I first met Edward Bulmer in India. I was on my gap year and a friend had put me in touch with her uncle who was there travelling across the country with his young family. Two weary backpackers showed up and delighted in an evening spent eating pizza with the warmest company; three little girls (then 8, 10 and 12) who were bursting with excitement having just had their ears pierced. Nearly 15 years later, I spoke to Edward about his thriving business, Edward Bulmer Natural Paint and his ethos for work and family life.
What was behind your decision to go travelling as a family?
It was something that we wanted to do as part of what felt to us like natural parenting. It didn’t start as a trip to India, it started as a year abroad. We thought we’d go somewhere like Italy and find a bit of a restoration project and hope that by selling it afterwards we’d recoup our costs, and meanwhile the girls could have gone into a local school and hopefully learnt Italian. We realised after a while that a year was too short a period of time to find a property and get permission to do stuff etc.
Emma (my wife) thought that if we just took the children out of school for a term and added in the holidays either side it would give us about 5 months. She and I had never been to India and thought it would be the place. So we all went there for the first time which was nice as we were all in the same boat. The girls couldn’t turn to us and say what happens here? Because we didn’t really know. It was a formative experience for them and for us. It’s now a part of our family mythology.
Where did you go?
We started in Sri Lanka which is a gentle introduction to the Indian sub-continent. We went out in December and had Christmas on the beach which was a not wholly welcome experience. Then we flew to India and slowly progressed up the country, covering about half the states in total.
In each place we would find a homestay if possible, so that we were staying with an Indian family and eating proper Indian food. We’d often then get a local guide to get our bearings.
How did the school take it?
The school couldn’t have been more delighted, I mean what an amazing education they had. We did spend a couple of weeks in the desert in Rajasthan concentrating on the curriculum. We divided it up so Emma did the Sciences and I did the Arts and actually they didn’t fall behind at all. In certain things – like in English where Isabella’s set text was The Go Between which is one of my favourite novels – we were actually well ahead of the class.
Did you bring back lots of homewares?
No I didn’t. I didn’t find that I wanted to buy everything like some people do but I did appreciate the aesthetic. I work in historic buildings and there’s a very long tradition of cultural and economic linkage between India and Britain. Some of it is now thought of with difficult emotions, but actually we did some interesting and good things there too and we have been great appreciators of Indian culture. I like the way that we created a new aesthetic with this new knowledge and I’m quite drawn to that.
Who are your favourite furniture-makers to buy from?
Max Rollitt. The people who do good re-production furniture are nearly always antique dealers, for obvious reasons – they have had the antique pieces and they can strip them down to take them apart and see how to copy the profiles.
For sofas I still use Howard who are the mythical sofa makers. Old Howard sofas now fetch large sums of money and are extremely comfortable. A lot of that is to do with their construction. But even people who have copied them really meticulously, and even funnily enough the company today – their new sofas are not quite the same thing as the old, and I can see why people pay well over the odds for antique versions.
Why are old sofas so appealing?
I like that they don’t sit on the floor, they are usually a foot to 18 inches off the floor. That means that if you have a nice rug you can see it. I don’t like that block-y look of a sofa on the floor in the middle of the room, they need relieving.
The most comfortable sofa in the world has usually got 100% down cushions. And they’re wonderful but once you’ve sat on them for half an hour they become a pancake. So I’m sure in the days when you had people to plump them up after you’d left they’d be lovely. But we don’t find many people want to do that or have the staff.
They weren’t Netflix slobs then…
Exactly! Now we need our cushions to be more robust. We would use a mix of the lovely soft feathers and stronger more structural feathers like duck and some fibre sometimes. You need to know what you want to get a comfortable sofa. The advantage of making a new sofa in an old style is that you can get them deeper than they were in the past.
In the old days would people have painted their walls in bright colours in the way that we do now?
I think there is a bit of a misconception that the past was more colourful in terms of wall paints than it actually was. It’s highly unlikely people would have painted their walls in bright colours. In the old days just as now people ranged in their ability to spend. The very richest clients could afford oil paints but lower-middle income people would have colour that was achieved with earth pigments. Those will give you nice whites, off-whites, stoney colours, greys, pale pinky colours. In the 19th century and they found a way to make paints cheaper and easier to come by so what happens in art begins to happen in wall painting.
Economics would have played a very large part in it, as it does today. You’ll see Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen writing fatuous articles about Farrow & Ball paint being £90 and B&Q paint being £15 or whatever. And that matters to some people because not everyone can or wants to spend the higher kind of price. But the cheap paint is cheap paint because we’re paying for it in other ways – as we’re now beginning to find out through the global climate crisis.
Do you have a favourite building?
The truth is probably no. I find it difficult to have favourites. But I can tell you why I would favour something. I would favour it because I perceive in it artistic endeavour. And that could be in a house or a painting. Or a dress design, or a piece of music. I appreciate buildings that suit humans well.
I am much more interested in my working life in decorating houses that are homes, usually family homes but they can be state or collectors re-owned that still being used as a home. I have done very little work for the National Trust for example because the owners of all those houses are either dead or absent but I’ve done lots more work with the members of the Historic Houses Association whose houses are now the hub of businesses. My favourite period tends to be the Georgian period for the clarity and order of Classical design. I find them very convenient buildings to live in myself or to envisage others living in.
Do you use your own house as a canvas for playing with your paint colours?
Yes we do. We paint the rooms quite often for photoshoots. I know that our colours work and that’s really the point.
How do the colours come about?
Our colour range is designed to work hard if you’re decorating a building that has other things going on in it, and most buildings do. That might mean a floor-board or a marble chimney-piece or a favourite fabric. What you need to know is that the tonality of your colours are suitable and our paints have a common tonality that’s also a common thread through a lot of natural materials like stone and timber, terracotta etc.
We’ve sometimes in the past talked about ‘interior design in a tin’. That is kind of what we’re trying to do. The colours we offer are not colours that have been inspired by our last beach holiday or a walk up a Scottish mountain. They are colours we know have been passed down to us, like recipes get passed down. Because they are just useful time after time after time. They just work. And we love them.
What advice would you have for someone with no idea where to begin?
Order our free colour chart. If you can’t choose one of those 90 colours then give us a call and we will help you choose.
Have you got a favourite of your paints?
I don’t find yellow easy to decorate with but the room we’re painting as we speak we’re painting in a colour of ours called Persian and it’s glorious. It’s manufactured sunshine.
Generally I veer towards blue-y greens and greeny-y blues. We have a colour called Aquatic that I am very fond of. I think that’s because in my lexicon colour is always a backdrop. So I’m always thinking what colour will pictures look good on, and often those pictures are framed in gilt frames or wooden frames so you need to be considering how those look etc.
You started your company in 2013, what would you say has changed in that time?
The biggest change is the realisation that plastic is an enormous problem. And it’s a problem that it’s going to be extremely hard to rein back from. Not just the burden of plastic pollution already but the fact that we’re all plastic addicts now. So how do we go into the cold turkey that’s required? My answer to that would be that we’re not going to kick the habit but that we need to work out what should be made of plastic and what shouldn’t. One of the things that certainly shouldn’t be is paint. We’re on the vanguard of eliminating it from our sector, but you know solving it in paint is not going to save the world.
You’re a pioneer. If every industry could have someone do the work…
That is all it takes! And by the way when they’re doing it they’ll make themselves rich, they’ll create jobs and they’ll keep the economy going. You know, it’s nonsense to think that we can’t save the planet because we’re trying to save the economy.
Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline?
I am spending my time writing a book commissioned by Rizzoli. They publish a lot of books of interiors and country houses and have beautiful photography. They are lovely picture books. Picture books are great! Picture books inspire us. For me, on a vain note it’s nice to think that what you’ve been up to for 30 years is worth recording.