The Caterer and hotelkeeper Interview – Kit Kemp

31 December 2012 by
The Caterer and hotelkeeper Interview – Kit Kemp

Kit Kemp is the design director of the award-winning Firmdale Hotels, where an abundance of colour, oversized headboards and dressmakers dummies are just some of her trademarks. She shares some of her design tips with Janet Harmer and explains why a hotel should never stop improving the way it looks

The look of Firmdale Hotels properties has become central to the ethos of the business. How important is the design to your guests? I hope one of the key reasons guests come to the hotels is because they like the way they look, but it is no good having lovely looking hotels if they don't work. Guests won't be happy if we serve their breakfast late. And it is certainly not good if housekeeping standards are not up to scratch.
The guests weren't really aware of hotel design when we started out, but now they have much greater expectations and so now we have to design to a much higher specification.

You didn't undertake any formal training as an interior designer. How did your interest develop? I never got an exam in my life and I didn't know anything about interior design when I started out. My interest was in sewing, embroidery and fabrics and it developed into providing the look for our hotels.

What is your starting point when designing a hotel? It is usually a completely blank canvas. The Soho hotel, for instance, was a car park which we demolished and then built from scratch; the Haymarket suffered a fire and had to be gutted before we could start work on it. I work on the project from the word go. Fabrics are an important part of the process as I'm inspired by their texture, colour and tone. If I see a fabric I love, I just have to use it in some way in my designs. I think my love of fabrics provides a tactile and feminine feel to my designs.
I'm never off duty and always looking for inspiration wherever I go. Private homes, museums and art galleries inspire me more than other hotels.

How would you describe your style?

Can you provide an example of where a hotel reflects its locality? Yes, Dorset Square (the original Firmdale hotel which was sold by the company in 2002 and then bought back last year, reopening following a major refurbishment in June 2012) is located overlooking a private garden square, which was the site of Thomas Lord's first cricket ground, so we have used many cricket references throughout the hotel. Some are very subtle, such as a wonderful installation by Martha Freud - on the wall of the Potting Shed restaurant - of more than 100 porcelain pots with different cricket sayings which light up. Elsewhere in the hotel there are displays of cricket bats covered with newspaper cuttings of cricket reports and an old school locker - once used for storing cricket whites and shin pads - now used for housing crockery in the restaurant.

How does a sense of fun come across in your work? There are so many examples. For instance, in our New York hotel - Crosby Street - we have four cardboard collages of the Queen wearing hats made from different flowers according to the seasons, as well as a Mona Lisa with sunglasses on! At the Dorset Square hotel we have created our own wallpaper - inspired by old school botany posters - which creates great interest along the bedroom corridors.

How hands-on are you when it comes to introducing new designs? Totally. I obviously commission people to do things for us, but I frequently get involved with the detail. For instance, we have put dog-shaped appliqués on the back of the dining chairs in Brumus, the restaurant and bar at the Haymarket hotel, and I personally cut out many of the profiles from boiled wool. I also made the patchwork sofas at Crosby Street.

Increasingly, you have got involved in designing your own fabrics. How did that come about? I've always loved trying out my own designs and one day I was just asked by two different companies - Chelsea Textiles and Christopher Farr - to create my own collections. I am influenced by the things I see around me and have been lucky enough to have had them turned into wonderful fabrics, which can now be seen throughout the hotels. The collection for
Chelsea Textiles features mystical beasts, dogs and tribal Suzani prints, while the fabrics for Christopher Farr include one called Bookends, which was inspired by the zig zag of book spines on a shelf in a bedroom at Crosby Street.

When not using your own designs, what fabrics do you like to use? It really depends on which hotel I'm working on as I'm inspired by the building and the location. At Covent Garden, I've used a lot of Colefax and Fowler; at the Soho hotel - Abbot and Boyd; at Charlotte Street - Sanderson, because it reflects the Bloomsbury location; and at the Knightsbridge I've used a selection of ethnic fabrics.

How do you go about choosing the art that appears extensively throughout the hotels? I have an art adviser, Louise Hallet, who tells me what will last and improve in value. I know what I like, but it is also important that I don't buy rubbish. I'm always visiting art exhibitions for inspiration. I like to choose pieces that make people stop in their tracks and think.

How do you and your team work on a practical level? I have a team of nine in the design department. As well as working on the latest new projects - which at the moment is Ham Yard and the second hotel in New York - we also have a constant programme of maintenance and refurbishment to oversee. Each member of the team has a hotel for which they are responsible. We also have to outsource some of the work.

Each bedroom and public area is refurbished every three to four years. We totally change the room - it's no good just touching it up or changing just one or two elements within it as the rest of the room will then look bad. It is harder to do the public spaces as we always have masses of people coming through the hotels.

We have to continually change the look of the hotels - guests expect it. I sometimes go into a hotel that hasn't been touched for five years and you can immediately see that the property looks tired. When that happens, guests will start to walk away. I think as hotels like ships that will just float away if they are not looked after.

There are so many new hotels in London now offering something new and fresh that no hotel can afford to stand still. That is why hotels should never cut back on their refurbishment programmes. If times are quiet, I'm likely to step up our refurbishment programme, not cut back. If you want your hotel to look immaculate, you have to ignore what the accountants say - I certainly do. You can't play safe - that's why I'm constantly looking for new items of furniture and artwork. I continually want our hotels to be the very best.

We always work to a budget - the design has to work for the price. You can blow a big budget and the result still looks like a pig's ear.

How is Ham Yard progressing and when is it due to open? We hope it will open in spring 2014. It will have 92 bedrooms over five storeys, in four buildings which are linked together. We already have a warehouse of furniture and artwork, but are still looking for more pieces. The hotel will have a bowling alley - a first for Firmdale - where we want to create a fabulous atmosphere with wonderful artwork. I'm currently collecting vintage bowling shoes from eBay, which I'm going to group together behind Perspex.

One of the exciting things about the projects is that within the three-quarter of an acre site there will be several outdoor spaces, where we shall be planting six 24-feet oak trees, which will help to green-up Soho. There will be a rooftop garden, with a conservatory, which will be used as an events space for up to 150 people, as well as for growing herbs.

We are digging down several basement levels to allow us to incorporate the bowling alley, along with a car park, spa, and traditional 175-seat theatre. There will also be a brasserie and bar.
The great thing about being both the developer and client is that I don't have to do the interior designs on a computer in order to produce CIG images. All the ideas are in my head. However, every detail of the design - every door, cornice, etc - is recorded on computer. At the moment I know about the details for some specific areas, but the overall concept of the hotel is still to be worked out.

How important is it for the hotel staff to work within properties which are so uniquely designed? I definitely think it helps to create a very happy team. We use a lot of colour and I believe that helps to produce a happy environment, and a happy environment creates nice staff, which in turn results in satisfied guests. The staff always get very excited when we finish decorating a new room - and I always keep them in touch with all our new developments.

Kit Kemp founded Firmdale Hotels with her husband, Tim, in 1985 with the opening of the Dorset Square hotel. They are a formidable couple, with Kit's role as design director perfectly complemented by Tim's position as chairman and managing director. Today the company has seven hotels in London - Number 16 and Knightsbridge (both chic B&Bs), alongside the Soho, Charlotte Street, Covent Garden, Haymarket and Dorset Square - as well as the Crosby Street hotel in New York.

Future developments include what will be Firmdale's largest London hotel to date, the 92-bedroom, £88m Ham Yard - with 24 apartments and 12 retail stores, just behind Piccadilly Circus, and a second hotel in New York on 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.

Firmdale has a sound financial footing, with Barclays Corporate announcing in December 2011 that it would be providing the company with £188m to fund the group's ongoing expansion in London and New York. The bank, which has worked with Firmdale Hotels for 14 years, also agreed to fund Firmdale's existing facilities for three to five years.

The company's coffers were further boosted by the sale of the freehold of the 44-bedroom Knightsbridge hotel to a third party in December 2011 for £33m, with Firmdale remaining as the operator on a short leasehold for a minimum of five years.

The last set of company figures, for the year to January 2012, reported a 7.1% increase in group revenues to a record high of £74.4m. Average room rate for six of the group's London hotels (not including Dorset Square, which reopened in June 2012), increased 4% to £312, while average occupancy was maintained at 89%. Underlying group operating profit before depreciation, interest, tax and pre-opening project costs increased 11.1% to £14.3m.

A plethora of awards have been bestowed on the Kemps, including MBEs in the Queen's Birthday Honour list this year. The Soho hotel won the Group Hotel of the Year accolade at the 2006 Cateys , while the group has won the Queen's Award for international trade in 2000, 2006 and 2009. Separately, Kit Kemp has won numerous accolades for her design work, including the Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year award in 2008.

In her new book, A Living Space, Kemp says that in creating luxury design, she eschews the glitzy, shiny and ostentatious, in favour of creating a space which will stimulate and inspire the senses.

1. SIGHT â- Play up the individual characteristics of a room, such as its view and its dimensions.
â- Be bold with colour and patterns - and don't be hung up on matching every shade.
â- Embrace dark areas with moody hues and patterns.
â- Add colour to a neutral room via a colourful item of furniture or artwork.

2. SOUND â- Use good window insulation and soft furnishings to absorb unwanted noise from outside.
â- Think about how the space is to be used and use the appropriate materials to enliven (wooden floor) or soften the noise in the room.

3. SMELL â- Fragrance can have as much impact on a room as the choice of furniture or wallpaper.
â- French polished tables at the Covent Garden hotel creates a mood, as does the aroma of leather seats in the Soho and Charlotte Street hotels.

4. TASTE â- Create a dining room where people want to sit, enjoy and linger.
â- Dining chairs that are comfortable, easy to manoeuvre and don't interfere with the eye's line of a room are essential.

5. TOUCH â- Add interest through different textures and unexpected details, such as contrast-colour cording, bold buttoning and inside-out seams on seating.
â- Use paper-backed fabrics in place of wallpaper to absorb sound and add warmth.
â- Incorporate objects of interest - such as sculptures in wood or metal - which guests will want to touch and enjoy, rather than be fearful of breaking.

6. FUN â- Peak guests' curiosity with furnishings and artwork that they want to be among and never want to leave.
â- Use unexpected objects - such as the installation of 1950s telephones in the bar of Crosby Street - to create interest.
â- I like to poke fun at those who try to dictate what we should and shouldn't have, should or shouldn't do, and I find that a humorous take on art is the perfect way to do this.


Kit Kemp is giving away signed copies of her new book (published by Hardie Grand Books at £30) book to two lucky readers of Caterer and Hotelkeeper. Answer the question below and eâ€'mail with your answer by 11 January 2013:

What is the name of Firmdale Hotels' first property outside of the UK? a) Madison Avenue
b) Crosby Street
c) West Broadway

E-mail your comments to Janet Harmer here.

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