The wild man of DIY: The Deborah Ross Interview

Last week on BBC1's Changing Rooms, 12 million people watched this man reduce a woman to tears just by redecorating her dining room. Meet Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the leather-trousered musketeer of interiors
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It's 9.58am at my house, a north London Victorian terraced job that would be disappointingly bog standard were it not for a few clever original touches: the odd missing balustrade; the Premier League stickers adhered everywhere; the lopsided toilet seat given to crashing off if you don't position yourself right; the bathroom cabinet from Ikea which took me four hours to assemble upside down; my six-year-old son's artworks hung up everywhere because I don't have the heart to tell him he is entirely ungifted, and the kitchen floor that doesn't even have the decency to be cork, so is a kind of nasty lino pretending to be cork (circa 1972). Bizarrely, my house has never been featured in House Beautiful or Period Living or Wallpaper* or even Feng Shui: A Guide to Modern Living, which is particularly odd, because I like a bit of Chi, especially first thing of a morning with milk and two sugars.

Anyway, I need help, I think. And I want help. I want a nice house. I want visitors to say, "What a nice house," instead of, "I seem to have had an accident in the lavatory". So, to this end, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, star of the BBC's Changing Rooms, is coming round! Truly, he is! In fact, he's going to be here in two minutes. TWO MINUTES! Quick, everyone, action stations! Look, I don't care who took the bite from the pear then put it back in the fruit bowl, just GET RID OF IT! Husband, please try and do something about the toilet seat. Son, pick up anything and shove it in a cupboard. Hamster, stop being so smelly, right now, do you hear? Ding dong. He's here. Oh my God, my panic attack is having a panic attack. Deep breaths, deep breaths. "Hello Laurence. How nice to meet you. Come in. Come in..."

So, in he comes. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. He's standing in my hall, now. In his leather trousers, fuchsia velvet hunting jacket, purple shirt with exploding cuffs, and the hair-do that seems to have become quite a high- maintenance celebrity in its own right. "I have to take it to Charles Worthington at least every six weeks, where it's tossed and furled like a salad." He looks quite scary, yes. I think he would probably like to be described as "Byronic" but, overall, the effect is part D'Artagnan and part Dana International. "He's not actually going to do anything, is he?," whispers my husband worriedly. "Is he A GIRL?" my son asks loudly. "Coffee?" I enquire brightly.

Into the kitchen. Laurence has come with his assistant, Jonathan. Jonathan's a nice, curly-haired boy in an Ozwald Boateng suit. Laurence doesn't just do the telly stuff. "I do it for real, as well." He has a lot of private clients. He once did Keith Floyd's place. Keith complained that Laurence hadn't antiqued the furniture sufficiently. Laurence said OK, he could use wax or a paint effect to antique it up, but Keith said he had a better idea. "He came back five minutes later with a gun and fired several shots about the room. He smashed a couple of windows, but the furniture looked bloody brilliant!"

Anyway, Laurence and Jonathan have dropped in on their way to Finchley, where they are doing up a lottery winner's house. "We're being worked to death," complains Laurence happily. Is interior design the new rock'n'roll?, I ask. "I prefer to think of it as the new chocolate. Not particularly necessary, but indulgent and delicious." Jonathan "sources" things for Laurence. According to Laurence, this means "poor Jonathan" has to schlep around shops in Chelsea, "asking to see what they have in corduroy". Poor Jonathan indeed, I sympathise.

Laurence is very impressed by the Artexed ceiling in my kitchen. "Have you ever thought of doubling it, and painting it terracotta?" He likes the farmhouse pine kitchen table very much. "So Eighties! What about some motifing?"

"I think I might go out," says my husband, a working-class boy who thinks any kind of home improvement that doesn't involve Dralon is an act of class betrayal. "Mummy, is HE A GIRL?" repeats my son. "I think, perhaps, you could both go out," I suggest. "Mummy, why are his TROUSERS so FUNNY? Daddy, aren't his trousers funny?" Out! Now! I decide to make coffee using my hardly-ever used, stupidly fiddly, total-waste-of-money cappuccino/ espresso machine (Argos, pounds 34.99). I am in such a dither I forget to put the water in. The whole thing explodes, shooting clods of coffee up the wall. "Nescafe?" I enquire brightly. "Why not?" chorus Jonathan and Laurence sweetly.

The success of Changing Rooms has, yes, been entirely spectacular. The current series - Thursdays, 8pm, BBC1 - attracts an average weekly audience of 12 million. The idea is simple. Friends and neighbours radically redecorate rooms in each other's homes with the help of professional designers, on a budget of pounds 500 and a two-day time scale. "By 3pm on day two, everyone gets a paintbrush. We even had the controller of BBC2 at it once."

Tell me, is Carol Smillie entirely perfect? "She can work like a packhorse if she likes the scheme." No cellulite, then? "Not that I've noticed." Does she have to wear the pants from M&S that keep your tummy in? "I really wouldn't know."

What we do all know is that Changing Rooms is a potent mix, taking as it does interior design, aspirational DIY and voyeurism, and shaking it up with a good measure of human relations. Most enjoyably, things don't always go right - or even turn out nice - and there are tears. And when this happens, Laurence has usually had something to do with it.

Last Thursday, for example, we saw a woman called Susan burst into tears when she saw how he'd transformed her extension into a plum-red quasi- Queen Anne dining-room featuring a mock fireplace and portraits of herself and her husband as Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys.

Laurence, you were taking the piss, weren't you?

"No. NO! I thought she would really like it. I was very upset when she didn't. I had to confine myself to my chaise- longue for four days, smoking Turkish cigarettes and eating chocolate." In a previous series, a south London couple complained that his scarlet walls, zebra-patterned panels and animal print cushions turned their lounge into "a whore's palace".

His taste does seem to be very Readers' Wives. It's funny, now I think about it, that you never seem to get good interiors with porn. Possibly, it further occurs to me, there may even be a gap in the market for a publication called, say, "House & Tart". Certainly, it would be more entertaining than Wallpaper* which, even Laurence has to accept, is a bit over the top. "It's impractical design for people who will rush to Stockholm for a pillowcase."

Anyway. Laurence, what do you think of the design here so far?

"Deborah," he replies, "there is no design. It's Hiroshima. There's junk everywhere! Think storage, storage, storage. Think coffee-tables that open up so you can put things in them."

Laurence, I say, my trouble is that, while I want things to be nice, I can't think storage, storage, storage or coffee-tables that open up so you can put things in them. Art can move me. Music can move me. Literature can move me. But, design, I'm afraid, cannot - unless, of course, it's a good design for a bus. I can't help thinking a sofa is for lying on, not for replacing with something lime-green and inflatable that's going to go BANG! the first time you nod off while having a fag.

OK - I do, occasionally, try to be game. I once bought Elle Decoration, but just the act tired me out. I can't cope with the built-in obsolescence of things. You know, people who rag-rolled in peaches and corals five years ago look like total fools today, don't they? "Oh yes, rag-rolling couldn't be more out." Dragging? "Out." Colourwashing? "OUT. I don't believe in worrying paint as a collie worries sheep." Stencilling? "There will always be room for stencilling." Ikea bathroom cabinets assembled upside down? "Um... interesting." Conran stuff? "Fine for label slaves who want to buy into that lifestyle." Feng shui? "I'm more into vastu shastra." Bless you! "It's the Hindu version of feng shui, actually." See! See! Feng shui - the ancient art of not putting things where you are going to trip over them - isn't even in any more! "But why, when you paint your balustrades, should it be for life? It only costs pounds 15 to paint a room, you know. Now, can I use your bathroom?" "Top of the stairs." Crash! "Um... I seem to have had an accident in your lavatory..."

Laurence is quite funny and bright. I am starting to have quite a good time. We talk about architecture, and his theory that Britain doesn't have much good architecture because we've never had a despotic regime. "Look at any country that has had a despotic regime. The most magnificent palaces..." We talk about World of Leather. Laurence, they have these huge sites, but whenever you go past there never seem to be any customers in there. How do they survive? "Perhaps they do a lot over the phone," suggests Laurence. "Or perhaps they get pounds 2,000 from the Government for each mad cow they turn into a suite." We talk, too, about how important it is (in his book) to have child-free zones in a house. He has two daughters "and I knew I had to do something when I started having erotic dreams about Pocahontas".

Laurence lives in Greenwich, south east London. No, he doesn't live in a big loft or something made of glass. He lives in a Thirties bungalow with "a dormer extension", whatever that may be. It's great inside, he insists. "Terrific central spiral staircase."

He is just having a new Andrew Mackintosh kitchen put in. "It's shit," he says. "Send it back, then," I say. "No. The colour. It's midway between chocolate and aubergine. It's going to look fab."

He has been married for 10 years to a woman called Jackie, who now manages him but used to run Jackie Llewelyn Weddings, a one-stop wedding service for the society rich. She once, he relates proudly, arranged a country wedding, which meant asking the next-door farmer to swap the black-and- white cows in his field for buff ones, because "they didn't go with the scheme". Their two daughters are Cecile, three, and Hermione, who was born just last week "and looks like a little woodland creature". Cecile is very much his daughter. "She's already started colourwashing the bathroom cabinet with toothpaste."

He is quite famous now, and only has to take Cecile to the park to be "accosted by people who want to know how to lighten up their living-rooms". Once, in a night-club in Aberdeen, he found himself suddenly surrounded by teenagers wanting to know what colour they should paint their ceilings. "It was a bit difficult to answer, what with `Oops Upside Your Head' going on in the background. I think I just yelled `PURPLE' at them all." He adores the attention, of course.

Although of Welsh extraction, he was born and brought up in Dulwich, south London. His father, Trefor Llewelyn-Bowen, was a renowned orthopaedic surgeon, who died of leukaemia when Laurence was nine. Laurence never got to know him well, and has few memories of him. He was quite distant, at work all the time. "The only thing I remember was having to tour his wards on Christmas mornings." His mother, Patricia, was a "feisty teacher" who did a lot of work in London's slum areas. She now has MS and is wheelchair- bound, "but you can still slice cheese with her brain. She lives in a nursing home that she also seems to run."

He was quite arty as a kid, yes, but thought, initially, he would be a lawyer - right up until his O-levels, "when I suffered from a massive attack of laziness. I knew A-levels would be a step too far."

He enrolled at Camberwell College of Art, where he did big, narrative, historical paintings and grew his hair and cuffs long. Then it was a job in an art gallery, a marketing position with a rubber flooring company, then a job with a top interior design company, which he left in 1989 to go it alone. His first-ever client? A Mrs Steele in Eaton Square "who'd just bought the house off Lulu". He did "big curtains and rag-rolling" for her.

Do you ever, Laurence, feel sorry for people who have to employ you to tell them what their taste is? "No, no. It's not like that. Most people have very strong tastes. They know what they want to do. They just want a doctor's certificate to say: "OK, go ahead and do it." What's the biggest budget you've ever worked with? "pounds 14m for a house in Mayfair, which included a Thunderbirds-style swimming-pool." But that's obscene, I cry. "I know," he cries. Happily.

A quick tour of the rest of the house. The things that especially impressed him were: the bits of Lego and lost Subbuteo players that crunched underfoot, the complete lack of wardrobes in the bedrooms ("This isn't a house! It's a jumble sale!"); the school-made calender decorated with dried pasta ("it wouldn't be so bad, but it's 1995!") and, of course, the kitchen floor. "It really does need some attention."

He and Jonathan then leave. Big kisses all round, mwah, mwah! Then my boys, who had, I think, been hiding round the corner until it was safe to return, do so. "Mummy, was that man, A GIRL or WHAT?" Quiet, darling, I just need to talk to Daddy.

I am quite fired up. We must do this to the bedroom, I say, and that to the bathroom, and think storage, and convert the cellar and re-do the hall and build a conservatory and subscribe to House Beautiful and GET RID OF THE KITCHEN FLOORING. OK, says my husband, who takes a corner of the old lino, rips it off in a great big sheet, and throws it out of the window. (Our new, bare concrete and old bits of floorboard kitchen floor is featured in this month's "World of Completely Crap Interiors", which can be found below "House & Tart", but is no less entertaining for that.)

"That's that, then," he says, "See what I mean now about interior design being more trouble than it's worth?"

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