For Martyn Lawrence-Bullard's dinner guests, the transportation into an alternate reality is complete upon arrival at Villa Swanson's arched wooden doors, which thunk and moan as they open to usher them inside. What finer setting for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art alum to display, unfettered, his twin talents as consummate host and interior designer to the stars? Having traded in his SAG card, but being no less theatrically inclined in everything he does, he lists among past clients William H. Macy, Edward Norton, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Craig Kilborn and Aaron and Julia Sorkin. Those are the ones he's at liberty to mention.
The fairy-tale cluster of homes that was built to resemble a Tuscan hillside was the Bel-Air of the 1920s. It is now a sanctuary for a new generation of artistic sorts. With director Phillip Noyce to the north, Academy Award nominee Sofia Coppola to the south and fellow design maven Annie Kelley and her husband, architecture photographer Tim Street-Porter, practically next door, Lawrence-Bullard is always in good company.
Even so, when the expat Englishman isn't flying off to New York to decorate king of hip-hop Damon Dash's TriBeCa loft, jetting to Mexico for meetings with "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis about his oceanfront retreat, foraging through a Paris flea market for Christina Aguilera or shooting his "L.A. Style" segment on Britain's hottest breakfast TV show, "This Morning," he loves nothing more than opening his home to friends and friends of friends.
Villa Swanson is so named because Gloria Swanson lived here twice, "the second occasion during the shooting of 'Sunset Boulevard,' " Lawrence-Bullard says. "She also loaned the house to William Faulkner, who used it as his writing atelier. He wrote his screenplays on the balcony. And Valentino rented the house from the original owner," he says, gesticulating toward a plaque that the silent movie icon placed amid his Italian-tiered terraces peppered with jasmine, gardenias, banana plants and bamboo above the entrance courtyard.
The 3,000-square-foot villa, which Lawrence-Bullard snapped up two years ago in "a seriously dilapidated state," took six months to restore. Everything — the plaster, the plumbing, the tile work, the terra cotta, the landscaping — needed work. So fragile was the floor that, no sooner had he finished the painstaking restoration of the master bath, the tub fell through the ceiling, landing in the living room.
Now, returned to its pedigreed splendor, Villa Swanson is the quintessential backdrop to the Englishman's elaborate entertaining style, something that's never been inhibited by either his limited culinary repertoire or the natives' preference for dining out. With both in mind, Lawrence-Bullard often brings the restaurant to him.
For a surprise birthday bash hosted for Vidal Sassoon's 75th, he tented the house and garden in purple silk and installed Wolfgang Puck in the garage to produce caviar, lobster, smoked salmon pizza and a giant exploding chocolate cake — the remnants of which Lawrence-Bullard swears are still on the hand-painted Italian ceiling of his dining room. For a dinner honoring English historical writer and TV personality Lady Lucinda Lambton after she lectured the Decorative Arts Council on the history of the loo, Lawrence-Bullard went with dim sum from the erstwhile Lucky Duck on La Brea.
Why toy with a successful recipe? So for tonight's soiree — a sit-down dinner for nine — friend and restaurateur Robert Kass (Le Dôme and Santa Coyote, the onetime Kasbah) has arrived with chef Rich Earl, from his latest Beverly Hills enterprise, Luce, and one of his trusty wait staff, Brian Lloyd. With the pair ensconced in the fully loaded kitchen replete with a set of Mauviel copper cookware for professionals, exquisite Carrara marble countertops and original 19th century Italian terra-cotta floor, Lawrence-Bullard is free to prep his Gloria Swanson entertaining rooms for their close-up. "When living in Hollywood, there has to be some measure of theatrics. Besides," says Lawrence-Bullard, the son of an opera singer, "it runs in my blood."
He begins by lighting candles. "They warm a room and make people look fabulous," he says. Dozens of them fill serpentine marble candlesticks or rest naked on rare antiques such as an 18th century Milanese secretaire, one of many ivory-inlaid ebony pieces, this one with scenes from Greek mythology, that invest the house with an Alice in Wonderland-meets-Bavarian castle feel.
These heavy pieces of furniture, together with the dark-stained walnut floors, serve not only as an anchor to the strong Spanish architecture but also provide an immediate monochromatic palette into which Lawrence-Bullard has injected shots of blood red everywhere, from the Bugatti silk drapes to decorative motifs on chairs. The effect is opulent and lush, with a crisp edge, an unexpected modern twist thrown into a setting dominated by 17th and 18th century antiques from Portugal and Italy.
"You have to keep mixing things up. I don't want to feel like I'm living in a museum," says Lawrence-Bullard, while fitting still more candles into Turkish apothecary jars and a coral candelabra he designed himself, which is suspended over the dining room table. "It was inspired in part by an 18th century Venetian chandelier, but instead of crystals, I've used coral," he explains.
He acquired a penchant for coral during the restoration of a 1926 house that once belonged to Hollywood agent Charlie Feldman and his photographer wife, Jean, whose work portrays everyone from Judy Garland to Marilyn Monroe partying at their home.
The interiors had been designed variously by three of the most legendary decorators of the last century: Elsie DeWolfe, Billy Haines and Tony Duquette, the latter of whom used coral motifs in the décor. "The only difference is the coral Duquette used is faux, and mine is real," Lawrence-Bullard says, pointing out other pieces in the room, then adding, "It was also used in 18th century Spanish homes."
With the back door ajar, the sound of the trickling fountain in the rear courtyard harmonizes with Brazilian music on the surround sound — music that Solange Olivera, Lawrence-Bullard's sometime Brazilian chef, is wont to dance to while prepping his dinner parties. As he shares Olivera with longtime friend Liz Heller, the former executive president of Capitol Records, he has her cook only every other Wednesday. Tonight she is in Brazil, visiting her mother.
There is one last check of the table, laid with white Hermès plates framed by his grandmother's pearl-handled silver flatware. The 200-year-old Waterford crystal decanters are already filled with Chinon wine so that guests don't have to stand on ceremony and can simply help themselves.
"Every day I use my finest china and silver because what's the reason for keeping things in a cupboard? You've got to live your life," Lawrence-Bullard says. But it's not the price tag, he is quick to point out, that makes for taste and style. It's quality. His napkins are from Crate & Barrel "because they're really good. And they're red." These, along with ruby glassware by William Yeoward and pools of red rose petals, echo the reds in the permanent décor and add a final dash of glamour. "Fortunately, Diana Vreeland was right when she said all reds are created equal," he says, mixing his Vreeland with George Orwell.
Lawrence-Bullard plays with the house lights. "Life would be impossible without dimmers," he smiles. With that, he hurries past what he calls the "fantasy" guest room and bath — jewel-like quarters adorned in toile de Jouy and antique faux bamboo from France with a view of wild orchids — and upstairs to change.
Newly coiffed and freshly attired in jeans and an Yves Saint Laurent black velvet jacket, he greets his first arrivals, actress Stacey Dash (Damon's sister) and her English businessman husband, James Maby. The couple settle on the Moroccan-style sofa, upholstered in white Irish linen hand-embroidered with red arabesques, part of Lawrence-Bullard's own line of furniture. Flames blaze in the fireplace as the host stokes the crackling wood with Swanson's own fire tool, bought at auction.
With the arrival of Vidal and Rhoni Sassoon, waiter Brian Lloyd enters stage right with the hors d'oeuvres — tuna tartare in crispy wontons, a selection of exotic cheeses, and eggplant caviar on garlic crostini. Lawrence-Bullard preempts everyone's drink requests with Champagne cocktails. Rhoni downs a handful of echinacea pills with her Veuve Clicquot to ward off a cold, and Vidal talks about their recent trip to London, where he produced Stephen Berkoff's "The Messiah" at the Old Vic.
The defiantly red silk drapes that drool on the floor part dramatically as Gelila Assefa, an Ethiopian model turned clothing designer, enters through the French doors. She and Lawrence-Bullard drape themselves together in another of his designs, a commodious club chair.
At 9 o'clock, guests Nikka Costa and Justin Stanley are still glaringly absent. Lawrence-Bullard, prepared for most eventualities, remains unruffled, but as they are inevitably rolling around lost in Whitley Heights' perplexing tangle of cul de sacs and hills, there's little he can do. "It's simply a disaster for cellphones up here," he says, plying his guests with more drinks. Ultimately Kass asks Lloyd to shuffle the place settings. Almost simultaneously the rock star and her raffish producer husband enter, to much applause.
The women are seated on ivory-inlaid ebony chairs emblazoned with Lawrence-Bullard's family crest, and the men on a smaller yet similarly styled set of ballroom chairs. Conversation among this disparate array of guests ricochets around the table, as ancestors of the host, in portraits almost 300 years old, look on disapprovingly.
Dishes arrive and part, seamlessly orchestrated — burrata with multicolored heirloom tomatoes, roasted Pacific sea bass paired with sautéed spinach in a ginger and carrot emulsion followed by molten chocolate cake and Sauternes.
Everyone retires to the comfort of the fireside for Brazilian coffee or herbal tea, delivered on an etched silver tray from Cartier bought at a Sotheby's auction. Dash barely murmurs that she feels the slightest of chills when Lawrence-Bullard, always poised to enhance his guests' experience, envelops her in a throw.
"He's extremely charming and socially generous, which is a rarity in competitive L.A.," Maby says. "This is by far the most deft dinner party I've been to."
When the last guest has gone, Bullard drains the remainder of the Sauternes — "I hate it to go to waste, it was a fine vintage" — and, giving the fire embers a final prod, satisfied with the evening's plot, prepares to wend his way to his personal quarters for the last costume change of the night.