Meet the Designer: Kit Kemp

CTC&G sits down with the designer behind Firmdale Hotels.

Hpg April 2023 Drawing Room 1

Once upon a time, there was a girl reading fairy stories, walking in the misty countryside, playing with her mother’s textile collection. Kit Kemp grew up to design hotels and interior accessories, and those childhood themes carry through in her whimsical colorful designs combining imagination, tradition and daring, in what’s been called “decorative chutzpah.”

A collection of tableware for Spode is the latest project for Kemp, founder and creative director of Firmdale Hotels and head of her namesake design studio. The 10 hotels in Great Britain and the U.S. are created with her husband, Tim, a partnership launched when she was hired to help him produce student accommodations in London. Celebrated for fanciful décor with one-of-a-kind rooms incorporating crafts, contemporary art and colorful storytelling, their innovative inns have helped reshape the hotel experience and hospitality industry.

On weekends, she returns to New Forest not far from where she grew up. “There’s a whole folklore about this part of the world, dating back to William the Conqueror,” she says. “It’s fascinating to get to know the local people.” Four dogs—Rupert, Pixie, Bear and Buttons—accompany walks around the grounds, which Kemp’s husband has dubbed her “theme park”—a fanciful garden overlooking the sea, enhanced with a Romani caravan, a shepherd’s cabin and a hobbit hut, where sunset cocktails are sipped…happily ever after.

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In this room at the Soho Hotel London, the headboard fabric—Nomad linen, Jamboree by Ellen Merchant—is complemented by the wallcovering in Fermoie’s Wave.

Why should rooms tell a story?
I love rooms that tell you a lot about the people living there. When you enter, it should look as if it has a story within it. Every room should have character.

How do you create stories within hotel rooms?
Every room is different, with an interesting headboard or carpet, the story starts there, and every room should have the “five Cs”—color, comfort, craft, character, curation.

Why do you install decorated dress mannequins in the rooms?
We did it right from the beginning. It’s like a sculpture in the room, and we’re doing all kinds of things with it, adding a top in one fabric and a border in between, pinning on a piece of jewelry, we can have fun with it, plus it’s also terribly useful—guests can hang a coat or hat on it.

With all the textures, whimsy and color, how do you avoid overwhelming?
You can’t use too many hot colors together, it has to feel calm. We use only one large-scale print and then a smaller, maybe a small geometric. You keep the playfulness within it, but a room needs to breathe.

Are the U.S. hotel designs different from those in Britain?
They aren’t. If you design what you think people will want, you never get it right. There must be a point of view, and design is like Marmite; somebody is going to love it or hate it. The worst thing is indifference.

Doodles Collection

Willow Kemp’s Spode “Doodles” line sports her playful drawings.

You design such a range of items—textiles, ceramics, flatware, glasses, pillows, carpets. How do you approach such varied projects?
Everything is always a challenge, butterflies in the tummy, it’s never straightforward. You start, it goes wrong, way off beam, and you must bring it back, and hopefully at the end, you have something better than the original idea.

Why do you collaborate with prisoners as part of the Fine Cell Work program?
It’s an amazing worthwhile charity. They’ve done headboards, footstools, embellished mirrors, lampshades. At the moment, they’re making bedcovers out of patchwork. If you can get some prisoner to learn and believe in themselves and move from their old way of life, it’s a job well done.

What project would you like to design?
We saw “Sleeping Beauty” at the Royal Opera. It was so ethereal and magical. It would be wonderful to design the sets for a ballet. I don’t care which ballet, as long as it has a wonderful story and glorious costumes.

What’s it like working with your daughters?
Tiffany, who’s a mother now, was sensible enough not to work with me. Minnie is an explosion of ideas, and Willow’s Spode “Doodles” drawings are joyful. I leave them to do what they think is right. You have to give them a lot of space, allow them to have their heads.

The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Meet the Designer.