Bob Dylan's Designer Brings It All

Martin Newman’s work on the singer's Malibu manse has earned him a Hollywood clientele

“It’s been said that architecture is frozen music,” says Palm Springs resident Martin Newman, quoting Goethe about his role as a designer and restorer of classic Spanish and Mediterranean homes. “My role is composer and conductor of the mood and tone of the piece, all the while staying true to the aesthetic and the budget and time frame.”

The music metaphor is fitting, considering Newman’s first big client was Bob Dylan, whose former wife Sara spotted one of Newman’s coats fashioned from an Indian blanket in Beverly Hills in the mid-’70s and demanded to know who made it. One thing led to another before Newman, who grew up in Malibu, got a call from someone in the same area code. “Sara called and said, ‘Can you come out to Malibu and measure my husband and I for a couple of these great coats?’

(From the pages of the April 23 issue of Variety.)

“So I go out there and knock on the door and who do you think answers the door? Uncle Bob. We became friends because I guess he liked my energy and I wasn’t a threat. I was with him every day for four years after that.”

Part of that time was spent on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, for which Newman designed everything from feathered cowboy hats to cases for Dylan’s guitars and harmonicas.

At the time, Dylan was renting actor Martin Milner’s house, but when he decided to build his own Malibu compound in Point Dume, Newman became part of the design team, which included Robert Gilbert, who had become famous for his work on the homes of rock stars and pro athletes, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“We were showing the Dylans these books of architectural features like arches,” he recalls. “In architecture, there are seven classic arches, and Bob said, ‘Just use them all.’ That was kind of his attitude.”

“Working for him, the whole crew being artisans, this whole thing that rose from the earth — it was a real castle. There’s a whale-watching tower. Each room has a theme — there’s a cathedral room, a storytelling room. We set up a tile factory on the property because there’s a million dollars worth of hand-made tile in this house. It’s an extraordinary place.”

The Dylan manse, a hodgepodge of Santa Fe, Spanish and Moorish appointments, including a Russian-styled copper dome crowning that aforementioned tower, might be the most eclectic property ever worked on by Newman, whose almost religious adherence to the aesthetics of the Spanish colonial and missionary revival movements in Southern California is his calling card.

“I only work on pre-WWII Spanish — that’s my particular niche and that’s why people come to me,” he says.

Newman’s work ranges from the interiors to the landscaping, and includes procuring everything from antique furnishings, Malibu tiles, blacksmith-worked iron accents and lighting fixtures — what he calls “the jewelry of the house.” What isn’t vintage he has reproduced from “the rarest of the rarest” items in his vast personal collection.

Newman’s clients have included actors Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross, the Eagles’ Don Henley and Bernie Leadon, label bigwig Irving Azoff and songwriter Billy Steinberg (“Like a Virgin”), as well as homes formerly owned by Bing Crosby, Cary Grant and pioneering movie mogul Joseph Schenck. Each project lasts an average of two years, and Newman works only on referrals.

“Most people who spend the kind of money that these homes cost to get and then the money involved in doing the historic restoration, they’re very committed to getting it right,” he says.

Newman’s current project is the old Ronald Reagan/Jane Wyman property in Las Palmas, Palm Springs’ equivalent of Beverly Hills/Bel Air, as well as a 1937 home near the El Mirador medical center that was bought by the founder of Cowboys and Indians magazine.

“I’m not a contractor and I’m not and architect,” explains Newman, “but I know more about my subject than most architects because I studied it. There’s no substitute for authenticity, and that’s what I live by.”

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