Interior designer Kit Kemp, who has worked with the likes of the Soho Hotel and The Knightsbridge Hotel, shares a glimpse of her colourful world

Words: Jacky Parker

If you’ve ever sipped cocktails at the Ham Yard Hotel, indulged in afternoon tea at the Soho Hotel, or stayed at the Charlotte Street Hotel – you are likely to have marvelled at the spectacular interiors designed by co-founder and multi award-winner, Kit Kemp MBE.

Kemp’s skill is in mixing vibrant colours, bold patterns and rich textures and making it all sit together beautifully. It is her creative eye that has made Firmdale’s hotel interiors so popular with A-listers and style seekers, and it’s the foundation of her and her husband, Tim’s business empire, which now also includes One Denman Place serviced London apartments, and following Crosby Street, a second hotel location in New York, The Whitby, due to open next Autumn.

Kemp has also recently designed a sell-out furniture collection for Anthropologie, tea and dinner services for Wedgwood, her own bath and body range ‘Rik Rak’ and just finished her second book, Every Room Tells a Story, which delves further into how she makes a room scheme work and connect visually within a space.

‘My style is quite loose, it’s a sunny outlook on life,’ says Kemp. ‘With our British weather, when you walk through the front door at home, you want to feel welcome and one of the easiest ways – unless you have a Labrador – is to have colour and freshness, even just one chair in a bold fabric can be enough, so it feels balanced and not too frantic.’

The playful colour scheme at The Knightsbridge Hotel is tied together with a striking painting by John Illsley

The playful colour scheme at The Knightsbridge Hotel is tied together with a striking painting by artist John Illsley

Kemp’s enthusiasm for colour began as a child, in craft lessons at school. ‘I’m left handed so I found knitting hard and often ended up making plasticine models or painting with the boys,’ she says. ‘But then I discovered embroidery and once I got going I loved it – all the fabulous colours of the strings and threads. Then when I was older I became a demon on the sewing machine. In my first flat I’d have a go at re-upholstering the sofa and making cushions, or wallpapering the hallway to add colour and pattern.’

Although trained in graphic design, early in her career Kemp worked for a shipping company, where she had the opportunity to travel extensively, hopping off to Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, and collecting items and ideas on her way. ‘People in South America are so much more vibrant with their use of colour,’ she says. ‘I’d always come back from those trips with my suitcase bulging with rugs, fabrics or needlepoint.’ But it was whilst working for architect, Leszek Nowicki that she developed her eye for scale. ‘Leszek was a huge influence and I learnt a lot from him,’ says Kemp. ‘As well appreciating the scale of a room and the things in it, I discovered a love for natural materials too.’

Just one chair in a bold fabric can be enough, so the room feels balanced and not too frantic

Eager to put her ideas into practice, Kemp seized the opportunity by combining her design skills with her husband’s property lets back in 1985, which kick-started their hotel business. ‘He never actually asked me to work with him but that’s when I joined the business,’ says Kemp laughing. ‘Tim had been providing two-star accommodation to American students, but the properties had short leases and were pretty gloomy. Then one became available in Dorset Square with a longer lease and we thought it would be lovely to do it up. Turning it into a hotel wasn’t plain sailing, but we were young and positive, so we went for it.’

The couple sold the hotel in 2002 but have subsequently bought it back and Kemp has redecorated it in the exuberant style she has become known for. Their portfolio now also includes the Covent Garden and Haymarket Hotels as well as the Knightsbridge and Number Sixteen Townhouse Hotels. Although each is unique and has its own character there is something instantly recognisable in the Firmdale interiors, whether it’s the striking over-sized headboards, or the wonderful way Kemp contrasts patterns and prints. ‘I like a carefree look,’ she says. ‘It has to feel good too, so we use gorgeous woods or terracottas and ochres, natural materials with texture and colour. There is also a lot of detail in our interiors and a lot of the elements are bespoke.’ 

Kit Kemp is drawn to folk thread designs

Kit Kemp is drawn to folk thread designs

Bespoke pieces are key to Kemp’s schemes and she works with many other designers including Christine van der Hurd and Michael Silver at Christopher Farr on what she calls ‘design alliances’. ‘I really enjoy working with other designers and creating unique pieces together, particularly rugs and fabrics, but prefer to call them alliances rather than collaborations,’ she says. ‘It’s lovely to have something bespoke, that is made just for you. It means that no-one else will have the same thing and it is a great way to bring a room to life.’

Colour obviously features in Kemp’s interiors and is often where her schemes start. ‘Even if I try to be restrained with beige, navy and white, some colour will always leap in like a wicked imp,’ she laughs. ‘Colours don’t have to match. If they complement each other or are similar in tone it’s more interesting. I’ll often have a plain wall and will introduce one large pattern somewhere, with other smaller patterns, so they’re not competing. Although, I have been doing this for a long time, so breaking the rules and stretching the imagination with colour and pattern is fun. Interiors should always be fun.’

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