Five minutes with… Kit Kemp

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You’ve forged an international reputation as one of the world’s top interior designers; can you give us a quick, whistle-stop tour of your career to date?

I work with my husband because Firmdale Hotels belongs to him and to myself. We worked on our first hotel, which was Dorset Square Hotel, in 1985 – and I’d been working a couple of years before that. At that stage in my career, Dorset Square was one of the first country house hotels in London. My husband and I never used to like staying in hotels because we felt they offered rather vacuum-packed, sterile experiences, so we set out to create a smaller boutique hotel, with a more personalised and more intimate feel. So that’s how it started. And from then until now, we’ve got 10 hotels, seven of which are new builds. One of those is Ham Yard Hotel, which is the biggest over here in London. It has 91 rooms, 24 one, two and three bedroom apartments, 13 shops, a cinema, a restaurant, a bar, a bowling alley etc. So I’ve been designing in all that time, from 1983 onwards. And I love it!

We understand you’re a passionate champion of British art, craft and sculpture – how does this feed into your design? And can you give us any examples? 

Craft has always been the very little brother to art. And, in fact, craft was rather derided by purists in the art field, which I’ve never understood because craft is all about handiwork. So our design does champion British art, craft and sculpture. In The Whitby hotel in New York, we have 57 baskets hanging up on the bar, which are all from the British Isles. These baskets are collectors’ items now and we thought it would be very interesting to put a whole collection together. We’ve commissioned artists and craftspeople, including Martha Freud, Daniel Reynolds and Catherine Cuthbert, on pottery and craft design projects – so a lot of the designs our guests are seeing are one of a kind. In Ham Yard hotel, we’ve got a sculpture by Sir Tony Cragg, who won the Turner prize in the 70’s; it’s about 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide. There are so few contemporary sculptures in London – there are lots of generals riding horses but hardly any contemporary ones – so we were thrilled when he agreed to work with us. And that’s what I try to do with all our hotels and all our spaces; put something in there, which is unique and that captures the imagination.

As the creative force behind the Firmdale Hotels portfolio, can you talk us through some of your latest techniques?

Well, we love colour and we love fabric. The Wilton Carpets Collection was a fantastic collaboration where we got to explore the subtleties of gradations of colour to make the designs look hand loomed or hand blocked. The things that catch your imagination are usually the things that are handmade, or things that you can’t buy anywhere – they just look quite unique.

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What were the inspirations behind the ‘Hospitality, Travel and Home’ Wilton Carpets Collection at the Soho Hotel?

The main inspirations were folklore, architecture and botanical motifs. The folklore really came through with the design called Open Plan, and that was loosely based on Turkish carpet designs that would be made on looms at home, rather than on factory looms. An example of bringing it back to the home. The botanical inspiration can be seen in the leaf cut, flower and leaf design. As for the architectural influence, well, I wanted a more masculine feel and we worked to ensure the design was neat and tight – so architects would look at the designs and think ‘well, this is the kind of floor that I would want to put into my new build’. Another architecture influence is the Squiggle – which I think looks very, very smart and I can see it working on a wonderful staircase or in an American home. The Domino is another great, large design but when you look at it closely, it’s got wonderful detail – when you look at a large amount of it, you can see a much larger pattern emerging. I like the excitement of doing that! I try to think of all the different areas I want to include and work around it.

How important is it to interpret scale and usability?

In every room that I design, I love colour and I love pattern as well – I don’t just use plain fabrics. But you can’t have more than one large scale pattern within the room because every space should feel calm, and the pieces shouldn’t be fighting with one another. To be able to interpret scale and usability is what design is all about, actually. It’s really how to create an interesting space by playing with scale and design – and by doing that you can really cause excitement in the room. At the same time, you want to ensure people want to stay in it for a long, long time – rather than people thinking ‘whoa’ and wanting to escape through the door!

You are known for your use of colour; can you talk us through one example of where colour has been used to create a particular kind of guest experience?

If I’m doing an enfilade of rooms, it’s nice to possibly think of a colour scheme that, if used in different ways for different spaces, will take you on a little adventure. And even if I haven’t got a large area to play with, even if the rooms are small, you can still use colour in a way that can make a space feel bigger. By creating different experiences with different spaces, you feel like you’ve gone further. That’s what I try to do – especially when you’re in a large city and you don’t often have large rooms to work with.

What are the key considerations when designing for both impact and resilience?

That is such a good question. It’s all very well to design a room that looks good for five minutes. The interesting thing is that, because I’m designing hotels, I have to live with them through every season. I’m seeing them spring, summer, autumn, winter; I’m seeing them in bright sunlight and on cloudy, dull days – you learn so much about the resilience of fabrics. You can’t put thin silk on a sofa because you know it’s only going to last five minutes. And I want my rooms to be looking good for at least a couple of years – by using the right fabrics in the right places. It’s important to use strong fabrics that keep their colour and integrity over time. So the impact also has to work against the functionality and the resilience of all the fabrics; and that is just as important as scale and colour. The guest experience should be that, when they arrive in that room, it should look like nobody’s stayed there before.

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