Kit Kemp was running a graphic design company in London’s West End in the 1980s when she met her future husband, Tim. He wanted to upgrade a string of student hotels he owned, and Kemp decided to take on the task. Eight restaurants and bars, 10 hotels, and two design books later, Kemp is a highly lauded interior designer with multiple collaborations under her belt—including Wedgwood, Andrew Martin and Christopher Farr Cloth. With properties in some of London and New York’s trendiest neighbourhoods, Firmdale Hotels has earned a reputation for creating upscale, beautifully designed boutique hotels.

Q: What makes for a well-designed hotel?

The same things that make a beautiful home. You have to appeal to all the senses, not just one or two. There has to be an element of calm and comfort, and balance.

The lobby of the Whitby Hotel in New York. Photo by Simon Brown Photography.

Q: What goes into creating that first impression?

There should be something that [grabs] your imagination—in the lobby of the Whitby Hotel in New York, we have a grandfather clock by Maarten Baas, and the clock face displays a figure who draws on the time, minute by minute. From the moment you arrive, you should have a feeling of wonder and a sense of adventure.

Q: What is your first thought when starting work on a new property?

Help! When it’s a large project, it’s quite frightening, but I start by using something I love—a fabric or a piece of art.

The Terrace Suite at Ham Yard Hotel in London. Photo by Simon Brown Photography.

Q: From start to finish, how long does it take?

Ham Yard [in London’s Soho] took approximately six years from design concept and architect planning to building, landscaping and opening.

Q: What is one of the challenges of hotel design?

Rooms below ground level—basement areas where there’s no natural light. Good ceiling heights help, and a good imagination.

Deluxe Junior Suite at the Whitby Hotel in New York. Photo by Simon Brown Photography.

Q: What is most important when it comes to designing a hotel room?

The bed. It has to be both high and imposing in the hotel room and amazingly comfortable with a glorious headboard.

Q: How do you keep hotel rooms looking good?

We’re always working on at least 12 different rooms at a time in different hotels, and we change them completely approximately every three years. I recently designed a wallpaper for Andrew Martin and immediately ordered 400 rolls for the hallways at the Covent Garden Hotel.

Q: What is your approach to a hotel’s common areas and outdoor spaces?

At Ham Yard, the first thing we did was buy five 30-foot-tall oak trees. So, when we opened the hotel, we had a beautiful green area with mature trees. If you’ve got floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking fully grown oak trees, you’ve got a lot on your side before you even hang up a curtain.

Deluxe Junior Suite at the Charlotte Street Hotel in London. Photo by Simon Brown Photography.

Q: How would you describe your style?

It’s colourful. Colour makes you happy. If you’re travelling and feeling homesick and open the door to a room which is dismal and taupe, you’ll feel [the same]. I prefer our guests to open the door, look around and feel joyous about travelling.

The Drawing Room at the Charlotte Street Hotel in London. Photo by Simon Brown Photography.

Q: How does Firmdale keep its edge?

To keep the edge, you have to have a strong point of view. We’re [also] completely involved and that makes all the difference.

Kemp’s Favorite London Spots

1. The Victoria and Albert Museum

“They have exhibitions by artists in residence, and architects and educational lectures. It also has a lovely central garden to sit in the breeze and take a cup of tea.”

2. Somerset House

“For the scale of the building and the exhibitions that take place there.” Catch Good Grief Charlie Brown! Celebrating Peanuts and its Cultural Legacy from Oct. 25 to March 3, and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair from Oct. 4 to 7.

3. The Royal Opera House

“I love the ballet and the beautiful costumes and scenery.”


[This story appears in the September 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]