Every Room Tells a Story
An interview with Kit Kemp
By Shelley M. Black
Kit Kemp, a self-taught interior designer, commutes on a multi-coloured Serotta bicycle, wears go-go boots and is often seen in 60s-style miniskirts. Tim, her British hipster husband, prefers to zip around London on a bright yellow Lambretta scooter. Together, the mod pair own six A-lister boutique hotels, most notably in Haymarket and Soho. Known for her bold colours and whimsical, folk-arty pieces, Kit has brought a distinctive decorating style to the couple’s Firmdale hotels and her Folkthread home collection for Anthropologie.
Homefront’s Shelley Black recently caught up with Kit while she was hard at work on her newest hotel, scheduled to open in New York City in the fall of 2016. The charming mother of three is also about to launch her latest book, Every Room Tells a Story. Her key message? “Be bold!”
Q. When you design a home or a hotel, what things influence you the most?
Kit: I like lots of light, so I look at the aspect of a building and figure out where the light is coming from. When indoors, I go straight to the windows for an inside-out look. I ask myself, what would it be like to arrive after dark when the curtains are closed? One thing I strive to do is to create a warm, tailored feel that is genuine and individual.
For instance, when I look out of the windows here in New York, I can see midtown Manhattan’s old-fashioned water towers. There is a wonderful ground-floor area and plenty of wall space that give me the chance to show bright, colourful contemporary art collections. There are beautiful penthouse suites with grand terraces and a sense of place. Most of the rooms also have great views.
Q. Do you think the design trends from today’s new hotels automatically transfer into what we see being brought forward in home décor?
Kit: Actually I think that, done well, everything should be tailor-made to the homeowner’s taste. You can be as individual as you want. If you’re a techno whiz then that should be reflected in your home. If you love fabric and texture, you can choose what excites you. We have gone way past using everything from one designer. A lot of homeowners want to create to their own look and feel, and today they are more informed. With the internet, they can find manufacturers and suppliers. Young people are more design-oriented and sophisticated than we ever were—and that generates living spaces that are way more interesting.
Q. Might it work the other way around? Are there design elements you work into homes that influence your hotel design?
Kit: Yes, that is how I really work. It’s my ethos. I wouldn’t have anything in one of my hotels that I wouldn’t love to have at home. And I like every room to be different. A lot of the Firmdale designs and wallpapers are definitely from my point of view…it makes them more congruent. Plenty of hotels look as if too many people have had a finger in their look and feel. In ours, there is a strong character that permeates the whole thing—mine!
Q. What design trends are currently dominating Europe?
Kit: Things have become much more universal and it’s almost a shame. It used to be that when you were travelling, there were huge differences between the countries. When I am in Switzerland, I want to see cowbells. If we’re in Peru, we prefer local indigenous furnishings, textiles and artwork. Today, when you shop, Prada is everywhere, McDonald’s is everywhere.
If you can create character and a sense of arrival and celebrate where you are, I think that’s a good thing. I think we need to get back to the core and essence of a region’s beautiful things and go from there. Perhaps that makes design easier and ultimately more enjoyable.
Q. How can we incorporate good design into our personal lives?
Kit: For me, it often depends on the size of your home. If I have a home that isn’t too big then I try to use fabric on the wall. Fabric gives a very tailored look and can make a room feel like a glorious shoebox.
Most of the time, an interior designer is really required, and of most value, when there is something wrong with the space. I am often called on to disguise the bits of a room that are awkward. When starting with a room, I make a list of its assets and liabilities. Then, armed with that information, I can focus on the existing assets and convert the nastiest liabilities into something much nicer.
Q. For you, what’s the current height of chic?
Kit: That’s a difficult question. For one thing, with design, you always have to be thinking of each of your five senses at the same time. If you can keep them all happy then a room is a success. I don’t think that interior design is taken seriously in this context but it is, in fact, very important for health and well-being. A well-designed room or space can bring pleasure and happiness into your life.
What I look for is something that will bring you joy when you open your door at night. I try to make home a welcome haven that feels as comfortable as your dog running towards you, wagging his tail. It instantly makes you smile. I think that that is most important—forget about chic. Leave chic to a top model, and instead make sure you have the elements that will leave you feeling happy in your environment.
Q. What are you excited about in the design world right now? What are we going to see more of?
Kit: It’s such an exciting time as there is so much good design right now. I’m doting on the different fabric ranges that are surfacing. We’re moving back to fabulous colours, textures and tones.
Expect more action from savvy, entrepreneurial designers who are more business-like when they leave school than in the past. There are lots of bright young faces who are really keen to work and they’re helping us come up with terrific ideas. Suddenly, graduates don’t feel that they have to work with big companies; they’re happy to roll up their sleeves and be creative and innovative in boutique firms.
And, thankfully, craftsmanship is hot again, with a whole new a respect for the vision and talent of the craftsperson.
Q. What special projects are you passionate about right now?
Kit: To my delight, my original collection for Anthropologie sold out very, very quickly. It’s now being re-made and re-manufactured for release in stores shortly.
In the UK, I’m working with a group of prison inmates through an organization called Fine Cell Work, who sought me out. It is exactly how it sounds. We encourage and work with prisoners in sort of a social-enterprise partnership. Before, the prisoners were just making cushions. Now, we are creating a whole line of furniture, textiles and embroidered products that are more vibrant and interesting. I’ve really started to enjoy working with them.
And then there is my new book, Every Room Tells a Story, which was released last fall.
Q. You recently decorated your own home. What dictated your design decisions?
Kit: Colour plays a major role. I just love bright, beautiful and colourful. My house faces east–west rather than south so I kept all of the walls white, because the colour changes with the light that comes in. All of the colour, and there is a lot of it, is brought in by the fabrics in the rooms.
We knocked all the walls down and made the “best room” in the house the kitchen. It’s the heart of everything. Because I’m the only cook, I didn’t want to be left out in the cold, so to speak, and out of the action when we have guests.
Q. What do you value most at home?
Kit: The dogs and the children, as well as my husband—not in that order! That is the difference between houses and gardens: When people leave a house, the house dies; whereas with a garden, it continues growing.
There has to be some bold object in your home that has a lot of soul and is meaningful to you. When I was younger, people always said to me: “You can’t do that. It’s too bright, it clashes!”
Lots of rooms don’t look perfect while you are working on them and you can be put off by people’s comments along the way, but I think you have to believe in yourself, be bold and see it through to the end.
How many times have you gone into a room as it’s being painted and someone says the colour is too strong? But if it is part of your mood board, go with it and you’ll find, in the end, that you were right.
Shelley Black’s career has spanned a unique range of editorial and corporate roles with Flare, Maclean’s and BMO Financial Group. She enjoys writing about all forms of design, travel and food.
Photos: Simon Brown.