Martin Waller: The interior designer who never grew up

With the spirit of Peter Pan and the lifestyle of Indiana Jones, Martin Waller has been scouring the world for inspiration for decades, and will host the 20th Interior Design Awards later this month

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Martin Waller is the interiors designer and collector who never grew up. His design showroom can only be described as Aladdin’s cave, full of antiquities and treasures collected from all corners of the globe. Showing me around his South Kensington studio his boyish excitable nature shines through, jumping from one thing to the next, excitedly showing off riches from far-flung places – each with their own story –  from an ancient skeletal bear paw to huge chest of drawers used to store spices, to well-loved classic ladybird books and old cash registers which are thoughtfully placed among his elegant interior accessories, furniture and wallpapers made of rich textiles with tribal prints and bold colours. 

His childhood and love of travel is at the epicentre of his designs, harking back to first reading a Reader’s Digest book of travels as a school child with chicken pox. It became the catalyst for his obsession with “things and history”, as he puts it, which made way for his famed Fusion Interiors; mixture cultures, colours, fabrics, objects and time periods in one design. It’s charming and fascinating. 

Dubbed as the modern Indiana Jones, Waller chuckles it’s a nickname he can live with. “I don’t mind snakes, I don’t have a hat and I’m not always getting chased by baddies  but what I do like is going to strange and wonderful places and finding things there”. It’s a dream we’d all love to live out. 

And one that he has managed to successfully carve out over the last 38 years, as the founder of the Andrew Martin design brand in 1978. This year welcomes the 20th anniversary of the Interior Design Awards, which Martin set up himself. “At the time interiors weren’t getting the attention it merited. There was such a hole, and some interior designers have been so influential in the way we live. And this award just puts a punctuation mark beside them.”

The awards also have their own – and rather impressive – nickname; the Oscars of the design world and the list of recipients of Designer of the Year include the likes of Kelly Hoppen, Kit Kemp and Stephen Fackle. 

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One of the latest Andrew Martin cushion designs is a collaboration with artist Hannah Frean, and features bold colours and a stencil animal print, prices start from £78, andrewmartin.co.uk (Sky Moore-Clube)

And to go with the awards, is the Interior Design Review, which is a masterpiece in sheer size as well as content. “The books document the change in interior design and the way people live,” says Waller. And to him, even the books are focused on culture: “I think one of the interesting things about the book is how it emphasises the differences between the way different countries approach interior design”, as it includes designs from all over the world.

“Just because the same names are on the high street of every city in the world, you’d think that people would look identical, but actually, they don’t. You can recognise Italians because they knot their ties in a particular way, and wear brown shoes with grey flannel suits and they look very cool and Germans wear curiously coloured jackets and Americans wear sneakers and there are such strong national characteristics in dress, but it is also true in interiors too.”

But to win the award, it’s not enough to be an accomplished re-hasher of something that’s already been around for ages, he says. Although it’s highly subjective, entries also have to match the key elements of originality and beautiful design, and ultimately judges choose someone they would be happy designing their own home. “I always think of it as being like the ice skating at the Winter Olympics – how do you ever tell who is the winner?”

For Waller, the most important things when designing a room are light, paint and things. “When I’m designing for a client, I find out what they’re interested in – everyone loves something . It’s about reflecting their personality, not mine. 

“And once those critical elements are in place, then it’s all about comfort. That’s not just soft furnishings cushions, but about people feeling comfortable when they’re home and thinking this is me, this is who I am.”

The awards are hosted in the home city of the winner, which this year is Nicky Haslam who brings the awards to London. Making it even more special, they will be hosted in the hotly anticipated Design Museum in its new location of Kensington, opening of Thursday, ahead of the ceremony on 30 November. 

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