The actors turned interior designers 2 Lovely Gays are shaking up the decorating world with their theatrical flair. Home pays them a visit.
Asked to describe the style of their 1870s house in Forest Hill, southeast London, Jordan Cluroe, 34, and Russell Whitehead, 36, can’t agree on a definition: “Restrained opulence?” “Um, decorative joy?” So let me have a stab — it’s a sophisticated, contemporary take on luxury, founded on a love of heritage, craft and intriguing materials, realised in a My Little Pony meets Memphis Milano palette. It’s a fabulous, fun antidote to every tentative grey non-home ever. It’s the perfect introduction to the couple who call themselves 2 Lovely Gays.
Design insiders won’t need an intro to 2LG, the rising stars of the interiors scene. But here’s a precis, in case you didn’t catch Cluroe on The Great Interior Design Challenge, don’t read the chaps’ award-winning blog and haven’t seen one of their product collaborations, launched this year. (The deconstructed floral print, created with Custhom, was outstanding.) They met in 2006 while both working as actors, and bought and renovated their first flat together in south London. It was the postcode of this apartment, SE23 2LG, that led to the pair being nicknamed 2 Lovely Gays by their friends.
After the makeover was featured in a newspaper in 2012, they began to be offered design work as well as acting roles. Life became hectic. “In 2013, I was doing eight shows a week in Chicago while renovating this 20-room hotel and restaurant in the day,” Whitehead recalls. “It was madness.” At this point, a mate at the BBC suggested that they might like to audition for a new makeover show, and, to cut a long story short, Cluroe was runner-up in the first series of GIDC.
One of the programme’s judges, the interior designer Daniel Hopwood — or, as they call him, “our Mr Miyagi” [from The Karate Kid] — became their mentor. “It gave us the confidence to say goodbye to our acting life and focus entirely on our design business,” Whitehead explains. “We set up 2 Lovely Gays in 2014, and have been working full-time as designers ever since.”
They quickly realised that the skills needed to be successful in musical theatre could be transferred to a career in interiors. “What we were trained to do as actors is adapt and change, to get inside people’s characters so we adapt to their style,” Whitehead says. In their own home, however, 2LG could reveal their true colours — which turned out to be mostly blush pink.
When they bought the four-bedroom terraced house 21 months ago for £750,000, there was a substantial list of work to be done before the first coat of Mylands Rose Theatre marble matt paint could touch a cornice. The roof required repairs, the chimneys had to be restacked and repointed, and the building needed rewiring and new central heating. Most of the interiors had to be reskimmed with plaster and all the original sash windows needed replacing.
“We’ve put in new wooden sashes with double glazing in the lounge,” Cluroe says. “We are still saving up to restore the rest of the windows, doing one each birthday and Christmas, but it hasn’t stopped us from decorating.”
The building itself, and its previous occupant, a woman called Mary Bell, were Cluroe and Whitehead’s muses while devising the decor. They were determined that their scheme would harmonise with the late-19th-century features and pay tribute to Bell’s flamboyant taste. “She was bold in her choices. She had some wild wallpaper,” Cluroe says.
Whitehead takes up the tale: “We found stacks of old magazines in the loft. Ideal Home, and House & Garden from 1959, which I think was the year Mary did her decorating — in the dressing room, there was a crazy carpet from one of the magazines.”
Inspired by her style, this year 2LG collaborated with the wallpaper manufacturer Graham & Brown to launch the Perry Rise collection of extravagantly decorative papers, seen in their dining room and lounge. They are now working with Brintons to create eye-popping carpet designs from archive patterns that match the age of the house, a sample of which snakes up their stairs. Bell would unquestionably have adored both ranges. Yet she might well ask the couple why, after coming up to two years in her house, they still haven’t acquired a proper bathroom. “We had such a lovely shower in our last house, and now… it’s amazing how you can get used to a hose over the bath,” Cluroe says.
The drawn-out refurb is partly for budget reasons, but they also think it’s a great way to renovate. “Our previous property was finished to within an inch of its life,” Whitehead says. “This is actually more enjoyable to live in.”
He indicates the unpapered walls and chaotic rooms (off limits to our camera). “We’re embracing how we’re living right now. I love slow interiors, and that’s what we’ve allowed ourselves by buying this house. Client projects have a time limit, but this house is our chance to relax and indulge in every bit.” Though the shower is the opposite of opulent, they have enjoyed the luxury of letting ideas develop as they visit exhibitions, see films and discover new designers and makers.
Inspiration often comes from the worlds of fashion and music: among many others, they name Alexander McQueen (the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A, 2015) and Christine and the Queens (Brixton Academy, last month) as influences. They adore I Am Love, a film starring Tilda Swinton, set in Villa Necchi, Milan, and the design practice whose work they most admire is the arty-glamorous Dimore Studio, also in Milan. Favourite contemporary makers include Olivia Aspinall, who created the spectacular jesmonite console in their hallway, and Bag & Bones, which made the LED neon sculpture in the sitting room (“Hello There”, which changes to “Hell Here” in homage to Catwoman’s artwork in the film Batman Returns).
The change of career from theatre to interiors sounds as if it has gone swimmingly, with no need for formal retraining. What was their secret? “The absolute key when you are self-taught is to know your limitations,” Whitehead says. “We work with architects a lot. We are associate members of the British Institute of Interior Design, and we’ve had moments when we’ve picked Dan’s brains and he’s helped us out.”
The apparent ease of their ascent has irritated some of the stuffier inhabitants of Planet Decor. “I think we’ve ruffled some feathers,” Cluroe says. “I always feel like Pretty Woman when I go to Chelsea Harbour” — picture Julia Roberts being blanked by posh shopgirls in Rodeo Drive.
Whitehead describes being buttonholed by a curmudgeonly decorator at the BIID conference. “She said, ‘What makes you think you can start your own interior-design studio?’ It wasn’t a nice question, it was an accusation. I didn’t know what to say. I should have said that the work was coming in, and we had a choice — we could refuse it or do it.” Cluroe mutters that he can think of a better response.
Perhaps it’s the name that puts establishment noses out of joint. Is it a bit too camp for comfort, even in the world of interiors? “It was not about making a political statement,” Whitehead says. “We’re loud and proud, but we’re not on a soapbox.” Cluroe adds: “We think it’s approachable and friendly. Some people have found it confrontational. Some people say, ‘Are you the 2 Lovely Guys?’ And I think, ‘You can’t say it, can you?’”
In the main, though, their generation and their clients find it unremarkable. It’s amusing and endearing, like the chaps themselves. I wonder, though, if it will stop them being taken seriously as professionals. Whitehead answers: “My dad once said to me, ‘In our society, there’s this idea that nice doesn’t win. I’ve been nice my whole life and I’m not doing so bad.’ I like that — 2 Lovely Gays is nice, the word lovely is nice, but nice can also be excellent.”
• Use your ceilings. They are always ignored, but a bit of wallpaper or a bold colour on a ceiling looks fabulous.
• Think about the bones of your home and be authentic. Do you have a Victorian house with deep coving? Add your own contemporary layer, but please don’t go 1930s.
• Do spend money on the hardware you touch every day — switches and door handles. They should be the best quality you can afford.
• Try marble matt paint. The one from Mylands, which is made with marble dust, is flat, matt and scrubbable.
• Stop micro-shopping. It’s when you fall in love with an individual item and don’t think about the bigger picture. Some people have a home full of micro-shopped items. They call it eclectic. We have another word for it.