Interior Design

Designer Profile: Kit Kemp

A creative force who tore up the rule book to reenergize hotel design, Kit Kemp excites and inspires with bold, brave interiors that celebrate craftsmanship and the joy of detail

Kit Kemp
(Image credit: Simon Brown Photography)

Kit Kemp MBE has been creating interiors that break convention for more than three decades. Powered by self-belief, determination and innate flair for interior design and business rather than formal training, she and her husband Tim Kemp built the admired and successful Firmdale Hotels from scratch. 

Today, Kit continues as Creative Director of Firmdale, as well as running her eponymous design studio Kit Kemp. Two of the couple’s daughters work in the Firmdale business. Willow Kemp heads collaborative partnerships and Minnie Kemp is an interior designer. Kit has authored four books, including Design Secrets, written during the pandemic, collaborated on multiple product ranges with respected brands and recently launched a residential design service.

Here we explore her design ethos, her influences and her interior design advice.

Kit Kemp

(Image credit: Simon Brown Photography)

It’s hard to recall now but when Kit Kemp first starting working in the interiors and hospitality industries, accessible hotels were mostly smart but generally rather corporate and neutral, with chains replicating identical rooms around the world. The very idea that a guest would be inspired to recreate interiors or take inspiration from a hotel for their own home was, to many, a laughable concept. 

But throughout her career and from her very first hotel in 1985 – Dorset Square Hotel in London – Kit has never been afraid to design spaces that challenge preconceived ideas. By following her heart and sharing her passion for combining color, pattern and textiles with a sprinkling of the whimsical, she creates rooms that have a distinctive thumbprint yet always keeps moving the dial on design.

Mystical not maximal

pink entrance hall with patterned wallpaper and Mora clock in Kit Kemp's London house

The main entrance hall in Kit Kemp's London house

(Image credit: Simon Brown)

Her approach has garnered accolades for decorative chutzpah and an unerring eye for detail. To call it ‘maximalism’ would be to seriously underestimate the thoughtful layers of storytelling in every room. 

Her attentiveness to imbuing humanity with crafts-made pieces, adding tactility with bespoke embroidered textiles and injecting humor with whimsical touches has won the admiration of many of her contemporaries. 

Beyond this though, it is her gentle use of folkloric and mystical references that truly feels unique. These are deceptively subtle and give every room another nuance of intrigue – from her Mythical Land wallpaper (above, in Kit Kemp's London townhouse) to the ‘fairy ring’ of porcelain pendant lights in the basement library in The Whitby Hotel in New York.

Childhood influences

Tapestry/mural in living room by Kit Kemp

Charlotte St Hotel loft suite

(Image credit: Simon Brown/Kit Kemp)

Fond memories of growing up deep in the countryside of the New Forest might be said to play a subliminal role in her style aesthetic. Kit’s passion for textiles was inherited from her mother who worked at the BBC but collected fabrics for pleasure.

'At home my mother used to have these old-fashioned chests of drawers that were very deep and filled with fabrics that she had bought from markets and all over the place. I loved rooting through those! There was always that absolute love of textiles and pattern and touch, and color, of course.' 

Of her rural upbringing she says, 'When you come from the countryside it’s all about the festivals: the local village fetes, carnival time, harvest festivals.'

She remembers spending a great deal of time outdoors and recalls Mrs Beech, a primary school teacher who 'eloped to Gretna Green at 15. She taught us so much about storytelling and fairy lands and was an inspiration.' 

Kit goes on to say, 'I still love to collect the original drawings that went within fairy tale books – some of them are so exquisite and romantic but very accomplished and beautifully detailed. As with travellers’ tales and weaving there is a craft and folkloric feel to them which I really love.' 

Additionally although her schemes celebrate color, they are also resonant with echoes of the natural world. 'I love natural textures and natural colours such terracottas and ochres, indigos, siennas that give that organic look,' says Kit.

Design journey

Living room in blue by Kit Kemp

The Terrace Suite at Ham Yard Hotel

(Image credit: Simon Brown/Kit Kemp)

Leaving school at 16, Kit worked first for an auctioneer and later for an architect.  

'From a very young age I was going into lots of old ghoulish houses, dark and with creaking floorboards,' Kit says, adding, 'My path has always gone via property – working for an auctioneer, for an architect, there was always that background and always that love. It gave me an awareness of scale: from tiny little cottages to large old houses. Without even realizing it, you’re assimilating a breadth of knowledge.'

Kit met Tim, who was already a property developer, though a mutual acquaintance: the architect, Leszek Nowicki.

Hotels and beyond

Crosby Street Hotel by Kit Kemp

Crosby St Hotel Botero Lewis Miller Flower Flash

(Image credit: Simon Brown/Kit Kemp)

The Kemps co-created their first hotel at Dorset Square in 1985, around the same time they had the first of their three daughters. They have since opened 10 hotels, including two in New York. Many of these have reimagined spaces which once housed unsightly, even dilapidated properties including car parks and warehouses but, in every case, Kit has unearthed a fascinating background history to the property or location to inform the interior design story.

Dining room in hotel

Charlotte St Hotel dining room

(Image credit: Simon Brown/Kit Kemp)

Kit was awarded Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year in 2008 and such has been the couple’s influence on reinvigorating the British hospitality sector that they were each honoured with an MBE in 2012.

An 11th hotel at Warren Street in New York is underway and during the 2020 pandemic Kit also expanded her studio’s offering with a new residential service, completing an upscale private home north of New York and working on an expansive London property.

Kit Kemp's design ethos

Living room in orange by Kit Kemp

The Drawing Room at Ham Yard Hotel

(Image credit: Simon Brown/Kit Kemp)

'I’ve decided I have five Cs at the core of my style aesthetic: color; character; craft; comfort; curation. Of course, we should also add a sixth one – the cost – as you must never forget about that. These all apply whether you are putting together the largest building or the smallest room.'

Kit also reveals: 'I’m very impetuous and quite bold and I know what I like so I don’t generally hang around: I’ll say "yes, no, larger smaller, let’s go with it!" but at the same time I’m very sharp on detail so, you know, it doesn’t have to be over colorful but there has to be something that brings a sharpness – whether a piping or a detail – that makes you look twice. You don’t want a room of design that is so tasteful that it is forgettable. There has to be something that sparks a chord and makes it memorable.'

Design superpower

Bedroom with blue headboard on bed by Kit Kemp

(Image credit: Simon Brown/Kit Kemp)

When asked what she regards to be her design superpower, Kit says, 

'My eye for detail and attention to all the design secrets that make a space and everything in it function to the highest possible level. The unseen and the behind-the-scenes elements are so important. It’s vital to get the flow and functional side of the building working so that you can have fun with the interiors – and there is not one bit of this process that is less important than the others. It’s about making sure the room makes people feel good within the space without being sure why.'

Kit Kemp's design hero

'Vanessa Bell. She’s become more famous as the years go by. When I was working on Charlotte Street Hotel in its Bloomsbury location, I took the train down to Charleston (farmhouse) on a freezing cold day. 

'I fell in love not with Virginia Woolf but with the creativity of Vanessa Bell. She was the homemaker who brought everybody together: they all fell in love with her and no one ever really wanted to leave. She was a strong character and I really loved her ethos of making the whole house so comfortable, offering great cooking and that fact that everything had been painted. 

'She couldn’t stop at just doing a napkin – it was the whole table, the fire surround, everything around her was "Vanessa". And I loved the color palette – it is so good in British light – and the hand-blocked fabrics too.'

Pivotal career moments

'Creating Dorset Square Hotel was the first. Then when my husband decided to build a hotel in New York. It was very exciting and just very hands on. New York is like a graveyard for British companies – you can get it so very wrong. To get the whole building built took an enormous effort, but we did it and it was a success, so that was a huge landmark, too.'

Name a dream client

'I love going to the Royal Opera House in London, so to design a theater or a ballet set would be  fabulous. To even do all the outfits and costumes. It would have to be a new ballet but in the old traditional sense; very much in full costume.'

Favorite brands or shops

Creative offshoots

Kit's collaborations include work with respected home brands – Andrew Martin, Wedgwood, Wilton Carpets and Porta Romana have already worked with Kit to co-create ranges from carpets to fabrics to lighting. 

Further collaborative ventures are underway including a heritage range, a giftware range and a continental range with Spode and the Kit Kemp x Annie Selke Collection of more than 50 rug designs, as well as pillows, and bedding.

Kerryn Harper-Cuss
Contributing Editor

Interiors editor and brand consultant, Kerryn Harper-Cuss has worked on four interior magazines and edited three of these, most recently The English Home, where she was Editor-in-Chief of both its UK and US editions for almost 12 years. She now writes for a number of high caliber publications, moderates design seminars and is particularly delighted to pen profile features on world-class interior designers for a regular slot on the Homes & Gardens website.