My Business Journey With… Kit Kemp

Interior and textile designer Kit Kemp MBE is best known for shaping the boutique hotel industry as we know it today. Together with her husband Tim, they founded the luxury Firmdale Hotel collection, and she later went on to create the Kit Kemp Design Studio. She has collaborated with some of the biggest names in design, including Christopher Farr, Chelsea Textiles, Bergdorf Goodman and Porta Romana, as well as recently being a guest judge on BBC’s Interior Design Masters. Here, Kit tells us where it all started, what she’s learnt over the years and why she loves working alongside her husband…
My Business Journey With… Kit Kemp

My first job was with an auctioneer in Southampton. It was really interesting selling people’s furniture and looking at houses. I then went on to work for a Polish architect in London. He was a real character – very eccentric but a wonderful person and really inspirational. I loved working for him, but I was doing quite menial things like making cups of tea. However, I was able to learn crucial skills on the job like measuring – it was very hands on and practical.
I’ve always had an interest in interiors and design. I didn’t realise that it was going to be the job of my life but working for an architect made me realise there was a business side to be explored. I was brought up in a small village called Hedge End and, of course, there were no interior designers there, so I had to think upwards. Now, there are so many courses at colleges and universities, but I didn’t know about them when I was younger. I couldn’t wait to leave school at 16, but I wouldn’t advise anyone else to follow in my footsteps. Luckily, it’s all worked out.
I later went into shipping for a few years because I wanted to travel. In those days, there was no such thing as a gap year so, if you wanted to travel, you had to combine it with work. I became a shipbroker – there were very few of them at that time – and I was able to travel to some fabulous places like Houston, Texas. I then set up my own company, Barnacle, writing brochures for shipping companies and people in the oil industry, which is when I met by husband Tim. He was working in property and hotels and he helped me set up my own company.
In the mid 80s, my husband owned a series of student properties, so we decided to turn them into luxury bijou hotels. I didn’t see myself as particularly employable, so it seemed like a natural fit to start our own business. In those days, I never actually liked hotels – lots of them felt vacuum-packed – we wanted to create a real sense of arrival with more interest, more fun, and something on a much smaller scale. We were never taken seriously because we were so small but, now, small is beautiful and people actively look for small, boutique hotels.

The first thing we did that meant there was no going back was renovating Dorset Square Hotel. The building had been owned by a shipping company and my husband managed to buy the freehold – it used to be the site of the original Lord’s Cricket Ground. We decided to turn it into a country house hotel. Everybody, including our bank manager, said ‘you can’t do it’ but the hotel managed to get lots of publicity. Even a famous chef at the time told us we’ve never be able to cook in the kitchen! Having arrogance of youth, we went ahead and did it anyway.
After the success of the first hotel, we expanded the business. My husband had a clear vision, so we renovated the Pelham Hotel in South Kensington. That also got lots of publicity for being completely different at that time. It was the forerunner for lots of others hotel that came afterwards.
For me, one of my greatest achievements is being able to work in my design studio every day. Breaking ground in New York was great, too. We didn’t just buy a hotel, we built one from the ground up in downtown SoHo – Crosby Street Hotel. It was a courageous thing to do, but it was so successful, we decided to build The Whitby Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
Luckily, I’ve had lots of career highlights, though one of the best has to be my collaboration with Christopher Farr. I also loved working with Michal Silver who’s in charge of his cloth. Collaborating with Chelsea Textiles and working with Anthropologie on a furniture collection has also been wonderful. I also never thought I’d be able to publish books, but I’m just about to release my fourth, Design Secrets.

During my career, one of the main business lessons I’ve learned is to stick to an idea. Hold your dream or project and see it through to the end. Everything else can just fall away, you can see it for what it is and make your vision a reality. There will be all kinds of ups and downs along the way, but you must see it through.
Every minute there are people coming along and snapping at your heels, so it can be difficult to stay relevant and up to date at times. However, I think that putting my head down and taking baby steps towards something is important. Of course, there are moments when you’re chugging along but, at other times, inspiration is there and you have a clear idea of what you want to create.

I’m inspired by people who truly love what they’re doing. I’m surrounded by craftspeople and people who want to show me what they’re doing – if I can collaborate with them or commission something from them, then fantastic. I love seeing people transform and watching how they evolve over time.
Working with my husband over the years has been incredibly special. When you’re doing something you feel strongly about, you can have huge arguments about it. He’s more concerned with the architectural side, while I focus on the interiors. We often have very different opinions about things, but we always arrive at the same end point. If he criticises my work, I take it very seriously, because he’s often right. It certainly keeps me on my toes!
My design studio is also filled with lots of different ideas, so I use it to garner inspiration. Here, every day involves something different, whether that’s designing crockery or creating new prints – we’ve just created a tea service for Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Creating something from nothing is such a special journey.

When it comes to designing a room, lots of factors have to be taken into account. In a hotel, the first thing I think about is how it’s going to work behind the scenes – how the housekeepers will move the laundry, how to soundproof the property, how to deliver room service etc. Then there will be a series of ideas based on inspiration. I often ask my team to take photographs if I’ve seen something particularly interesting on the street or out and about. On the other hand, for a house, it’s all about the aspect – what does the location bring, what lighting can you work with, who’s going to use the space. Understanding what your client loves and pushing the boundaries a little bit is key. That, and playing with scale, balance and colour.
My style has changed hugely over the years, but the basics are still the same. I always go back to things that I love and I’ve always been drawn to colour. I don’t want to create something that’s a pastiche on the past but, on the other hand, I don’t want something that’s too in fashion which will go out of date. I love going to other people’s houses and seeing their style and character. For me, it’s all about creating focal points, whether that’s a decorative accessory or putting in individual character.
I was delighted to be asked to be a guest judge on the BBC’s Interior Design Masters. However, I was slightly disappointed at not being able to meet the contestants – it would have been so interesting to hear how they’d put a room together. I like designers to be out there – often people wear colour but don’t always put it in their home, so it was great to see the contestants being experimental.
Getting an MBE was the icing on the cake. It was lovely to be acknowledged, but I get more satisfaction in that I have so much more to give as the years go on, and I truly love what I do. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned to enjoy the process and enjoy life at every age.

If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be to go for it. Don’t let things or people get in the way and say you can’t do it, because you can. There will always be people who discourage you, but you must ignore them. Don’t allow yourself to sulk for days on end if things don’t go your way, just get up and really go for it. Now, I love that I’m constantly learning. Because I didn’t formally learn the rules and principles of interior design, in a way it gives you more space to be creative. I have a distinguished style – you either love it or hate it.
I would love to go back to India soon. You find inspiration on every street corner and it has such a rich and beautiful culture. During the summer months, I love being in the UK, particularly in the New Forest which has everything – wild ponies, open spaces and the sea. In winter, I love going to the Caribbean – Barbados is fabulous.
There are hundreds of interior companies in my little black book, but some of my favourites include Lewis & Wood who make beautiful fabrics; Richard Taylor for his lamps; Tim Page create wonderful carpets; while Vaughan Designs and Porto Romana do great lighting – in fact, I have a collection coming out with Porto soon.
At the moment, we’re building a new development in Tribeca in New York which is set to open in two years’ time. We’re also in the process of expanding the Soho Hotel in London, as well as creating a new line of crockery and giftware with Portmeirion, plus a carpet and bed linen collection with Annie Selke which comes out at the end of the year. There are lots of exciting things in the pipeline, as well as my new book which comes out later this month – it’s all about the dos and don’ts of design, how to use colour and how to be creative in your home.

Design Secrets will be released on Thursday 20th May, published by Hardie Grant Books. Available to pre-order at Waterstones now.
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