Firmdale’s interiors impresario Kit Kemp is revered for her eye-catching, witty interiors (she cruised into our pick of the world’s Top 10 Boutique Hotel Designers). Not only that, she’s a lovely, funny woman who’s passionate about what she does. Lucky us: she has just released her first design book, packed with behind-the-scenes tips, endless interiors inspiration and gorgeous photos of her trademark style: colourful, tactile and humorous. We caught up with the mind that put a 10-foot-tall panther in a hotel foyer, and gave us this essential piece of upholstery wisdom: ‘Never use anything you wouldn’t want to sit on without any clothes on. It should always feel glorious against your skin…’ _____________________________________________________________________
Kit – you’ve generously decided to share your interior style secrets in your beautiful new book, A Living Space (thanks, by the way!). Why? I originally created an exhibition for Contemporary Applied Arts which was a large room set using their designers and commissioning special pieces for the home. This was to encourage everyone to be bold, and inspire them to use contemporary British designers. After this, I felt I had enough knowledge to write a book.
What was your first project as an interior designer? Do you still like it? My first project was the Dorset Square Hotel which we bought in 1984, and opened in 1986. It was the first country house hotel in London. We subsequently sold it but I went back to see it two years ago and it had hardly changed; I certainly have changed, though, so we bought it back and reinvented it. This was a really interesting project and shows that, year upon year, your ideas develop and grow.
Your hotel interiors are instantly recognisable, with their trademark palette of graphic and floral prints, feminine but not overly girlie colour schemes and carefully chosen art, bespoke fabrics and found objects: where do you find inspiration? I love organic pieces and my inspirations will always be nature, but of course the adventure of travelling always ignites the senses – you find you come back with lots of different ideas on colour and texture.
You’ve prettied up some of Smith’s favourite boutique hotels in London and New York (the Haymarket Hotel, The Soho Hotel, Crosby Street Hotel…). How vital is the decor of a hotel to you when you’re picking a place to stay? Yes, it’s vital – I love to see buildings that give me inspiration. I love to see character and a certain quirkiness. I like to see a point of view, so I appreciate any building that has an intelligent thread in the design running through it.
Which designers or artists do you admire? Artists include Breon O’Casey, and Sandra Blow. I really enjoy the work of Steven Gambrel, a designer based in New York.
Tell us about the recurring tailor’s dummy motif in your hotels (right)… The dummies display the fabrics that I use in a room. It is a sculptural piece and always useful – you can hang your coat on it, too!
When you start on a new project, what comes first – the overall design scheme or the pieces of art? For Suite 101 at the Knightsbridge Hotel, it was the William IV mirror over the mantelpiece. For the design at Number Sixteen it was the art work (right). For the Terrace Suite at the Soho Hotel it was the boiled-wool appliqué work throughout. And for the Charlotte Street Hotel it was the Bloomsbury set. Each building has a different inspiration.
Tell us a little about the Haymarket Hotel: how different is the process of designing on this scale, compared to a more intimate hotel, or even your own home? Any project – no matter how big or small – requires so much thought to look artless, it almost doesn’t matter about the size. It does take much longer to design a large building, but I try to take as much care in each and every corner.
You’ve recently relaunched your central London beauty, Dorset Square Hotel. What’s your favourite piece? My favourite piece is the Martha Freud ‘Mixed Messages’ installation (right): 198 porcelain vessels, each inscribed with a word, that light up in sequence to create a motto or cricketing saying.
How important is a sense of place to your design aesthetic? It is very important to have a sense of arrival, and the character and feel of a building should make you feel like an individual: it should be an adventure and pique your curiosity.
Where’s your favourite place in the world? My home. Coming home, opening the front door and being surrounded by things I love.
Tell us something we don’t know… My new project is the Ham Yard Hotel which will include a bowling alley and theatre. I’ve never yet been in a bowling alley that I’ve wanted to stay in more than an hour, so I want it to be fun!
What do you never leave home without? A tape measure.
A Living Space (£30, Hardie Grant) is out now. Read more about Firmdale hotels on the Mr & Mrs Smith site; you can also watch Smith’s exclusive behind-the-scenes video interview with Kit Kemp.