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Five Minutes with Kit Kemp

12th May 2020

After opening their first hotel in 1985, Kit Kemp and husband, Tim have perfected boutique hotel design. With eight London hotels and two, soon to be three in New York, Kit is the creative lead and interior designer for each of  Firmdale Hotels locations. Kit’s instantly recognisable style; a joyful combination of the past and present, swathed in colour, has led to numerous accolades and global appeal.
We find out more about Kit’s inspiration, her love for collecting and post lockdown plans that range from bird song to Bergdorf Goodman…

Five Minutes with Kit Kemp by Collier Webb
Kit Kemp

The beginnings of Firmdale Hotels – a new Boutique Hotel era
I have always been addicted to colour, fabric and craftwork from around the world, my background had been in graphics but I ended up working for Polish architect Leszek Nowicki.  In fact, that is where I met my husband Tim.

Tim was one of his clients, and was running student accommodation.  He had this idea to take an old, 2-Star hotel and create a boutique hotel.

The first hotel we opened was Dorset Square Hotel in 1985. We were both very young and never took no for an answer!  I don’t remember Tim ever asking me to handle the interiors. I realised early on that the less I get involved in his projects the less I get to see him. So, it was clear, nobody else was going to do the interiors but me.

It was great fun working on the designs.  We were at the forefront of the new Boutique Hotel era in the 80’s and everything felt fresh and new.

Signature look
Colourful and carefree but deceivingly detailed. I want every piece of work to be considered individual. But certainly, I have a recognisable hand: it comes from a love of fabrics, texture, tone and colour. My work should appeal to all the senses.

Firmdale Hotels Ham Yard Hotel in London
Kit's love for colour, texture and art as seen at Firmdale Hotels Ham Yard in London
Firmdale Hotel afternoon tea
Home comforts - afternoon tea in style

Advice for aspiring interior designers
Stick to your guns.  I’ve always found that if I ask too many people if something is a good idea, they always say, ‘No no no, you can’t do that,’ I know when it is finished it will look fine. But if you start asking too many people, they don’t know. You can’t see it until it’s finished. It’s an organic process. You shouldn’t be able to see the final product – it should grow along the way. You’ve got to have self-belief.

What influences the design of a new hotel?
When designing Charlotte Street Hotel, I was very inspired and influenced by The Bloomsbury Group because of its location.

We were able to purchase original artworks.  We have created an interesting and eclectic collection now, and it was a starting point for inspiration and the colour palette used.

That light bulb moment can come at any time.  When I was designing the interiors for Crosby Street Hotel, I was so inspired by exploring the streets of New York City. What really sparked my imagination was all the people and their dogs of all shapes and sizes.  My daughters and I took to the streets with our cameras and photographed them all, from women in Manolo’s with Pomeranian pups to men in boots with bulldogs – the photos can be seen framed in the bedrooms.

I keep up to date with exhibitions; I’m a Royal Academy Patron and love visiting the Tate, Somerset House and the V&A regularly.  Alan Cristea always has his finger on the pulse and Flowers gallery on Cork Street is one to watch.

Which pieces can inspire you to create a whole room design around them?
As a designer my biggest inspiration is textiles – organic pieces, remnants, colourful threads, ethnic, ancient or contemporary, colourful or monotone, linen, wool, dyed or natural. I love them all. I love colour, and I like my interiors to look carefree.

Kit Kemp collection of serving plates and glassware
Kit's collection of serving plates and glassware
Kit Kemp kitchen
Kit's London kitchen
The Whitby Hotel in New York featuring Kit's love for collecting
The Whitby Hotel in New York featuring Kit's love for collecting

Favourite room in your home?
My kitchen in London.  We decided to turn the best room in the house into the kitchen.  It was formerly the drawing room.  It was the best thing we ever did.  It faces the garden and has a conservatory attached.  We have the most fun in there as a family and with friends

Favourite item
I love to make collections, not one piece but three or ten! I have a collection of wonderful large dinner plates hanging above my stone fireplace with William Yeoward glass collection below on the mantel piece. It used to be so easy to find these antique pieces but now you have to really hunt.  I have replicated this idea at The Whitby Hotel in NYC – collecting 200 large dinner plates and framing them in Perspex with a black background. The framing makes them more contemporary and they really tell a story hung together.

Home comforts
Make mealtimes special. Even if you’re having a simple cheese sandwich or a solo dinner, a lovely way to add structure to your day is to set the table as if it’s for a special occasion. Dress the table with your favourite linen, including a tablecloth and napkins. A beautiful old piece of fabric would do just fine to brighten up the table and bring it to life.

Why stop there? Why not get out your very best cutlery and crockery for this grand occasion, anything that makes you feel good! Make a point of putting the jam for your toast in a lovely little dish or serving your supper on a beautiful much-loved charger plate.

Afternoon Tea might as well be an occasion in itself during this time. If you have a favourite tea service or lots of lovely vintage tea cups, milk jugs and sugar bowls, get them out to bring it all to life.

Flowers will always bring a touch of joy to the table. A flower arrangement doesn’t need to be complicated; just a cutting or two of flowers from the garden. It’s that little touch, which makes all the difference, just as a contrast stitch or piping might on an upholstered chair in a room.

While away the hours
My design team and I have been learning all sorts of new skills from candle making and embroidery to creating Victorian paper puzzles. Books we are loving are The Collage Ideas Book by Alannah Moor, Textile Folk Art by Anne Kelly and Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan.

Post lockdown treat
I am really looking forward to having my fresh fruit and homemade Greek yogurt breakfast in the secret garden at Number Sixteen Hotel. The garden comes to life in spring. The sweetest robin has a little nest in one of the fruit trees. I hear four chirping chicks have appeared – my husband Tim likes to share his toast and honey crumbs with our red breasted friends.

The Kit Kemp by Wilton Carpets collection
The Kit Kemp by Wilton Carpets collection

What’s next?
We are working on our third NYC property, Warren Street Hotel in Downtown Manhattan and two projects with Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Avenue – redesigning their concept restaurant Palette and a Kit Kemp retail space on the seventh floor.

Made in Britain
Being able to go to the factory and manage the making process of your designs is hugely important.  All sorts can get mixed up during the making process and if it’s made in Britain I can just jump in my car and go to the factory and see things first hand. Everything is so much quicker.  I love going to Wiltons Carpets factory near Salisbury and seeing my designs come to life.
We recently visited the Collier Webb foundry, it was such a joy to see everything being made – it sparks your imagination and gives your designs integrity. We spoke about ideas for a sculptural lighting piece for a stairwell in the new Warren Street Hotel in New York. You can read all about our visit on kitkemp.com

Favourite Collier Webb pieces
I love the Alabaster wall mounted lights and have purchased three for a bathroom scheme.  They give off such a wonderful warm toffee glow that is so flattering.  I also love the huge smoky rounded mirrors spotted in the Pimlico Road showroom which create an interesting vista in any room.

To find out more about Kit Kemp and Firmdale Hotels visit kitkemp.com