The Wit of Kit Kemp

Simon Brown/Courtesy Firmdale Hotels

By all classical standards, the London hotelier's dazzling pairings of color, fabric and art should clash. Instead, they deliver perfect bliss.

When I arrive at Ham Yard Hotel in June, it is, despite having been open less than 24 hours, buzzing with chic Londoners and travelers who sip cocktails in the courtyard, in the shade of five British oak trees and an imposing ten-foot bronze sculpture by artist Tony Cragg. The fatigue from my transatlantic flight immediately gives way to a visual delight. A colorful loom by Hermione Skye O’Hea over the reception desk and a Holly Frean collage of dog silhouettes in the elevator fuel my good mood. And when I enter my room and sink into a tub chair covered in the softest wool, I settle right in, as if returning home. One wall is covered in a charcoal pinstripe fabric (Jermyn Stripe, by Moon Furnishings), another with wallpaper depicting swirling storm clouds (Fornasetti II, by Cole & Son). Steel-rimmed Crittall-style windows overlook the triangular courtyard. Daydreaming seems to be encouraged in the space, as the clouds stir the imagination and the pinstripes settle it.

The room is classic Kit Kemp in that it is utterly surprising. As an interior designer, Kemp throws patterns and colors together the way a great hostess seats a table or a chef composes a dish of seemingly disparate ingredients. The art is in the balance. Her ninth venture—and her eighth in London—Ham Yard may be her most ambitious yet, but it has a distinctly personal feel. It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, this three-fourths-acre plot in the heart of London’s Soho was deserted. She and her husband, former real estate developer Tim Kemp, built Ham Yard from the ground up, just as they did New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. Their company, Firmdale Hotels, has become synonymous with boutique luxury.

It was Kemp’s vibrant use of color and patterns that drew me to Ham Yard. I was smitten with a preopening photograph I had seen of one of the hotel’s bedrooms; in it, an indigo-fabric wall (Jeans in Denim Brut, by Pierre Frey) popped from behind a headboard covered in bright yellow (Alcazar in Safran, by Christian Lacroix for Designers Guild). Another shot showed the original 1950s Brunswick bowling alley Kemp had brought over from Texas and embellished with backlit bowling balls and a suspended brick wall with flickering lights.

It’s never clear how or why Kemp’s brilliant juxtapositions work—only that they do. She pairs walls of bold orange, pink, aquamarine or violet with fabrics of myriad textures and patterns; works from the hotels’ impressive art collections; stone mantelpieces from the French countryside; and a scattering of beautiful antiques. Somehow it comes together and, in an age when cool whites and discreet beiges have become a shortcut to tastefulness, it feels fearless and exhilarating.

Kemp, in a cobalt-blue silk shirt, laughs when I tell her this. “The fact is, I’ve always had this yearning to actually be amazingly elegant and use natural taupes, but I can’t do it because color just…creeps in,” she confesses. “I’m probably more frightened of all white.”

It’s hard to imagine Kemp scared and even harder to imagine her falling prey to convention. Flipping through the photos in Kemp’s book, A Living Space (Hardie Grant), Inge Heckel, president emerita of The New York School of Interior Design, is practically giddy. “I am seeing a harmonious whole, with a vibrant approach to textiles and finishes,” she says. “She’s really given new life to hotels.”

Works by Fernando Botero, Jaume Plensa and Breon O’Casey have joined the hotel group’s substantial collection of sculptures. Tom Stogdon, a London-born artist whose graceful pieces—including­ stone sculptures and mixed-media works—add serenity to three of Kemp’s bold and colorful hotels, says, “You can never second-guess Kit’s taste, which is perhaps what makes her so successful. [Her] style is hard to define, but you always know when it’s a Kemp hotel because she has such a strong signature.”

Kemp’s fresh, modern British style draws inspiration from fabrics, patterns, art, travel and even history. At her Charlotte Street Hotel, colorful, Post-Impressionist-style murals in the Oscar Bar & Restaurant are an ode to London’s Omega Workshop, the design co-op founded in 1913 by Bloomsbury Group members Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. At Ham Yard, warm, orange fabric–lined walls in the drawing room showcase folk art from Europe and India. Kemp’s touch is also evident in her collaborations, in patterns like Mythical Creatures, a design that graces her new Firmdale-exclusive collection of china for Wedgwood as well as a line of hand-embroidered fabric for Chelsea Textiles. With its playful, imaginary animals, the design is a bohemian marriage of whimsy and refinement.

Traveling in big jumbo jets can make you feel a bit milled along,” Kemp laments. “And so I think that where you come to should be an adventure. The building itself should have that sense of arrival. It shouldn’t feel like where you’ve come from. I also think it should have a sense of family. And I don’t mean staying at your auntie’s, but there should be a feeling of community.” I fall back into the abundant cushions on the sofa and nod. Kemp leans back, too, and surveys the drawing room. “I like fabric-lined walls because you immediately feel you have arrived in some sort of fabulous shoebox,” she says. In the end, it is this cocoon-like comfort that sets her hotels apart.

Only after a night at Ham Yard do I come more fully to appreciate the subtlety and flair behind her designs. Her rooms excite the eye without being abrasive. Like the charming patterns in her collection for Chelsea Textiles, they hint at flirtation, but never insist. “Although her interiors look at first glance to be very spontaneous and eclectic, they are also very practical and harmonious,” says Jenny Simpson, creative director of Chelsea Textiles. Take, for instance, the drawing room at The Soho Hotel, in which simple, almost matte, wood floors offset the bright pink and green curtains from Schiaparelli by Designers Guild. Such neutral tones of gray and brown ground Kemp’s more fanciful designs in British tradition.

I hate leaving Ham Yard and want instantly to make a beeline to the nearest paint shop. A week later, I am sitting on the floor of my Brooklyn townhouse surrounded by paint chips, fabric swatches and sheets of wallpaper: an aubergine paint called Brinjal and a deep-orange one named Charlotte’s Locks, as well as the four-color Chromatic Stripe wallpaper, all by Farrow & Ball, plus hues from Francesca’s Paints’ Indian Summer collection. It seems Kemp has emboldened me, and I feel quite certain, somehow, that I am not the only guest to leave a Kit Kemp hotel with a vivid new palette.

Rooms at Ham Yard start at $525; 1 Ham Yard, London; 44-20/3642-2000. Rooms at Crosby Street Hotel start at $525; 79 Crosby St., New York; 212-226-6400. Rooms at Charlotte Street Hotel start at $510; 15-17 Charlotte St., London; 44-20/7806-2000. All hotels can be booked through firmdalehotels.com.

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