Interior designer Martin Hulbert's Twineham home
PUBLISHED: 16:50 15 September 2016
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
Martin Hulbert's Twineham home provides both a rural bolthole and a place to experiment as he tells Duncan Hall
“Interior design can be very intimidating and alienating. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable when they go into one of my interiors. The best interiors are inclusive and welcoming to everyone – young or old, rich or poor, it shouldn’t matter.”
Martin Hulbert has worked for a range of homes, hotels and businesses, from the Monaco branch of upmarket sushi restaurant Nobu to the luxury hotel at stately home Cliveden House. But no matter what he does he wants to make his work personal, telling a story rather than confusing people. “I spend a lot of time asking clients all sorts of questions – some quite personal about how they live and what they do in their spare time,” he says. “I interact with them and get to know them personally. They have to feel very relaxed and I have to feel relaxed. That is when it works. I put a lot of my personality in, but part of the thought process is to work with their personality and work out things they like.”
So in the case of Nobu this translated into a ceiling sculpture made up of thousands of chopsticks, which takes over from the restaurant’s stunning sea views once the sun goes down. Similarly a hair salon at The Dorchester Spa has a chandelier made up of scissors. “Humour creates atmosphere,” says Martin. “It’s reinventing and twisting things.Often it makes a project more affordable – it’s not all about spending lots of money. That has never been a thing for me – it’s more about the creativity.”
Martin’s office is based in London, but he calls the small West Sussex village of Twineham home. The 50-year-old has lived there with his partner of 25 years Mark Rowlands for the last decade. The house and grounds are at the end of a winding lane – situated way off the sat nav at the point where the casual visitor thinks they might have taken a wrong turning somewhere.
“This is definitely a no-client zone,” says Martin. “It’s a place away from all of that. This is an escape into the real world, rather than the unreal world I work in.”
The pair admit that while they were renting a 15th century property in nearby Cuckfield with a view to moving into the area they were looking for a slightly older house than their current home. “It would have meant smaller windows and lower ceilings which doesn’t work for me,” says Martin. Made up of several cottages linked together, Long Hovel Cottage is a dream of nooks and unexpected rooms – supplemented by large windows with views across uninterrupted countryside. “It’s naturally light,” says Martin, who has augmented this with a light colour scheme which runs throughout the house. “It has evolved, it wasn’t preconceived,” he adds. “The house is made up of all sorts of things we have collected over the last 10 years.”
Collecting is a big part of his job as an interior designer. His passions change and develop over time. At present he has a fascination with textiles, gathering fragments of tapestries. “I like collections,” he says. “When you have one thing on its own it can look quite weak. If you have 30 of them it becomes more powerful and stronger as an item.” The collections expand into the garden, where he has a number of umbellifers – the most well-known of which is cow parsley.
Some of the furniture and fittings in the house have provided the prototypes or inspiration for pieces in his commissioned work. In the reading room where we talk there is a stool which inspired him while he was looking for country-style seating in The Village Pub at Barnsley House Hotel in Gloucestershire. A pair of antique chairs were used as the basis for art deco-style seating at The Dorchester Spa. And the curtains use a flower print on Irish linen which he used in Coworth Park in Ascot.
Martin admits moving to Twineham has seen his ideas become more organic and concerned with nature and the countryside.
“We were living in Hackney before which also had a huge influence,” he says. “I love mixing things up – putting old things in a contemporary interior gives it some soul which it doesn’t always necessarily have. If you look at a country house the interiors are never of the same period. Most country houses span over several hundred years. You rarely find a Victorian or Georgian room – it’s usually all mixed up unless the room was specifically designed by someone famous of the time. It can be very positive to contrast old and new.”
Both Martin and Mark share a long history with Sussex. Martin was a student at the University of Sussex, while Mark was a model for artist Duncan Grant at Charleston Farmhouse. A Grant portrait is pride of place on their living room wall. The pair don’t remain in complete isolation in Twineham. Favourite Sussex haunts include Cuckmere Haven, the Seven Sisters and Birling Gap and Chichester harbour at Pagham.
“I love the sea,” says Martin. “I love going to Hastings with its individual shops, you can find interesting things. My favourite house in Sussex is Parham – the gardens are lovely and the house is full of really wonderful tapestries.”
One major influence in Twineham is the garden, which can be seen from every window in the house. It’s an area Martin is gradually moving into in his professional life. “The garden was inspired by Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House,” says Martin. “I spent a lot of time there – I grew up near there [near Cirencester]. The garden is very personal – it’s where I go to relax, to paint, to think, to have a glass of wine and to listen to The Archers on Sunday. It’s amazing how much a garden evolves. I’m really into self-seeding – a lot of the plants have taken on a life of their own. I love that informal way of them doing their own thing.”
He is now working on the gardens as well as the interiors of a private house in Tuscany. It is one of nine projects Martin Hulbert Design has on the go at the same time. He is also working on transforming three Georgian townhouses in Bath, a Welsh hotel called The Grove, a Spanish colonial building in the UNESCO world heritage site at Cartagena, Colombia, a contemporary country house “rather like something out of James Bond” in Moscow, a Georgian townhouse in London’s Camden Hill Square and a country house near Lindfield which again sees him working on the gardens.
“I always wanted to do more garden design,” he says. “I have done small gardens which were like extensions of the interior, but this is a different thing. It’s a personal passion of mine. The connection between inside and outside is really important to me.”
He isn’t slowing down at the moment. “Part of my problem is I can’t say no if a project sounds exciting,” he says. “If somebody comes along with a pub that would be exciting, I’ve never done a pub on its own before. Up until The Dorchester I had never done a spa. Often I’ve wanted to do a project with high ceilings or with tall windows and something has come along – like Cliveden House which had enormous high ceilings and a wonderful line of perfect windows. It’s a little tick in the box.
“I always keep a relationship going with clients – there are some I have worked with for years. There’s a trust and loyalty – they know I would never rip them off.”
Part of it may be in his approach to a project too. He’s not one for big presentations, computer graphics or sample boards. “Most clients respond to one thing at a time. Then you can pull it all together and build up a story. I always strive to create my interiors so they look like they are thrown together. It’s the hardest thing to do – but it’s great if you can achieve that natural combination of things rather than something that looks forced or contrived.”