Take a few million dollars, add some big Hollywood-sized egos used to getting what they want and then throw in a handful of sassy, yet capable, high-end interior designers and you have the concept behind Bravo's latest reality show entry, "Million Dollar Decorators." In the series, the cameras turn on five Los Angeles-based designers - Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Kathryn Ireland, Jeffrey Alan Marks, Mary McDonald and Nathan Turner - and reveal the sometimes humorous, oftentimes dramatic tasks they have to endure while working at this big-ticket level in one of the wealthiest communities in the world. But too often, as each episode reveals, the job of decorator does not only entail redecorating a house post-divorce, for example, but also acting as therapist, life coach and shoulder-to-cry-on for the clients writing the checks.
Our Jim Halterman recently chatted with two of the "Million Dollar Decorators" - Bullard and Ireland - about the competition between designers in their business, how Los Angeles is unique from other cities in terms of interior design and how you tactfully steer a client away from a bad decorating idea.
Jim Halterman: Is it competitive between yourself and the other designers we see on the show?
Kathryn Ireland: Sure, there are certainly other people in this town that I'm up against and it is competitive. But I'm not as competitive because my style is pretty different from all the others and people who come to me come for different reasons. I have a family and I do houses that are ready to be lived in and I can really help people create their own homes. I think it's a chemistry you have with a client. If they trust you, then you're off to the races. If they don't, then it's probably not going to happen.
Martyn Lawrence Bullard: Well, I wouldn't say we run in the same circles. I certainly haven't seen any of them at Elton John's dinner table. [Laughs.] When you get to a certain level, there are only so many high-end clients looking for decorators and so quite often you'll find that you're going up for the same jobs with other people. The interesting thing is that we're all friends and we've all known each other for a long time. Particularly Kathryn, Nathan and I have all known each other for a long time and been together on vacations and weekends away. I've known Jeffrey and his boyfriend for awhile and they're lovely. I never really knew Mary until we did a showcase house together last year and I absolutely love her! She's so zany and she's a fantastic talent. I think she's brilliant!
JH: Kathryn, you say on the show that you're a 'life designer.' What do you mean by that?
KI: I can literally plan what [the client is] going to eat at dinner parties, what they're going to serve and I also get involved with both the interiors and the exteriors of their homes. I like to be a part of the garden but also the art work; just everything. Putting it altogether like the pots and the pans. I go to William-Sonoma or the grocery store and help them set up house.
JH: We see a lot of celebrities on the show but are they easier or more difficult or does it really come down to the individual personality?
MLB: I've not only worked for celebrities but I've also worked for Presidents of banks, for example, and Tamara Mellon, who is the President and founder of Jimmy Choo. I work in all the industries but it seems that 80% of my clients are celebrities in one form or another. What I do love is that they're creative people and they want their environment to be creative, which for a decorator becomes an exciting thing to do. But, of course, it's different. When you're dealing with someone who's famous they can't go shopping at the slightest whim. There are definitely different things that you deal with like assistants and their schedules and then other times [the client] is off making movies and they've got weird schedules. You have to be very flexible to be able to work with their crazy lives. It really just makes it all the more fun.
KI: It really comes down to the individual. I have the best time working with all my celebrity clients like Steve Martin, David Mamet... they've all been absolute dreams. I think it's the individual but, again, I think it depends on who the celebrity is and if they're at the top of their games. It really depends on where you come from and how you were brought up and how you treat people. Do they offer you a glass of water? Or to sit down? You can tell very quickly about how someone behaves. One of the things I've learned is that you don't want to be anybody's first decorator. You want someone else to prime them. People who have never worked with an interior designer before don't really understand the business of it and they need to be broken in and educated and how we work.
JH: Martyn, in the premiere episode we see how a job with a celebrity client suddenly had to be finished way ahead of schedule. Is that normal?
MLB: Sharon Osbourne needed this emergency apartment because she didn't want to travel every morning to be on the set [of 'The Talk'] at 6 a.m. so she said 'Oh my God, I need to find a place in Hollywood immediately.' So she found this apartment and she originally said she wanted to be in there in two weeks. I thought I had time but then suddenly I got a phone call and she said 'Oh my God! They've moved it all up. I'm flying back from London and I need to move in three days.' The crazy thing is that this literally happened as the TV show started filming; a complete fluke. The producers were like 'We can't believe how great this is!'
JH: Is Los Angeles unique to other cities?
MLB: I think LA is absolutely unique in that people live out their fantasies here. You just don't get that kind of drama anywhere else! I'm from London where there are beautiful homes and there's great history but people don't break the mold the way they do here. I've decorated Indonesian Pavilions in the hills of Bel Air for Cheryl Tiegs. A walk-in fantasy in Malibu for Cher. A Tuscan Villa in the Hollywood Hills for Aaron Sorkin. People come up with these fantasies that they want to live in and they know in LA you can do that. It's an amazing place for interior design because you get to live out all these wild decorative fantasies and actually make them into realities for your clients.
JH: How do you tactfully steer a client away from something that you know is not really good taste?
KI: Sometimes you let them have their way and then they'll come around to your way of thinking but you have to be very careful since you don't want to offend anybody but they come to you because they want help and guidance [and] you might have to educate people why you prefer this to that. There is a background knowledge that you have to instill and teach them but every job is different and has its own set of problems that come up and that's just the nature of the game.
MLB: I have to say it takes awhile. [Laughs.] It's a trick that you have to learn. As an interior designer, you're not just decorating people's homes. You end up being a life coach, a psychotherapist, a marriage counselor... it's wild! You have to know how to navigate through all of this stuff. The successful designers are the ones who have learned to navigate through all of that. I have clients calling me up saying 'I'm at the car dealership. Should I get a red car or a black car?' Or 'I'm going to the Oscars and can't decide whether I should wear my Louboutin or Jimmy Choos.'
JH: Seeing both of you on the show, I suspect you two would have a lot of fun together.
KI: Martyn is a really fun person. We've gone on trips together and when you get the two of us together we're just hilarious. We make ourselves laugh a lot! You see a different side of Martyn when he and I are together. He is really a fun person to travel with. He'll tell you that I'm a little chaotic. I went to the airport without my driver's license. The last trip he swore he'd never fly with me again. We had very bad turbulence coming back from New York and I was literally sitting there clutching his arm.
MLB: Kathryn is so hilarious! As you can see on the show she's all over the place. She's juggling her sons, her lifestyle, her crazy housekeeper... she's just hilarious. I do love her and have known her for a very long time now and we've had a lot of fun over the years.
JH: Kathryn, speaking of your housekeeper, Jacqueline, she might just be the spin-off success of the show. She's fantastic!
KI: I'm so hoping! Christ, I'm hoping she does so then I can get a real housekeeper! I'll probably end up being her housekeeper! I'll have to be her sidekick.
JH: So, I'd expect in your line of work that you've seen it all does anything surprise you anymore?
MLB: I had a client ask me to gold leaf the interior of their garage so that was pretty wild! At this point, I've really heard it and seen it all. Like Pam Anderson and Kid Rock, who were married for about three weeks, and switching complete design aesthetics in the course of those three weeks several times. You never know what's going to happen next in the design community with the clients that you have.
"Million Dollar Decorators" premieres Tuesday, May 31 at 10:00/9:00c on Bravo.