“Design is not wifty wafty,” Kit Kemp MBE tells me when I meet her, through a computer screen naturally, at her office in London. “To be a good designer, you are on-site, you’re wearing heavy shoes and, even in summer, your feet are cold. When the place is looking absolutely brilliant, you’re not needed anymore.”
The finished spaces that this revered British interior designer creates in luxury hotels and private residences on both sides of the Atlantic are playful, original, memorable and filled with art, craft, colour and pattern. But the reason Kit Kemp and Firmdale Hotels, the boutique company she founded with her husband Tim Kemp in 1985, have risen to the top is that her creativity is matched by her down-to-earth practicality. You don’t win the Andrew Martin Designer of the Year prize (2008), four Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, Best Hotel in the World for Design (The World’s Top 100 Conde Nast Traveller 2015) and an MBE without having a head for every aspect of the design business.
Kit learned her trade by doing. “I grew up in a home with that terribly English attitude that if you can remember when a room was last decorated, then it doesn’t need redecorating,” she says. “And at school, nobody told me there was anything like interior design – you could be a nurse or a librarian and that was about it.” She left at 16 and went to work first for an auctioneer, then “in a very menial way”, for an architect. These experiences, combined with her habit of re-covering old sofas and decorating hallways, taught her about balance, scale, functionality and, most importantly, to get stuck in and “get my hands dirty,” as she puts it.
Then in 1984, while she was putting together an in-house magazine for a shipping company, she met Tim. He was busy turning a Regency townhouse in London’s Dorset Square into a hotel; Kit went to join him and the rest is history. The Dorset Square Hotel (pictured below) opened in 1985, the first of what is now a portfolio of 10 Firmdale hotels, eight of which are in London and two in New York.
Hotels should have a sense of arrival, adventure and a point of view. What I am doing is creating a world in one building – Kit Kemp MBE
As Creative Director of Firmdale, Kit was a pioneer of the boutique hotel. Breaking away from the traditionally anonymous interiors of many international hotel brands; Firmdale’s design aesthetic is about personality, storytelling and creating a sense of place. “Hotels should have a sense of arrival, adventure and a point of view,” she says. “What I am doing is creating a world in one building.”
One of the ways she achieves this is through what she calls a ‘design thread’ – a narrative that links each room visually to the next to create a cohesive whole. At Dorset Square, that thread is cricket – the building stands on what was once Dorset Fields, the site of the original Lord’s Cricket Ground, while at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York, it is art inspired by the written word. The lobby (pictured below) boasts, among other pieces, a 10ft-high steel sculpture of a human head made from letters of the alphabet by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, a series of collages spelling out ‘Crosby Street’ by Peter Blake and some life-sized, papier-mâché dogs covered in bits of The Beno by London-based artist Justine Smith. “Walking through the streets of New York, I noticed that everyone seems to have a dog,” Kit says. “They’ve become a secondary thread in the hotel.”
Kit Kemp’s hotels are special places. They are not like our homes – being transported to another place is the point of travel after all – but they do make you feel at home. And that, combined with her fascination for “all the things other people would find really boring” like the sound proofing and ensuring food can get to dining rooms without being seen by the guests, is the reason people pour through their doors.
Or at least they did before the pandemic slammed those doors shut and put a stop to most international travel. “Well, I’ll be dying at my desk because any chance of retirement is out of the window,” Kit says when I ask her about how they have survived the past year. “Anything we had privately has been ploughed into the company just to keep going. But this is a life’s work and it’s a good business. I’m not prepared to give up without a fight.”
A major part of that fight back has been bringing in a new investor, something that will enable the hotels to re-open and projects started before lockdown – a new hotel in New York’s Tribeca district and an event space in London’s Wardour Street – to continue. But there are Kit’s other projects too because, as well being Creative Director of Firmdale Hotels, Kit Kemp is also a successful designer of textiles, homewares and fragrance.
People are always going to say you can’t do things, but you can – Kit Kemp MBE
In 2017, she launched ‘Shop Kit Kemp’, a range of home accessories. In recent years, Kit has worked with brands including Bergdorf Goodman, Anthropologie, Wedgewood, contemporary rug and textile studio Christopher Farr and British prisoner-rehabilitation charity Fine Cell Work, of which she is a patron.
And then there are the books. Kit is the author of four books on design, the latest of which, Design Secrets published by Hardie Grant, is out on 20th May. “It’s about the design process,” she says. “It’s full of small snippets about how to create character and make spaces that are a joy to be in and it’s got some mad projects to do at home too, like potato printing and making your own patchwork lampshade.”
There can’t be many internationally-acclaimed interior designers confident enough to promote potato printing as a form of surface decoration, but Kit Kemp has never been one to let convention get in the way of her creative vision. “People are always going to say you can’t do things, but you can,” she says. “Even now, I’ll have people telling me that they don’t think something will work, but actually very often you have to ignore them and just go for it.”
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