Interior designer-presenter Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: ‘Jamie Dornan? He’s a nice guy… not a scary mass murderer’

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“He used to live near us,” says the designer.

“He’s lovely. He’s like a dad at school.

“It was all absolutely fine until Jackie [Laurence’s wife] saw The Fall. I remember Jackie getting so into it she couldn’t [turn it off].

“And then, whenever we bumped into him a party, she couldn’t be anywhere near him. She was too freaked out.

“Luckily, with the whole [TV series] The Tourist thing, we’ve got our heads around him a bit now. It’s all right: he’s not a scary mass murderer. He is actually quite a nice guy,” he laughs.

National treasure: it’s a term that could be applied to the designer who many will remember from 1990s interiors programme Changing Rooms.

“National treasure… or an institution,” he says, laughing.

“I think that’s just simply down to longevity. Changing Rooms was 30 years ago, more or less. The thing is that people are now worried about saying, ‘I used to watch that as a kid,’ because it makes them feel old. So imagine how I feel — an Old Testament figure, older than Moses.”

Laurence is in Belfast to talk about the upcoming series of House Of The Year, which will begin on BBC NI later this year. He’ll be presenting as three expert judges view shortlisted houses, all of which benefit from the owners’ personal design stamp.

Jamie Dornan

“Northern Ireland always had a very strong engagement with where people live, and pride and commitment,” says Laurence.

“One of the things that I find really irritating if you’ve got this sort of ring of good taste around the M25, that means that inside that zone people are very boring.

“They just see the home as a cash cow, as a monetary value, so they don’t want to do anything interesting. They just want it to be something that they can sell quickly.

“The further away from that you get, the more rooted in where you live. Literally, when you start putting down roots and you start wanting to do something that’s not just about keeping up with the Joneses or making something that’s going to make a couple 100 grand more when you put it on the market, but actually it’s going to be something that reflects you, your personality, your family.

“I keep saying this to everyone: where you live is your biggest, biggest investment for sure, but it’s also your biggest emotional investment.

“That is the background to births, deaths, marriages, everything that is you happens in that space and it’s something that you should enjoy. You shouldn’t feel you’ve got to be browbeaten into doing it in a certain way, living in a certain way.

“And this is one of the things that we’re really doing with this return on the show — to absolutely not give it that kind of style-file sense, that there is a ‘House of the Year’ look.

“This is all about being celebratory of as many different spaces, as many different approaches, as many different ways as possible.

“There’s something about over here, which means that if people like a style, they do with absolute commitment, with knobs on — literal knobs on — and throws and whatever.”

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

On House Of The Year, no space or budget is too big or too small. Whatever the aesthetic, expect to see dream homes of all ambition on our screens.

“One thing I remember, right from the outset, is the fact that everything’s got a story,” says Laurence of having love for our homes.

“So it’s less to do with ‘I bought that in IKEA and I did this’. Actually, you get a whole story, so even if they bought [something] in IKEA, they want to talk about the meatballs that they had when they bought it and how they couldn’t find the car and they had a row about it.

“That suddenly makes you feel so engaged with that object and it makes you realise that, actually, that’s how home should be: home should be full of things that mean something to the people who live in them.

“They shouldn’t be [full of] off-the-shelf items that are fitting in with the latest trend or being part of something that you feel you’ve got to have. These are things that you feel you really want to have.”

Describing an interest in interiors as a “national pastime” in NI, Laurence is of the belief that design is about “being a magpie”, stitching together several trends into our own tapestry.

“We feel that the House Of The Year is going to be the one that is the most subjective,” he explains of judging criteria and the science behind design choices.

“It’s the one that people have got the most engaged in, the one that they have really made their own decisions on. But actually, it’s not going to be a particular style. It’s not going to be minimalist or maximalist or hipster; it’s actually going to be something that takes us a little bit by surprise.

“And I think the audience is going to love that as well. When you watch a show like this, you’re thinking, ‘I like that. I could live in that. So why didn’t the judges like that?’ And then the judges are saying, ‘Well, actually, the reason we don’t like this is that we feel that they’re not actually making the most of their full potential here. There’s so much more they could be doing here.’

“By the same token, they could be going in somewhere that looks like a complete mess but, somehow, it has this amazing exuberance and a tremendous sense of personality.”

For Laurence, design is one of the first badges of civilisation “because it’s completely irrelevant”.

“Existence is all about getting food, shelter, safety. Once you’ve got all of those things, you start making it pretty.

“I think one of the big things is that, because of its irrelevance, it’s actually very important as a barometer for [not only] the way that people feel about themselves, but also the way societies feel about themselves.

“You look around Belfast and you see these big, Edwardian buildings. They’re kind of bellicose, they’re kind of expressive of might and security.

“You look at the sort of mid-century modern stuff and it feels desperately [trying] to be international, but it feels much more sort of inward looking.”

It’s refreshing to speak about something so different given the past week in NI, we say. However, politics and home are intrinsically linked, says Laurence.

“Politics can be good, politics can be bad. Economies can be good, economies can be bad. But actually, the home is still the most important thing. Home is what politics, fundamentally, are all about, aren’t they?

“How people feel about their homes will always be expressed by what they do to their homes, whether that’s ‘they don’t do anything’ — that is a very illuminating point.”

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and wife Jackie Bowen

Laurence, who was recently made a doctor of design by the University of Gloucestershire, says he’s never felt compelled to be on television.

“If [the show] rings me and says, ‘We’re bringing House Of The Year back and we’d really like you to be involved,’ I get very excited by that. It’s absolutely in my manner, it’s my stuff.

“I feel very strongly I’m there to communicate what’s going on. It’s not a question of me just sort of citing the action for people or just sort of doing the roadmap for it.

“Also, I think the other thing is that I like this format a lot because it needs a kind of savant presenter. You can’t just have a gob on a stick, because otherwise the judges will just be spinning off into the most ridiculous design language that nobody’s going to get.”

Though he’s not keen on reality shows involving jungles or dancing, one show he thoroughly enjoyed was Pilgrimage, a 15-day walk following the footsteps of sixth-century Irish monk Saint Columba. It was Celtic Christianity that brought Laurence to the path.

“As a Welshman — [and] let’s not forget that Ireland and Wales refined this historical Christianity which was going on very much outside Rome and which was taken over when Augustine came back — I find characters like Saint Columba incredibly interesting, because they’re kind of not saints; they’re more like folk heroes, they’re more like Marvel characters.

“I got sucked in by the subject matter, rather than the opportunity of spending yet more time on television. The crazy thing is that, although I know Northern Ireland so well — I’ve been working here for years and years and years — I’ve never seen the Giant’s Causeway. That was an opportunity: I walked past the Giant’s Causeway and waved at it.”

The “non-practising pagan” called Pilgrimage “nourishing TV”, bringing audiences to a place where they could talk.

“We don’t, as a society — and this is where I sound very old — think about things much,” says the 58-year-old.

“I don’t think we think about things enough. I think that there’s an enormous amount of distraction in the world. It can be intelligent distraction; it can be podcasts and it can be grown-up things.

“But actually, in the old days, you used to sit by the fire and look at the flames and kind of try to work stuff in your head a bit. I think we fear that a bit now and, actually, a show like Pilgrimage was quite good because it brings people into a zone where they’ve got to talk about things. Then for the audience, it means that they’re responding to that.

“I do genuinely feel, and now [with] grandchildren and all this kind of multi-generational stuff, that, actually, the moments where you’re not distracted, the moments where you are stuck in a traffic jam and you haven’t got anything to do but think about something, they’re actually quite good for you.”

The grandfather-of-four (“My very specific role is to teach my grandchildren swear words and buy them everything they want”) loves the life he and his family have developed. Laurence, Jackie and their children and grandchildren live in what he describes as a “homestead”.

“Jackie keeps saying that she is so ridiculously fulfilled to be 60, to have four grandchildren, all living with her, [who are] a part of her daily life,” he says.

“There’s a world out there of grandparents who never see grandchildren. There’s a world out there of parents who don’t know what to do with their children, trying to balance careers and all this kind of stuff. Actually, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, everyone was doing what we were doing: everybody actually did live together.

“In the old days — and, of course, from the majority of the world at the moment still — what you do is: the next generation marry, have children, they live with the grandparents, everything is shared and then the grandparents are gradually allowed to do less and less, and this cycle is established. We’ve just done it officially.

“So, we’ve taken what is effectively now a homestead and we put it in the three families’ name so we don’t own it all ourselves, which is a huge relief to us but also really nice for the next generation as well. It is shared space. It is literally a Commonwealth: we are using the wealth to the common good, to the common aim.”

While television work continues, Laurence is embracing his artistic side through painting, something about which he has had a renaissance. Last autumn, he displayed a sold-out exhibition and from which he received commissions.

“Jackie loves it; she’s so romantic about these things. When we got together in 1984, that was what I was [an artist], and in the intervening years I’ve become an orange television celebrity.”

Not as orange now, surely?

“Not quite as orange as I used to be. I’ve fallen off the Pantone scale,” he says, laughing.

“I think this is quite an important message in a way because I think my generation is struggling with ageing. I think Boomers are struggling with ageing.

“We grew up with this concept of ‘live fast, die young’. When we were young, it was all about punk, youth with the capital Y. There was no ‘you need to do a pension, you need to think about what it’s like to be older’. And what I feel is we’re very lucky, because, actually, in fact, this generation, we’ve got medical science, which is prolonging what we do. But I also think a lot of us have got a real commitment to looking after ourselves a bit more, being a little bit more careful.

“I think Jackie’s got it absolutely right,” he continues about the need to be brave no matter a person’s age.

“Just because you’re 60, you can’t stop being brave. Actually, the ‘not brave’ thing in our lives would have been to just carry on with the house as it was, to maybe just watch the children go buy their own houses, not see the grandchildren, just leave everything and for me to just not do much, not start painting again, not try new things. That would have been the easy thing to do.

“But actually, when you push yourself and say, ‘You know, let’s keep pushing boundaries,’ it does keep you quite young and juicy and a little bit bendy in the same way the grandchildren [are].

“We all need to be much more focused on enjoying what we’ve got. One of the things is to just sort of think back… Well, if I knew at 18 that life was going to be like this, I would be absolutely delighted.”

Submissions for House Of The Year are welcome from homeowners and renters with the property owner’s consent.

The competition is now open and all entries must be received by 23.59pm on February 19, 2024.

For more information on BBC Terms of Use and privacy notice, visit BBC One: House of the Year; bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00xc1j4

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