. People do feel less happy if they are occupying an environment that doesn't suit their personality. I've been like a dried pea rattling in a tin for the last 10 years about this."
It's true. Ever since Llewelyn-Bowen sprang onto our screens, in all his dandified glory, on Changing Rooms 18 years ago, he has been beating the drum for self-expression through interior design; a passionate advocate for colour, pattern and general fanciness, sometimes with hilarious results, as his love of splendour clashed with some Home Counties matrons' commitment to neutrals. Through it all, he trod a neat line between sending himself up, and being deathly serious. "The world's problems can be solved by velvet curtains," he tells me, only half joking. "We'll probably find there's a scatter cushion at the heart of world peace."
We're talking about the empire he seems to be building for himself in the East -- China, Malaysia, Indonesia -- where he does much TV work and interior design, and the differing design challenges, some with a common solution. "Really heavy, decently-made curtains will keep the heat in here and the sun out there, they will halve heating bills and air conditioning bills." You see, only half-joking.
He is, naturally, beautifully dressed, in a glorious fawn tweed three-piece suit. The hair is darker, off-set by a well-trimmed, slightly piratical beard, and his general form is ebullient, with jokes and serious observations, both delivered in the same, slightly teasing manner.
His analysis of his role in Asia is astute, articulate and amusing: "Mine is rather a boring mission over here now -- 'come on, paint it purple if you want!' -- whereas you have societies out there that have never had access to somewhere permanent to live. Twenty years ago all the money in those countries was at the top of society, now, even though there are still tens of millions of people who live in poverty, there is the creation of what we would call a middle class. And one of the expressions of being middle class, as well as folding your napkins and wearing string-backed driving gloves, is doing something to celebrate your own home environment."
Over this side of the world, he has teamed up with Littlewoods Ireland to design a lavish collection, everything from beds to photo frames. And, of course, cushions. Everything is, as you would expect, rather ornate, called things like "boudoir mirror", "posh gold Viennese cushions" and "illuminaughtie light pendant". It is a collection clearly designed with women in mind, and fighting the good fight against dreary minimalism.
"Women don't like minimalist interiors, full stop," he says. "They are impractical, and women don't like feeling they have to live up to their room. Men are quite good at leading that kind of monastic life, despite having the reputation for being untidy. Minimalism is a very masculine style. You're going to feel, as a woman, uncomfortable with that."
He seems to revel in the democracy of affordable interiors. "We've proved that design is about design, not money. The point is that you choose to make an expression and not break the bank. Money is not the point. People now are proud of the fact that their mirror was 75 quid, not 500. I don't need to hide behind zeros on a price tag. I love the idea of my stuff being surprisingly affordable. I'd like to be able to stop short of saying this is all a ghastly ego trip, me wanting to get as much of my design out there as possible, but the point of design is to communicate with people, and when you're doing that to millions of people around the world, from Shanghai to Shannon, that is a really, really nice feeling."
Does he really think it matters to the rest of us, as much as it does to him? "There are degrees of it, everyone's at a different stage, but yes."
When I suggest it is hard, with small children, to focus on the house, because of the fear they will wreck everything, he looks shocked. "One of the things we did, and that my parents did with us," he says sternly, "was to really quite forcefully encourage our children, and us as children, not to break stuff."
He doesn't believe it will hamper children's development not to be allowed free and boisterous reign. "I do genuinely feel that we threw a lot of babies out with the bath water -- we should have been more rigid about things, we should have been stricter. I think this about me and Jackie personally, not just our generation."
But he laughs as he reads me a text from Jackie saying "Cecile thinks you're being far too distant and business-like". Cecile is the couple's elder daughter. "What a ridiculous thing to say about your father. I'll take her out and buy her dinner and a bottle of Champagne," is his amends-making. Cecile is studying film, and Laurence has had a couple of cameos, for her and other indie-type films. Would he take up acting?
"I can't say that Hollywood beckons, because it quite clearly doesn't," is the answer. "About eight years ago, my agent got so ridiculously excited he nearly burst, because he had a telephone call from Hollywood. At the time they were casting The Devil Wears Prada and Lauren Weisberger said at some point that the character of Nigel, she'd always seen as being rather like me. Well, people got very excited. I was anchoring the Holiday Programme at the time, I was in Rome with Jackie, and couldn't go to the casting, so I did a screen test instead. To say I was pants doesn't even come close to it," he says merrily. "I can't do script, I can't remember anything, I can't be anyone other than me, and even being me, I was a really silly version of me. We sent off this tape, and literally it was like dropping a stone in a well and never hearing a splash. Just stony silence."
He gives the impression of being comfortable with who he is, indeed, says himself at one point that he has "balls of brass. I really don't care what people say about me" -- and is definitely quite didactic. "One of the reasons why I've always enjoyed being famous -- and let's not beat around the bush here -- is, if you think deeply enough about something, and want to put a point across, people are more likely to listen to you."
For him, a big point to get across is the commitment of marriage. "People say, 'wow, you're a celebrity couple and you're still married after 25 years,' as if it's like having a carriage clock," he says. "Jackie and I have a fabulous marriage, a wonderful friendship, but it's never been a bed of roses. She's been very open and public about post-natal depression, about body issues, weight issues, all of this kind of stuff, and there have been times when we have simply not got on. But you look at it as a long-term commitment, a historical relationship that might be sh*t when you're 32 but at 50, we're having a great time. Both of us believe that the point of a relationship is the light and the shade; surmounting the problems, not giving into the problems."
He is utterly scathing about the culture of Perfection Now. "We're all incredibly impatient, and we've been allowed to be incredibly impatient. If things break, we're encouraged to throw them away. If anything doesn't work for you, you have to move on. There is a strange anomaly -- we're clinging to a romantic notion that even Disney would fail to recognise because it's so mawkish and so impractical, and we're fed that in the midst of this incredibly immediate instant-gratification-biased environment, which means that if it is not going exactly your way then, get rid of it."
His grasp of family life seems practical and focused. When I ask did he feel that he and Jackie should shield their daughters from the celebrity world in which they live, he says: "No. I think you should completely involve and totally unshield. The minute you create barriers, there's a problem, and you're presupposing there's a threat. It may well be that is the most ridiculously over-optimistic attitude and that I'm going to fall over a cliff and take my family with me ... or it might just be that that is the way it should be. A lot of the time you can create these threats, by making much of them. Changing Rooms started 18 years ago. It finished 10 years ago. There's a lot of celebrity water under my bridge. I've had stalkers, I've had headlines, protracted campaigns by tabloids desperate to find out that I was secretly gay. As if I'd be secretly anything! If I woke up as a minimalist, I'd be a very, very loud and proud minimalist. The frightening truth is, what you see is what you get."
It was partly because of the children that he and Jackie moved to the country, the Cotswolds,where they live in a 17th-Century house. "We wanted to be somewhere, not necessarily safer, but an environment where people are more engaged," he explains -- although he also quips "Jackie makes a very good lady of the manor, she forever has a flowery hat in the back of the car in case there's a fete that needs opening".
Until recently, they had a butler. "We had to let him go," he says. "Pity. It was so decorative. In an ideal world, you'd do a whole Downton and have it all. A big house is an organic entity, you need to keep stoking it." It's a celebration of his own flamboyance, but also, oddly, a nod to his very practical approach to life: "Rather than being brought down by a situation, you need to find if there is a mechanism to help you. And maybe it's a butler."
Back at the beginning, when Laurence did his first screen test for Changing Rooms, "the telephone call was a long list of what was wrong with it -- I looked stupid, my name was ridiculous, I was haughty, didn't listen to what people said, yet I got the job".
Was he surprised the British public, known for quick judgment around things like class, any hint of pretension and so on, got him?
"I wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but I was a cup of tea," he says. "I wasn't pasteurised, deliberately produced to be anything other than myself." And anyway, he insists, there is plenty of room for naughty as well as nice; "Captain Hook to Peter Pan," as he puts it.
In Asia, they get it too, perhaps because there already exists a particularly mischievous god, "a bearded god with a snake," says Laurence. "I've got a snake-headed umbrella. I couldn't have cast it better myself."
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