Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen on decorating for Christmas and Changing Rooms' returnDecember 15, 2020
There is a traditional nativity scene in the grand home of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
Centre stage is a crib for the baby Jesus and it is one of the theatrical designer’s most valued Christmas treasures.
It is not, as one might expect, a four-poster affair with velvet bedding and a flouncy valance. In fact, the holy infant lays on top of a mouldy crinkle-cut crisp.
‘One of my daughters lost the crib when they were very young so placed the baby Jesus on a ridged crisp instead – and there he has remained for 20 years,’ laughs Laurence, 55.
‘That ridged crisp is now like a holy artefact and every year I’m terrified it might not have survived. But it always does.’
Christmas has always been a fun family affair in the in the Llewelyn-Bowen household. And it will be this year, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
This is due to that fact that his daughters Cecile and Hermione and their partners live with him and wife Jackie in their sprawling seven-bedroom, 17th-century manor house in the heart of the Cotswolds.
Also in residence is their four-year-old grandson Albion, three spaniels, two cats and a flock of inquisitive chickens who like to wander into the house.
In many ways, lockdown has been a dress rehearsal for Christmas. ‘Dressing up, over-indulging on the cheese, hitting the drinks trolley at 5pm. Like most people, we confused lockdown with an as-much-as-you-can-eat buffet. And as lockdown progressed, everyone in our family got dressier and camper – it was Little House On The Prairie meets RuPaul’s Drag Race. Christmas will be much the same – but much more panto!’
It is gloriously festive. Though this is the first year they have had a Christmas tree since they bought the house 13 years ago.
‘One of the issues with a house this age is that the ceilings aren’t very high, which makes Christmas trees difficult. I know that sounds a bit poncey but the proportions are all wrong so garlands are much more suited.
‘They’re all artificial in very traditional retro dark green and red and blue, colours which all spring out of the sofa. My advice is to create something that looks good in the room – Christmas should always complement your décor.
‘But Albion was so upset that we’d never had a Christmas tree that we bought one for him this year. I didn’t want a Kardashian monster – and it’s potted so we’ll put it in the garden after Christmas.’
Jackie usually cooks lunch for 15 family, friends and neighbours. But this year it will just be the nine of them.
There will be a no-fuss turkey crown from a local farmer with all the trimmings – using a ‘crafty carb’ menu in a bid to shed the pounds they all piled on during lockdown using low-carb and guilt-free flour to make the mince pies and festive cakes.
In the new year, Laurence will also start filming the much-awaited new series of Changing Rooms, the show that made his name 25 years-ago. Jackie remembers some pretty hairy Changing Room moments from their own Christmas pasts.
She recalls: ‘In our first flat, Laurence dripped wax onto all the branches of the Christmas tree to make it look like hanging crystals. It was so heavy the tree toppled over.’
‘It wasn’t my finest hour,’ laughs Laurence. ‘The carpet was f** and most of the saucepans were screwed. It must have cost 200 quid just in coloured candles!’
These days Jackie gets much more of a say in their interior décor – and during lockdown the entire family embarked on redecorating the ground floor of the house.
‘For the last ten years I’d been filming abroad, and suddenly in 2020 I find myself walking round my garden like William Morris in a straw hat going: “Oh my god, this is wonderful.” It gave me the inspiration to create new patterns for my collections.
‘While lockdown eroded routines, it also brought us back to focusing on who we are and what things are important to us. For some reason, Brits believe that good taste is unobtainable because you have to be ridiculously posh, and bad taste is feared because you will be judged by your in-laws or won’t be able to sell your house.
‘The key is to bring your personality to a space. There’s a lot going on in our house but everything has a memory and is part of our storytelling. It works because we only have things that we love in our home.
‘Don’t ever get bullied by the minimalists into hiding everything in your understairs cupboard. A home should be layered and sometimes one more pattern is just what you need. That old line from Chanel, “before you leave take something off” is b**** … put on a tiara!’
Laurence’s Damask Dangereuse wallpaper lines the walls of the newly decorated dining room. And there’s a fabric cloth to match on the table, which might look fancy but is in fact a piece of MDF on top of a catering table with fold-down legs. ‘It’s a very posh nod to Changing Rooms,’ he laughs.
There’s a nude on the wall which has been the playful backdrop to many of his Zoom calls and TV interviews. ‘She is called Velma and my retaliation for the fact everyone else Zooms in front of a bookcase. At one point on BBC breakfast news, my head was between her knockers.’
The couple have missed travelling in 2020 and that is evident in their refurb. He says: ‘When we finished the kitchen, we looked at the palm tree wallpaper and the dark green cupboard fronts made by Creative Chic, which are the same colour as a bottle of gin, and realised we’d turned our beautiful 17th-century manor house in the Cotswolds into the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados.’
In the living room, there are original wooden floors, beams and a secret door in the bookcase with a spy hole. The house was allegedly haunted and there are 17th-century Quaker graves in the garden.
‘It was neglected with no sense of its own personality. The first thing we did was fill it with people, with gin, with children and dogs. Then we wallpapered it to within an inch of its life. Frankly the wallpaper scared the ghosts away!’
Laurence hopes people will enjoy new relationships with their homes. ‘Over lockdown, people have been looking at four beige walls thinking, ‘why did I go for this colour?’
They did it because they were worried they would never be able to sell it. It’s time to stop seeing our homes as financial investments but as emotional investments that have kept us safe in these incredibly turbulent times and brought our families back together.
‘We will come out of this better, more humane, engaged and confident about who we are and how we want our homes to look. We are not a beige nation, and in 2021 it will be my mission to make Britain bright again.’
Changing Rooms is back in Janurary
Twenty-five years ago, Changing Rooms exploded onto our screens. With tight budgets, lots of MDF and DIY disasters, its aim was to transform the boring interiors of ordinary people’s homes.
It became one of the BBC’s biggest success stories as more than 11 million viewers tuned in to watch modest semis and council houses get £500 revamps with wobbly four-poster beds, fake fireplaces and fluorescent tangerine walls.
It made a star out of Laurence and his velvet suits and trademark paisley shirts.
‘The show launched on the back of a period where Dulux’s top-selling paint colours were ‘white with a hint of apple’ and ‘white with a hint of barley,’ says Laurence.
‘And here we are in 2020 where the top-selling colours are varying shades of total understatement. We are not a beige nation. We are the nation of quite mad eccentrics that spawned William Morris, Terence Conran, Biba, Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith.
‘During lockdown people have been staring at four beige walls and saying “this isn’t me!” They’re ready for some opulence and colour. The return of the show really couldn’t be more timely.’
Laurence believes the original show, which ran from 1996-2004 over 17 series, was popular because it didn’t edit out the mishaps. ‘They had the courage to leave all the mistakes in. Everyone got over excited, weepy, shirty, stroppy – it really was the first TV reality show.’
There are bigger budgets for the new show and there won’t be any wobbly walls to worry health and safety.
‘None of those were my wobbly walls,’ he laughs. ‘In fact, in hundreds of shows, I only had three owners who hated what I did. If I could see halfway through that the makeover was completely pants, I’d paint a renaissance style landscape and hang it over the fireplace. Then at least the owners could flog it on eBay.’
And at the other end of the scale, Laurence is also helping lottery winners to find dream homes in a new series for the Discovery Channel.
My Lottery Dream Home International is coming soon to Discovery UK. If you have won the lottery or a large sum of money, contact Beyond Productions for more information, [email protected].
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