Welcome to Dining & Designing, a new column in which Curbed National joins with the forces of Eater National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating. This will be fun.
Photos: Firmdale Hotels
British interior designer Kit Kemp has wowed us with her modern whimsy and colorful, vibrant décor at Firmdale hotels and their in-house restaurants, including The Crosby Hotel in NYC, and the Covent Garden Hotel, Haymarket Hotel, and Charlotte Street Hotel in London. She and her husband, Tim, have seven properties to date, and plan to open another hotel in midtown Manhattan, plus a chic new London hotel/condo project; they're also are revamping London's Dorset Square, the first hotel they ever worked on. We spoke to Kit (whose own home was recently featured in Elle Decor) about barging into the interior design business, bad lighting, and, of course, today’s royal nuptials.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the countryside, above the Isle of Wight, where Bob Dylan came many years ago to play at a pop festival—that is how Americans would know where it is. It has influenced my designs. They are quite organic, bringing the outside in and living with color and texture.
What and who are your major design influences?
Everybody. I love design—it doesn’t matter whether it is Egyptian 17th century or John Pawson. If it is well done, I love it. I don’t know how they influence me. Hopefully you have your own central core and are not too influenced by anybody.
How did you get started in your interior design career?
I had my own little company, Barnacle. It was more graphic design, making brochures for people in the shipping world. Then I met my husband who is a complete workaholic. I realized that the only way to see him was to be in his business. It was completely Machiavellian. He had someone else doing interior design—it was a very good English designer. I did like her work, but I thought I could do it, and I can do it better. I had a very short learning curve. We were both pretty young. He had been doing student hotels. We decided we wanted to do a much more upmarket hotel as we were getting a bit older, and a bit grander. The original one, Dorset Square [in 1983/84], we weren’t even sure all en-suites would have bathrooms. The whole thing grew like topsy. That is how I really got started.
Oddly, now we have Dorset Square back again, so I’m doing it again. It has not been ours in between—we sold it—but we just bought it back. We couldn’t resist. It was so sad and tired. It will be very different from other hotels. It is going to be a lot more tailored. When we first did it, it was a country house hotel in London—it won’t be that. It is a regency building [and] it has that integrit, yso it will be very interesting doing it again. There have been so many changes since then—hotels are computerized, televisions didn’t go on walls. Were there even flat screens then?
What do you consider special about your own designs?
I am really quite good with scale and knowing how to use a space. I know how to make people curious. There should always be an element of intrigue and of fun, and it shouldn’t be too serious. I like to use lots of color and texture.
What are some of your favorite hotels?
We always go to Hotel du Palais in Biarritz. It feels like you are on the bow of the Titanic; it is the Atlantic Ocean, so there are proper waves with the sea on three sides. It was the former imperial residence of Napoleon III and Eugenie de Montijo, and it's owned by the town of Biarritz. It means they have not been too commercial. I don’t like places that are overdesigned because that means they are going to date. They look like they have been designed by a massive team. Very often, if they are in New York, or in Thailand, the design looks the same. I hate that. You should feel a sense of arrival and know where you are. Or there should be something that resonates with a particular area. At the Crosby [Street Hotel] in [NYC's] Soho, I loved the idea of an art salon, where people could meet. I thought Soho was an artistic community and wanted it to be part of that [and] not to stand out. I like it when a guest asks, "Where did that come from?" Or, "What’s this—it’s strange!"
There’s nothing quite like Crosby Soho downtown, or in the city.
There’ll be loads of them now—kidding. But I think there does have to be adventure. Some hotels (Four Seasons) maybe just decided they were hotels for businessmen, and they lost all sense of imagination. It feels as if they’ve never been inside the building. You can forget which way the sun sets. Mind you, it is difficult when you are on the 16th floor (of Crosby Soho) to know that you’ll get views of the Williamsburg Bridge. We were surprised by the views. I think the loft-style, floor-to-ceiling windows work well—being able to sit on a little cushion by the window and feel like a bird.
If you had to describe the space, how would you?
Well, it does have a little buzz and excitement when you come through the front door. It has a feeling of height and space and light. You can see straight through to the back. Very often in New York you have these huge buildings and there is no real daylight in the center. It’s a small hotel so it can feel very personal. When you get out of the lift on every floor it is different—a different color with sort of odd wallpaper on each floor. As a guest, you should want to open every door and to find something original in every room, whether it is painting or chair.
I have to ask. The Royal Wedding? Is excitement at fever pitch?
We are so excited! You go past these boutique windows and there is one dress in red, one in blue, and one white, with lots of paper bags of Union Jacks. We’ve all gone crazy. Our cinemas will be showing Will and Kate from 8 a.m. in the morning onwards, and we’ll have special menus with a Queen of Hearts pudding at the Haymarket hotel. The Covent Garden hotel is doing a royal afternoon tea with little crown-shaped biscuits, vanilla cupcakes with gold leaf and the British flag, royal blue macaroons, and open sandwiches with caviar.
We’ve had royalty, but not had Prince William or Kate yet. We had Harry, and certainly others to screenings. The great thing is they can have a private party with their own bar, jukebox, and rooms that lead off it, and a cinema space, as well. It’s a fun thing to do. There is a swimming pool at Haymarket that you can cover completely and have a really big party.
Dinner parties at home, or at the restaurants—what’s an absolute must?
Candles. It has to be romantic. If the lights are low, everything looks amazing. At home, if you keep people waiting slightly, they drink a bit more and enjoy the food more. I like meals where you can just pick at things like avocado, tomato, mozzarella, and roasted peppers. Simple.
Tell me about some projects you are currently working on.
We’re doing another hotel in New York. This one will be in midtown. Will it be a business hotel? I hope not. You can stay there on business and pretend you are not. I think businessmen are much more adventurous and imaginative than we give them benefit for. We know what the facade will look like, but I don’t know about the interiors just yet. It has a long way to come. There is demolition involved.
In Piccadilly in London, we are doing Ham Yard. It is a really nice project. We can put a garden and walkway through the center of it. There will be 12 shops, 24 apartments, and the hotel will have 92 bedrooms and suites. It will also have a bowling alley and theater with a roof garden, concierge service, and parking below.