This Designer's Hotels Score With Colorful Charm
It's a feeling of coming home that overcomes you when entering a Firmdale Hotels property for the first time. This is no coincidence - because Kit Kemp, designer, creative director of the group and part of the ownership duo, chooses every detail with care.
November 29 2022
The story of one of the world's best-known boutique hotel groups began as success stories usually do: out of a need to improve something. "My husband Tim and I really hated staying in hotels. It was always the same meaningless experience. At least in most hotels," Kit Kemp recalls of the birth of Firmdale Hotels. "We had something in mind that was different from that." The British designer never doubted for a second that it would work - even though both her and her husband had only experienced the hotel industry from a guest perspective before opening their first boutique hotel in 1985.
Vibrant Collaborations: Firmdale's Kit Kemp has worked for major interior brands like Anthropologie and Wedgwood. ©Simon Brown
Successful lateral entrants
Judith Kit Kemp, as the 1950-born's full name is, began her professional career, among other things, as an employee of an auctioneer; she also worked in the office of a Greek shipping company. Even then she was very efficient and had a hands-on mentality, but it took some time before was able to give free rein to her creativity. For this path, she first studied graphic design and started working for Polish architect Leszek Nowicki. During that time she also met Tim Kemp, her future husband.
In London's lively Soho, not far from the upscale Mayfair district, lies the Ham Yard Hotel - an ode to the joys of life - which opened in 2014. © Simon Brown
Not only the love for each other, but also the dislike of hotels united the two. While love gifted them three daughters, two of whom are now part of the family business themselves, their dislike sparked the idea for thel Firmdale Hotels. What is now a portfolio of two properties in New York and eight hotels and an apartment complex in London, began in the mid-1980s with the opening of the Dorset Square Hotel in London's Marylebone district. Located in a beautiful Regency townhouse and equipped with only 38 individual rooms, it was setting a standard for the entire group - because even more than 35 years ago, the Kemps agreed they wanted to create cheerful places with character and ease. This included taking the properties' history and location into consideration: The Dorset Square Hotel for example, looks out onto the former cricket field of the famous professional player Thomas Lord (1755-1802). The theme runs through the entire hotel - the door knobs of the closets, for example, are cricket balls.
Urban flair: New York's The Whitby inspires with its mix of patterns and its location near Central Park. © Simon Brown
In the Charlotte Street Hotel one can find allusions to the "Bloomsberries", a group of English artists, intellectuals and scientists that existed from 1905 until the Second World War. Original pieces and a mural in the brasserie make reference to this period. In addition to references to the past, modernity naturally finds ample space in Kemp's designs, like in bold colors and daring patterns; the walls are adorned with artwork by young artists to whom the creative director of Firmdale Hotels wants to offer a platform.
Kit Kemp for the home: Kemp designed textiles inspired by London, New York and Barbados for interior label Annie Selke. © Simon Brown
Awarded with Order of Merit
Most of the decorative pieces, furniture and textiles are handmade - not only masterfully crafted, but also straight from the heart, Kemp is convinced of that. As different as the hotels may be, there are unifying elements: for example, each room features one of the tailor's dummies that have since become the Firmdale Hotels' corporate logo. In addition, Kemp's weakness for fine wall fabrics is visible in every hotel, and the artworks, which move like migratory birds from hotel to hotel, also create dynamism in an already lively environment.
Family Business: Many rooms bear the names of family members; the Aminata Room, that of Kemp's daughter. © Simon Brown
According to the designer, she never works with mood boards. She wants to feel textiles and see colors in natural light, not on a screen. So it's all the more amazing that in the end she always manages to skillfully combine seemingly incompatible things. After all, who would have guessed that a pile of old sports shoes would make a fabulous wall decoration in the beautiful "Ham Yard Hotel"?
She loves (almost) all colors: Kit Kemp likes strong tones - but interestingly enough, purple hardly ever appears in her designs. © Simon Brown
Kit and Tim Kemp have been living up to their own standards for more than 35 years: "Hotels should be lively places, not stuffy institutions," the two often emphasize. And because one's own home also has a right to cheerful Kemp creativity, the self-made designer has now gone among the furnishing guide authors and designs colorful bed covers, rugs, pillows, accessories and tableware in collaboration with numerous major brands. For her work, Kemp was even awarded an Order of Merit by the British Royal Family.
Colorful boutique hotel: Where there was once a World War II bomb sinkhole, London's Ham Yard now fills the void. © Simon Brown
This article appeared in the Falstaff TRAVEL issue Fall 2022.