I want to pique the imagination of even the most jaded businessman,” says Kit Kemp, design director and co-founder of Firmdale Hotels, the group that includes the buzzy Soho, Covent Garden and Charlotte Street Hotels. “If I can do that for a second, then we’ve achieved something.”
Pique, she definitely does, with her love of texture and exuberant colour; her sense of fun and eclectic eye; and a strong sense of ordered yet playful design present in all of Firmdale’s seven London properties, and at its fashionable New York sibling, Crosby Street in SoHo. In a city that is often grey, and in a world of hotel interiors that use beige as the trump card, Kit’s style stands out. “It should be an individual experience,” she says of arriving at a Firmdale property. “You should not feel that you’re in a formula or a brand. That’s what I’ve really tried to stay away from.”
Wallpaper is in; wallpaper and upholstery, pictures and rugs and curiosities; wool and appliqué, wood and pebbles; embroidery, a hint of shabby chic; lots of antiques; retro lamps; fresh, vibrant paintwork; buff all-marble bathrooms (a finish so immaculate because “you’ve got to feel as if you’re the first person that’s ever been in there,” she says). Her palette bursts upon you — pistachio, paprika, “ointment pink”, arsenic green, leaf green. It’s a style that has endeared her to A-listers as long as your arm — Meryl Streep at Covent Garden, P Diddy at the Soho. David Bowie, Carey Mulligan and Giorgio Armani are all said to be fans.
Self-taught, Kit has as a string of awards, including an MBE this year awarded to both her and her husband, co-owner Tim Kemp. “Tim is amazingly involved,” she says. “He finds the sites and is very much to do with the bathrooms and behind the scenes things. He’s a big motivating force.” And now, with more than a quarter of a century’s work under her belt, Kit has published a book of her approach to design, A Living Space, a journey through her creations, which aims to give confidence as well as inspiration. She suggests simply trusting your instincts when putting a look together. “A great space need not be the most glamorous or luxurious,” she says. “It is how personal and interesting you make it, how much it reflects you.”
Establishing a cluster of hotels in the capital has brought success to the privately owned company, which has bought, or built, all of its properties and has a turnover of £75m. Kit and Tim started in 1985, with Dorset Square Hotel (which they sold, then recently bought back), and Firmdale has grown organically as sites came up. Each property has a strong individual character, not least because the buildings themselves are so different. “We usually start from scratch, and turn often-neglected, derelict areas, like car parks (the Soho Hotel previously belonged to NCP) and old warehouses, into regenerated, burgeoning new neighbourhoods,” Kit says. It might be the cosy, intimate townhouse feel of Dorset Square in Marylebone, or the hip hangout of the Soho hotel, with its film-screening room, to the spacious glamour of Haymarket and its 18m pool that can turn into a dancefloor with private bar and metallic sofas.
Next in development is their largest venture yet, Ham Yard. “It’s in deepest, darkest Soho,” says Kit, “but we have a walk-through garden in the centre. So we’re going to make it green. It’s going to have some oak trees in there, and I’m hoping to have a little rill.”
It is Kit’s feel for nature that you see everywhere — birds, flowers, trees and animals are motifs. And it is a joyful expression of life that she breathes into what is, at base, just bricks and mortar. “The whole thing about doing the hotels is that they are living things,” she says. “But that means they have to move on all the time. Guests want to see something happening, they don’t want to see it exactly the same as the last time they came. And that’s part of the skill of doing it — moving it along but not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Update ideas are likely to come from all corners of the globe, from framed prints in a French fleamarket to South American blankets. But the Kemps are still based in South Kensington, almost “living above the shop” if you will, and constantly in touch with the properties. “I go round my buildings once a week or once every two weeks and look at them all,” Kit says. “I see the bits that work and the bits that don’t. And sometimes you stand in a room that you’ve just finished that you absolutely love and think, “Gosh this is what’s it all about.”
It’s this hands-on approach that has really worked for the company. Rather than spreading out to LA, Miami, Boston, Chicago, they are concentrating on creating Firmdale New York (where 90 per cent occupancy rates at Crosby Street are common at an average $700 a night). A mid-town site has been chosen for development, with possibly a third in the future.
Meanwhile, Kit will be imagining her stream in Ham Yard, the hotel’s 90 bedrooms and suites and 24 apartments. “I do think that rooms should be an adventure, and a bit of fun, and not too serious,” she says. “You can say, ‘Gosh, I don’t think I’d really want this in my own home, but it’s quite fun to spend a night or two.’ But there might be some areas that you like, that you’d want to have at home. They are good for inspiration.”
A Living Space by Kit Kemp is out now in hardback (Hardie Grant, £30). Her fabric and rug designs are available from Kit Kemp for Christopher Farr (christopherfarr.com). Hotel doubles range from £125 plus VAT at Number Sixteen in South Kensington, to $555 at Crosby Street Hotel in New York.