"We really want people to feel at home in our hotels," says Kit Kemp, referring to the five small hotels she and her husband, Tim, own in London. At their newest, Charlotte Street, which opened last June, a cast member from the long-running British TV soap "Eastenders" is slouched in a supple brown leather chair in the lobby chatting up friends as if it were his own living room. But then creating intimate, relaxed environments, in contrast to the city's grand monolith hotels, is a hallmark of the Kemps' style. So, actually, is style itself. Kit, a self-taught designer, is known for creating exuberant, idiosyncratic rooms, for mixing tastes, periods, and international designs and layering it all with a dash of wit. In her hands, important French or English antiques might be combined with African art, Indonesian furniture, modern sculpture, a Japanese lacquer table. A piece can be used in a way its creator never imagined, such as an antique French iron balcony railing that at the Covent Garden turns up as a table. She's also not rigidly set in her plans: A piece of furniture in one hotel may, on a whim, move to another.
Since they opened their first hotel, The Dorset Square in Marylebone, near Regents Park, the Kemps have created something distinct. Their hotels tend, for example, to crop up in unusual neglected buildings (the Covent Garden was a French hospital, Charlotte Street was a dental warehouse). And though it must be a daunting task to transform these raw spaces into inviting locales, the Kemps always succeed. Whether they use a decor that is classically English (at The Pelham and Durley House) or something more contemporary and theatrical (at the Covent Garden), they manage to instill a quiet sense of comfort and grace at each of their establishments.
Charlotte Street, their latest venture, pays homage to its Bloomsbury location. The wallpaper is a reproduction of woodprints created by the famous Bloomsbury design group that included artists Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant. Paintings by the three artists also adorn the walls of the cozy drawing room downstairs, and there is a spectacular Fry mural in the hotel's brasserie, Oscar. But modern amenities abound too: Cell phones are offered upon check-in, and, for the guest-on-the-go, running shoes. There's a screening room, a reminder that the hotel is near Soho, London's media and entertainment hub. In fact, the hotel positions itself as a player in Soho's dizzy social scene. A who's who of London's business community can be seen coming and going through the lobby. Television and film producers, leaders of the fashion industry, and advertising magnates take refuge in the hotel to pitch their latest creative concepts and broker deals. They head straight to the lively, crowded brasserie, where they first debate what to order from an intriguing international menu. Dishes include crab-filled ravioli with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, seared baby squid accompanied by spring onions, baked salmon with horseradish, and spiced coffee mousse with caramelized pears. (Dinner for two is around $90).
For guests there are 52 rooms to choose from, and no two are alike. Among the most dramatic: the African-themed penthouse 500, replete with animal woodcuts on the walls and giraffe-print fabrics on the couch, chairs, and settees. From the metal fourposter you have views of the city's famous Ferris wheel, the London Eye. Both this room and the more neutral beige-and-taupe penthouse 501 have fireplaces. Among the coziest quarters to tuck into for a few days: room 200. Here, a half-canopy graces a bed covered with lilac-flowered fabric; the sofa and wing chair are upholstered in a soft and inviting gray flannel. Facing Charlotte Street, room 200 also offers a fun vantage point from which to observe the boisterous pubs and the restaurants below.
Ultimately, Charlotte Street's greatest achievement is its melding of quintessential English style with a more modern, lively design. The hotel offers serenity and impeccable service amidst London's exciting cosmopolitan buzz.
Room rates: $263-$675. 15 Charlotte Street, London W1P 1HB, England; 44-20-7806-2000;