Co Down designer Ian Thompson talks to Stephanie Bell about his globe-trotting career transforming celebrities’ homes and reveals how he’s passing his time while in lockdown
When top Northern Ireland interior designer Ian Thompson took a call from George Best, he put the phone down because he thought someone was winding him up.
To this day he is grateful that a bemused George rang back immediately and managed to persuade him that he was in fact the real deal.
And just when you think they don't get any more famous than the local football legend, Ian can also boast the Queen among his long list of famous clients.
After 40 years in the business of transforming the homes of the rich and famous, the Belfast-based designer has a wealth of fascinating stories to tell.
Not someone who takes himself too seriously, Ian's humour is currently adding a bit of light relief to lockdown for his more than 47,000 Instagram followers in a new daily video dairy on how he is coping with being stuck at home.
He is also entertaining a wider local audience in a new BBC One NI series, My First Home.
Teaming up with presenter Vinny Hurrell, Ian is helping first-time buyers to create a millionaire look in their new homes.
Currently on lockdown at his exquisite 18th century gate lodge in Killinchy with his wife and business partner Cheryl, Ian has decided to keep boredom at bay by teaching himself new skills.
And he is sharing his efforts in a light-hearted daily video blog which is being watched by thousands on Instagram.
"We are very privileged to be in a beautiful cottage in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields and we want to share a bit of that with people at this time and have a bit of fun," he says.
"I've never been housebound in my life and I was soon climbing the walls so I decided to do the daily videos for a bit of craic - we now have 4,000 views every day. I am learning how to cook, I'm wine tasting and I'm doing plenty of gardening which I have never done before.
"I am currently planting seeds - I have never planted a seed in my life.
"Now that we are all confined to four walls and a garden, it is a chance to interact with people from all over the world who have been sharing what they are doing too.
"I find people enjoy learning if there is humour in it and if we can make people laugh during this tough time - then job done."
Ian (56) is married to interior designer Cheryl (53) and they have two children, Jared (28) and Kelly (29), and one grandson, Jacob, who is 11 months.
Ian grew up off the Antrim Road in Belfast where his love for interior design was honed as a child, thanks to his parents.
Although he never formally studied the craft, he opened his first shop with Cheryl at the age of 18 and it took off straight away.
"My dad owned a clothing factory and I would go and help him out so I was surrounded by fabrics from a young age, it's part of my DNA." he explains.
"Mum was always taking me to auctions and art exhibitions so it was in the blood.
"Even as a young person I was always moving people's furniture around and I opened my first shop in a converted barn in Comber."
Among his early clients was the late, great George Best who called Ian when he returned home with wife Alex around the year 2000.
George and Alex left London and moved into a house in Portavogie to try and help George stay sober while he battled his alcohol addiction.
It was a special place for the couple as the late star's widow Alex told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I loved that house," she said. "It was wonderful, and it was the first house that George lived in, that he participated in renovating and decorating. It gave him something to focus on as he battled his demons."
Ian recalls how George rang him up to ask for help in transforming his new home.
"When he rang and said 'this is George Best', I replied 'sure it is' and hung up the phone because I thought it was a joke," he laughs.
"He rang back and said 'this really is George Best' and he wanted me to do his house. I knew nothing about football but my decorators were so star struck that they couldn't even speak in his presence.
"It was a bit surreal as I remember one day being in the house and a Simply Red CD was playing and I made a remark that I didn't like it. George was on the phone and he said 'I am speaking to Mick Hucknall, would you like to tell him that?' - and he really was talking to him.
"George and Alex were both a joy to work for. Each morning George and I walked along the beach with his red setters and he'd give the dogs Denny sausages as treats.
"Their brief for the design was a country residence, warm, welcoming and of course using red, his Manchester United colour, which he loved.
"The sofas had to be deep soft and comfortable for his afternoons watching his favourite quiz programmes, which he was brilliant at - he would shout all the correct answers at the TV. He was very mischievous, great fun, and had incredible respect and time for each of our craftsmen.
"He really was a wonderful man."
Although he can't reveal the identities of many of his clients, Ian travels the globe designing interiors in some of the finest houses.
A multi-award-winning designer, he had the distinction of being featured in the Andrew Martin Top 40 Interior Designers in the World book in 2007.
Another of his more memorable commissions was to decorate the bedroom used by the Queen in Hillsborough Castle.
"It was when the late David Anderson was house manager at the castle and I was working for him and Shaun Woodward, who was Secretary of State," Ian recalls.
"I remember being in the room with Shaun Woodward and we found a panic button behind the bed and decided to press it. We waited for ages and nobody came. It was there, but it appeared never to have been wired up.
"The room obviously had to reflect the rest of the wonderful rooms in Hillsborough Castle which I think must be our most stunning building.
"It was an honour to do it. I remember one of the biggest things was fitting a silk stocking to hide the chain of a chandelier. It took four days to put up and we had to cordon off three sections of the room and hire a cherry picker to do it!"
While Ian works for many wealthy clients, he is just as at home designing individual rooms for clients on more limited budgets.
His approach, he says, never changes whether he is designing a room in a castle or in a house in suburbia.
"Every single person, even the wealthiest, has a budget and that has to be discussed and we have to work within that budget," he says.
"Everyone gets the exact same attention, should that be an individual bedroom or a full house, 20 pair of curtains or one pair, the same amount of energy goes into creating it.
"Of course it is lovely to get the chance to work on luxurious homes and with clients who are happy to push the boundaries to get incredible results.
"I had one client who wanted to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and we did it - it was incredible and it even got a mention by one of the Kardashians on social media.
"Our best reward is when the client is happy and when you get repeat business you know you are doing the right thing."
Ian met his wife Cheryl as a teenager and, as she too was an interior designer, it proved a match made in heaven.
Together they have travelled the world with their work and are constantly indulging their creativity at their own home in Killinchy, which is ever changing as the couple use it to experiment with new looks.
Ian explains: "This house changes every month with new wallpapers and curtains.
"We are the ones who take the risk - we try it out first before we introduce it to our clients. We will hang curtains to see how they look before we put them in a client's house. We are constantly painting and papering and changing everything in the house.
"We have more than 75 companies we work with around the world for furniture and lighting and every single room we do is bespoke."
The new BBC series, My First Home, aired for the first time last Monday when we saw Ian bringing a couple of first time buyers to luxury homes in Northern Ireland in order to find inspiration.
Using video imaging, he then showed the couple how to recreate the looks they liked from the millionaire homes in their new property.
With two more episodes to air, Ian says he thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the new series.
"It was great fun and Vinny was wonderful to work with. I have never laughed so much in my life. We saw these incredible dream houses and then I had to show the couple how to do it on a budget and not be daunted by it.
"All of the couples who took part in the show were really lovely and we had great fun with them all."
My First Home continues tonight on BBC One NI at 10.45pm
With lockdown forcing us to spend all of our time at home, Ian has some top tips for making your living space as comfortable as possible.
"Now that we have to spend more time in our homes it has never been more important for it to feel like a sanctuary, a place of warmth," he says.
"If you want a complete change, take your furniture outside, start afresh and just bring in what you like or need in the room.
"Rearrange your sofa. People have their sofa in the same position for 20 years and just moving it can transform a room.
"Bring in some flowers or cuttings from your garden to add brightness and cheer to a room.
"Scented candles add warmth and cheeriness to a room and don't cost a fortune. If you have a fire, light it and relax with its gorgeous flickering flame.
"Create a comfort area with a nice soft blanket and some cushions on your sofa. If you can, put a nice chair with a cushion and throw and a table in a sheltered spot in the garden where you can enjoy a coffee and get your Vitamin D from the sunshine."