Unfailingly elegant and insightful, Martin Hulbert’s designs have earnt him a firm reputation as one of the UK’s top interior names. Since establishing his own company, Martin Hulbert Design, in 2010 with long-term colleague Jay Grierson, Martin has worked across a broad spread of hotels, private houses and apartments around the globe – earning several respected accolades along the way. Here, Martin talks about his inspirations, proudest achievements and his top interior spaces.
How did you forge a career in the industry, and what was it that first drew you to the world of design?
I was really interested in art at school and only ever thought of doing something creative. I went on to study Spatial Design, which seemed to incorporate all aspects of art and design in one degree. It also suggested the possibility of a career afterwards.
"One person who did inspire me was David Hicks. He was not someone to stick to the ‘rules’. He acknowledged the past in his designs but he was also genuinely creative and forward-looking"
I had lots of different jobs to begin with. I designed a shoe shop in Berlin, for instance, and a nightclub in Greece. I was open-minded about what I took on. I realised the experience would help me gain confidence and find my own style.
I spent a few years designing the interiors for cruise ships and this provided me with substantial background knowledge I was able to put into practice when I began on my own.
Who was inspirational to you in your early career, and why?
In some respects what I discovered when I started work was anything but inspirational. People who know me will tell you I am not big-headed, but I quickly came to the conclusion that much of the design world was seriously lacking in creativity. This encouraged me to find my own path and do my own thing.
One person who did inspire me was David Hicks. He was not someone to stick to the ‘rules’. He acknowledged the past in his designs but he was also genuinely creative and forward-looking.
"For some time now I have been contributing to the painstaking hand-made restoration of an independent hotel in Colombia, in the historic centre of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site"
What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you in your career so far?
My biggest challenge has to have been The Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire. It was my first hotel. It was also the first time a client had faith in me to allow me to do exactly what I wanted. The Grove became the springboard to many other exciting projects.
What is your proudest achievement to date?
There are quite a few designs I am proud of, not just hotels but smaller-scale residential projects too. In April 2011, I received from House & Garden magazine the annual Pineapple Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to hotel design.
What would you say are the defining philosophies of Martin Hulbert Design?
Original ideas, creativity, highly considered design. Concepts that challenge and change the nature of how a hotel is or should be. Design that is authentic and contains an element of wit to break down barriers and humanise spaces.
What are the most important creative developments in hospitality design that you have witnessed over the last 15 years or so and, looking forward, what challenges will designers need to create solutions for?
We have seen a move away from predictable and standard solutions towards designs that are individual, independent, unique. The challenge for the future is to keep pace with the speed of change and with the sheer scale of information on design that is out there in the media and on the internet. The market is flooded. Designers must strive to remain original and creative.
"I also like to look for art and sculpture and other items to introduce into the house, trying some of them out as ideas for future projects"
Describe your top three interior spaces, from anywhere in the world, and why they resonate with you
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is full of the most fantastic and sometimes unlikely things, a great place for ideas.
A living room still used by an elderly family member in the fire-damaged house at Nymans gardens in Sussex – not showy, understated, sensitive and intensely personal.
The Museum of Pre-Colombian Art in Santiago, Chile has exquisite displays in lighting that illuminates them against a dark background. The lighting is particularly striking in the new basement and on the staircase leading to it. The design employs steel, copper and bronze in pure clean lines against a backdrop of raw concrete.
If you were to design a hotel with a restaurant and a bar from the ground up, what would be the defining elements?
It would be independent and stand-alone. The interiors would not be self-important; they would be unbuttoned. They would contain a mix of the old and the new, with plenty of contributions from craftspeople. There would be original and beautiful works of art.
Lines would be clean and lighting would be sensitive. The bar would be informal and comfortable with low seating. It would be a place serving food as well, a semi-private space where someone might be happy to eat alone but still have glimpses of others.
Have you any hospitality projects in the pipeline that you are able to share with us?
Twelve years on, I have returned to The Grove, Hertfordshire to re-work some of the existing parts and to add a contemporary garden pavilion used for private events. In addition to designing the interiors, I have created the architecture for the pavilion.
By co-incidence, I am also involved with the separately-owned The Grove, Narberth. I am designing the interiors for this beautiful Arts and Crafts small hotel in West Wales. I aim to ensure they are incredibly sensitive to the place’s location and history.
For some time now I have been contributing to the painstaking hand-made restoration of an independent hotel in Colombia, in the historic centre of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What do you do in your downtime?
I spend most of my spare time in the garden that surrounds my home in rural Sussex. I have re-designed it, adding new borders and a large pond. I also like to look for art and sculpture and other items to introduce into the house, trying some of them out as ideas for future projects.