Q&A with Kit Kemp

A sense of whimsy and a love of color set this designer apart.
Kit Kemp Profile Hr

Photography by Simon Brown, Text By Kit Kemp & Fiona McCarthy

Kit Kemp is known for her handcrafted and stylish interiors for private homes and hotels in New York and London. C&G recently caught up with her to talk about her new book and hotels she has designed.

C&G: What are the key ingredients in making any space feel welcoming?
Furniture to fit the size of the room. I see so many homes where the furniture is made for a much larger room and immediately it feels cramped. Equally, small furniture in a big room can look uncomfortable and the wrong scale. Contrast of coordinating colors keeps the eye lively. Details like contrast piping or an interesting way of upholstering a chair can make a room memorable. Devil is in the details and it is always noticed. Color makes us feel happy. When you open the door to a room, the first thing we remark on is a happy or a sad feel. Color well used can be the antidote to even the saddest room facing a brick wall or having no outlook. Flowers always give an instant lift and make a room feel alive.

The Anrep Room At The Whitby Hotel P.146

The Anrep Room boasts reproductions of artists Boris Anrep’s marble mosaic scenes depicting the labors and pleasures of life, hung in front of a mural by Melissa White incorporating American folk-art motifs. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: What makes people feel comfortable in a space?
If I can make someone feel curious and make them smile. Make them want to explore a space and see more of what’s going on around the corner. That’s when I feel I have achieved something in an interior. A sense of whimsy or fun and not making a room feel too serious. Good lighting with no light falling on someone’s bald head does help. We all want to look our best in a space.

Design Thread Book Cover

Kit Kemp’s new book Design Thread showcases her vivid designs. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: In your book, you talk about an internal lobby as a space in which to take stock and dream. Does this hold true for an entrance to a home?
Definitely in our homes, the “in-between spaces” by that I mean hallways and lobbies or even the inside of cupboards, are really important. If they are dull, we pass through them without remarking. If they are interesting with added color or an interesting collection, the in-between spaces become another room. They make our homes feel bigger.

The Araminta Room At The Whitby Hotel P.147

Within The Whitby Hotel, NYC, Eileen Cooper’s woodcut prints decorate the walls of the Araminta Room behind the ladle chairs covered in Mulberry Home’s Bohemian Patchwork fabric. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: At the Whitby, I was struck by the feeling of being in a home instead of a hotel in both the bar and the Orangery. How did you accomplish this?
I would not have anything in our hotels that I would not have in my own home. I look at each space personally, and it is an individual view. You may not entirely like it, but it does have a harmony and is congruent. There is a recognizable thread running through each space. This gives meaning and makes it feel true to a point of view. A home is like this. That is why I love visiting friends in their homes. I see their true personalities shining through.

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Bookshelves line the walls of the The Whitby Hotel, NYC’s Reading Room, where a Victorian plant stand adds interest. One sofa is covered in striped fabric by Andrew Martin while another sports Folk Art by Kit Kemp for Christopher Farr. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: I noticed in the Whitby that each space I was in, even the library, there was a window looking into the Orangery, in the bar I was taken with the street scene. Can you talk about your use of windows?
I love looking out of windows. When I enter a room, I am drawn to the windows and the light. A lot of light comes from the top, so I do not like large pelmets that block the window. I like to set my curtains back so they do not obscure any of the window if possible. Floor-to-ceiling windows are really a classic look. They look great in London, Paris or New York. They look good in a studio space or a warehouse or a sophisticated skyscraper. French windows onto a garden, no matter how small, are a tonic and an invitation. We make window seats on a low step in front of windows, so we can sit and make phone calls while watching the world go by.

C&G: You are not afraid of color and textures layered together. What do you look for in these elements so that the end result is pleasing and not chaotic?
Rooms should feel restful, and I would like my guests to feel that they never want to leave. I love color. I don’t like a timid interior, but equally I don’t like a frantic one either. I often put a plain fabric on the wall of a room to make it feel tailored and cosseting. I add the pattern into the room. Only ever one large repeat design, then a much smaller one and even a geometric coordinating color to add a punch. Details such as piping and tops of chairs can be in a plain contrast color to add life and interest. A statement chair or piece of furniture is fun. Function of the room is paramount and feeling comfortable within.

The Lafayette Room At Crsoby Street Hotel P.148

Neoclassical details and Kit Kemp’s monsoon wallpaper for Christopher Farr bring an eclectic touch to the Lafayette Room in the Crosby Street Hotel, NYC. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G:What does a space need to be a great spot to entertain?
At night, intimate lighting whether by candlelight or the softest lights. Remember the corners: By lighting them, you enlarge the space. Uplight the perimeters under a planting or behind an armchair. It makes a difference. A lovely fresh tablecloth can disguise the grottiest table, and suddenly a tabletop can look exotic with a tablescape of greenery and storm lamps so candles do not blow out. Bring inside chairs outside. They are more comfortable than most outdoor chairs and will give a more tailored look. A serving table to one side is always helpful.

The Lafayette Room At Crsoby Street Hotel P.149

Flowers by Lewis Miller add colorful accents to the room in the Crosby Street Hotel, NYC. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: How do you make tables interesting, functional and, of course, so pretty?
Do not make arrangements in the center of the table too high or you will not be able to talk over them.

C&G: Describe an informal table setting that you have created in the past. What are the ingredients that made it work?
And can you do the same for a more formal table setting?
We used small jam jars filled with wayside flowers like daisies, grasses and wild roses mixed in with very small terracotta pots of herbs like sage and thyme and taller jars in basketwork filled with candles. This was on a pine refectory table. It looked dreamy and informal, but equally would look sophisticated in the right setting at night on a beautiful white linen tablecloth for a more formal look.

Private Event Room At The Soho Hotel P.154

The Soho Hotel, NYC’s enfilade of private event spaces starts with a rhythmic mix of fabrics by Pierre Frey on the walls, Paul Smith for Maharam on the banquettes and Jean Paul Gaultier for Leliévre on the backs of chairs. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: You use so many handcrafted items in your design. Can you explain why?
I love a hand-crafted look—a look that says something is made by hand. I like the imperfection that arises if the thread changes color or if the weave is not immaculate. I prefer the work of the craftsman to the work of an artist. There is more of a functionality and personality in the design. There is more of a family feel.

C&G: In which of your hotels would we find the most handcrafted elements?
Practically everything in the drawing room at the Ham Yard Hotel in London. It is dedicated to folk art around the world.

The Orangery At The Whitby Hotel P.142

Preparing for an intimate candlelit dinner at The Whitby Hotel, NYC in the garden attached to the Orangery. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: What are your favorite flowers to use in a table setting?
I like seasonal flowers. In spring, primroses, snowdrops and violets. In summer, peonies, phlox, delphiniums and all cottage garden flowers. In autumn, mosses, seasonal fruit and berries look wonderful. In winter, bright anemones, hellebores and aconite.

C&G: Where do you like to entertain the most?
I like entertaining on the kitchen table at home. It is the heart of the home. I entertain at home on the weekends and in the hotels during the week. I love to eat with masses of friends, because I do not have to cook or wash up. I can relax and enjoy their company and conversations more.

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In the Crimson Bar at The Soho Hotel, NYC, a jukebox sets the party scene. The pendant lights are by Portages Romana, with Coquin dots on bar stools and cushions by Jean Paul Gaultier for Lelièvre. Photography by Simon Brown

C&G: What inspires you in your work?
I love what I do. It isn’t really work at all. I like to find an alternative look or another way of looking at art and handicraft. I love textiles and get so excited to see the latest collections. I am never happier than when I am sitting on the floor surrounded by fabric of all colors.

A print version of this article appeared with the headline: Design Thread.