Shaper: Kit Kemp

Show aired on 16th June 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, welcome to another edition. The place of course where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them you are very lucky because we bring someone in who is shaping the world of business, and our Business Shaper is usually someone who has defined their own way and they have probably have beaten the odds in the process as well and these people always, I say always, generally have an amazing story. My Business Shaper today who I am sure will have an amazing story is Kit Kemp MBE no less and Kit Kemp has been creating and inspiring vibrant and playful interiors for almost three decades. She is also the design director of the Firmdale Hotels which she is co-owns with her husband Tim. Firmdale if you don’t know, it includes The Soho, Ham Yard, Number Sixteen and Dorset Square in London as well as Crosby Street Hotel and the Whitby Hotel in New York. I’ve been to some of them but not all so you know what I’m going to be doing in the next few weeks. Hello.

Kit Kemp
Hello.

Elliot Moss
Thank you for joining.

Kit Kemp
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
How did you get into the crazy business of hotels? Because you built up an amazing, I mean an amazing array and tasteful and we’ll come on to the taste and the role of aesthetics that it plays for you and why you have such a good eye and so on but yeah take me back a little bit, three decades or so.

Kit Kemp
Right, well I had my own little company called Barnacle because I was working in shipping before that so I travelled to places like Mexico and Guatemala and managed to sort of bring back wonderful fabrics so I’ve always loved textiles but I met my husband through Nevsehir Novitsky who’s an architect that I worked for also and was a good friend and Tim had small properties in London but they were for students and so when we got together we decided that maybe we might try and upgrade a building and bring it to another level.

Elliot Moss
And the first building was?

Kit Kemp
Was Dorset Square Hotel in Dorset Square which was the site of the first Lord’s Cricket Ground and incidentally there was a balloon ascent there in the 1800s but it was a very sort of dilapidated building, regency and I don’t actually remember Tim ever asking me to get involved but I was rather keen on him and it was before we were married and I thought well the only way is just start working with him or I’d never see him.

Elliot Moss
But in the sense your qualification for it was, what? I mean you hadn’t worked, were you an interior designer by trade?

Kit Kemp
No, I’d done a bit of graphic design before making little sort of brochures and things like that but that’s what I wanted to do and I think lots of people put things in their way, they say once I’ve got a Degree, once I know how to do CAD, once I can do this I’m going to start but I think actually with the arrogance of youth sometimes you’ve just got to go for it and not put anything in your way.

Elliot Moss
And at that time, lots of things to pick up on. Firstly you have been working with your husband, he was then your boyfriend – what was that like? I want to come back to that but secondly your design aesthetic you were young and you said the arrogance of youth and I hear that a lot which is if you don’t know the barriers, your not aware of them you just crack on. What was that early look like and how did you come across it? It was from the travel but specifically how did you alight on that first bit of design in the Dorset Square?

Kit Kemp
Well it was in the 80s and I think we had the first country house hotel in London because Dorset Square is quite a sort of leafy square and oddly enough nobody had actually thought of that sort of title before and it was small. Nobody wanted small hotels if you had under eighty keys they thought it wasn’t really a goer. But that didn’t put us off and funnily enough we had a little restaurant there and when it was still a building site, somebody knew Anton Mosimann so we invited him to come along and stand in this basement which was dripping with rain and he looked at the kitchen and he said, he was wearing white patent leather shoes at the time, he said ‘you will never cook a meal in this kitchen’. So we thought well, I think we might have to ignore that which we did and bless him, many years later he came along and said ‘well done’.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out more about that but also specifically my question around working with Tim and what that’s been like and how it’s evolved. Time for some more music right now though before we go back to Kit, this is a cover of Nat King Cole’s Ballerina, it’s Gregory Porter.

A lovely big version there of Nat King Cole’s original Ballerina from Gregory Porter. I’m with Kit Kemp we are talking dilapidations, we are talking relationships, we are talking going back into the 80s. So you mentioned that moment of the wonderful Mr Mosimann and I’ve eaten one of his restaurants many years ago and he is a fabulous chef so he probably did know what he was talking about.

Kit Kemp
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Tell me about the relationship with Tim, you said obviously its young love at that point and your kind of unaware, I imagine both of you were trying to impress each other, you got your hands dirty and you got stuck in. Were you proud of that very first hotel you created and if so why?

Kit Kemp
Well it was a bit like topsy it just grew. I remember we almost weren’t going to have, because Tim had come from student accommodation and we were little more than students ourselves, I mean Friday nights in our student hotels was fabulous we used to have guitarists playing and it was wonderful but this idea that… we didn’t like a vacuum packed feel in hotels and we wanted to make them much younger and give a sort of certain vibe so we just had this sort of idea together.

Elliot Moss
It sounds very natural, it sounds like it evolved. Did you… when you went into it, obviously it was the first hotel you both created, was there any sense of trepidation? Was there any sense of nerves? Or was it just well we’ll see what happens and if it works it works?

Kit Kemp
Well, no.

Elliot Moss
Or was it a bit more focused than that?

Kit Kemp
Well it was focused because there’s so much money involved but no we really, we were just going to do it no matter what. It’s a bit like running the marathon once you start you don’t think you are not going to finish you know your going to, it’s just the amount of time it takes and how long it’s going to be before it’s a success.

Elliot Moss
And you and Tim have been doing the same thing for quite a while. Go back a little bit then, that relationship blossoms. What’s it like working with your husband and what’s it been like?

Kit Kemp
Well we are both quite autonomous, we both have our different areas and I started out working out in a cupboard but now I have a whole building and Tim has his. He’s in Golden Square and I’m in South Kensington in Thurloe Place so I have my design studio there and so that’s developed in its own way as well so as well as doing the hotels I do collaborations and work with other designers as well to do wallpaper and fabric collections and working with Wedgewood to do dinner services and Wilton Carpets to do a hotel boutique collection.

Elliot Moss
And a special range with anthology I read.

Kit Kemp
Yes anthropology.

Elliot Moss
Yes, anthropology indeed not anthology that’s something else completely different. Well maybe we should do something with anthology we’ll just create an anthology of books which will come to your writer as well but as that developed again, the confidence to go off and do these collaborations, has that just evolved or is it something you had in the back of your mind years ago?

Kit Kemp
It’s an organic process and if I can’t find things I will commission them. I’ve got a very good focus of what I want to achieve at the end of the day and I’m curious and sometimes you just have to be a little bit frightened but if somebody asks you to do something I’m never going to turn it down, I’m going to really do my best.

Elliot Moss
And that cupboard that you were in versus the place your in now in which is much more space, does it make any difference to you? Are you still the same person do you think that you were then with the same attitude?

Kit Kemp
Very much so because I still have the same things that I really love and I believe in with my design and with our hotels and nowadays you get so much being thrown at you all the time if you don’t go back to your little closet of things that you really believe in and you love and you can focus on and you know are right, you can get a bit lost.

Elliot Moss
And inspiration in a word, where at the moment do you find that from? Because it’s a very busy market, everyone’s designing, everyone’s got a new designer boutique hotel, in the way it just wasn’t true in the 80s I think and as you said if it wasn’t above eighty rooms, eighty guests, you weren’t interested, everyone now wants to create these things. How do you still find the edge for you?

Kit Kemp
I don’t think its about trying to create something which has so called high heeled shoes, it has to have an intrinsic style to it and I’m not trying to shock people I just know that there has to be that sense of arrival, there has to make something that makes it different and makes people feel that there’s that sense of adventure because I do think travel is about a sense of adventure and I also think it shouldn’t be too serious it should be fun. I think if you’re travelling and your feeling a bit lonely, your room is your friend and if you’re inside it and there’s something that makes you want to ask more about it, to be curious about it you forget about anything else and your part of that adventure.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my adventure here with Kit Kemp and we are talking all about hotels and rooms being friends which is a nice way of talking about them and a nice antithesis to many of the big hotels where maybe they’re not so friendly and not places you really want to stay in. Anyway, more coming up from Kit as I said but also we’ve got some words of advice right now from our program partners at Mischon de Reya for your business…

If you are enjoying what you’re hearing today here on Jazz Shapers don’t forget there are many more ways to hear this programme plus hundreds of former guests on it. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes. If you put Jazz Shapers into iTunes you’ll get the full archive of programmes to enjoy. And also if you find yourself on a British Airways flight to or from the US you can enjoy us on the inflight BA High Life Service as well. But today right here, right now my guest is Kit Kemp and she is one of the owners and also founders and design directors at the Firmdale group of hotels with The Ham Yard in there, with The Soho in there and with lots of lovely other places around the world, a couple in New York as well which I must visit but that would involve a trip to New York as well which may not be happening imminently. You’ve talked about the way that your designer aesthetic has grown and that inspiration as you said it’s not the magic, you know the one off thing, it’s about the general vibe, don’t take it too seriously. You’re now running a business with your husband of over a thousand people, way over probably towards fifteen hundred people across multiple locations with big money involved. How do you maintain the sense of what it is that you want to achieve every day, not just when you take the dilapidated building but when you’re delivering service every day, how does that happen for you?

Kit Kemp
That’s not a problem I don’t find that a difficulty at all. The difficulty is just getting everything to work in sync and I once heard Georgio Armani say that he never likes to go in his shops because he’s always going to find something wrong – well its true, but I can cycle round all our buildings in London and go into every single one and just check and I don’t want it to feel like a formula or a brand, every one of those buildings should have its own character and you should feel that when you go within it and also for example in New York, there are two new builds so to build new builds in New York can give you a few grey hairs but at the end of it, its quite a satisfying thing and I know what I want to see within those buildings and actually part of the joy is upgrading them all the time. All the time we re-do rooms, we do about sort of thirty a year and so when guests come, things are changing all the time and I think they enjoy that.

Elliot Moss
It strikes me also your into the little details, as you walk into The Ham Yard off of whatever the road is in Piccadilly, there’s little sparkly lights, which I don’t know if you did or whether it was the public realm….

Kit Kemp
No we did that.

Elliot Moss
Right, and its lovely so if you go online try and find it somewhere but basically its little lights that navigate from the street and suddenly you’re in the world of The Ham Yard. Literally, you in a yard and then you go in there.

Kit Kemp
But you know those five oak trees which are thirty feet tall, we actually… they were the first thing that we bought when we created the building, of course your talking with other architects and it takes about six or seven years to complete the whole thing. But we bought… the first thing we bought were five, thirty foot oak trees and they were then the last things that went in and only when they arrived suddenly did Ham Yard take place and people that we were trying to describe how it would be, suddenly said ‘oh yes now we know what you mean’.

Elliot Moss
But does it, there’s that other sense, that sense of attention to detail even in the colour of the wood that you use and I noticed that in The Ham Yard recently, there’s little touches there which seem really personal rather than corporate. Now keeping that up at scale is surely difficult, no?

Kit Kemp
It is but I wouldn’t have anything in the hotels that I wouldn’t have in my own home and I think that’s something which is possibly different from others and there are very few people who actually have a site, build the hotel, design it and then stay with it and run it. Most of these hotels are run by corporations and there are many different designers involved and so there isn’t that congruent feel throughout the building that we have because it’s a very small team.

Elliot Moss
And on the congruent piece, just on that, how would your team who know that this attention to detail is important and that you’ve got very high standards, very exacting, how would they describe Kit when you jump off of your cycle, do they go ‘gasp’ or do they go ‘oh hello and let me talk to you about X’, because I have all sorts of people in here and some people say ‘oh no my team love me’ and you’ll go, they are scared of him and quite unhappy. What do you think they say?

Kit Kemp
Well I don’t like to be the wicked witch of the west but your never gonna be a pussy cat when you have got millions involved and so I think as a woman you always have to be approachable. I don’t want to come over as some kind of ghastly character but at the same time I have a level that I expect to see achieved by myself and everybody around me.

Elliot Moss
One of the by-products of building a business like this is money and I always talk about money because people have funny relationships with money. Someone once said to me ‘a relationship with money is like a castle that someone sits in and everyone sits in a different castle’. I personally have my own relationship and I’m sure you do. I’m interested to know whether it matters. You talked about the fact that the stakes are high but the output is that you’ve done really well. Does that affect the way you think about life, it is sort of my cupboard to bigger space question a different way?

Kit Kemp
Well coming from quite a simple background, I would never take it for granted and I’ll always feel a bit like a poor church mouse but that’s my weirdness but I feel that it’s worth just going for what you want to achieve and never putting anything in the way of it. And I like to have the best but you can’t have too many very famous artists because it doesn’t work and it hasn’t got an authenticity so I like to mix things up and its better that something has a bit of soul and feels authentic than anything to do with price.

Elliot Moss
And what does success look like for you every day Kit, because you know some people would look and go wow they’ve created this empire, they could stop tomorrow and put their feet up. What drives you every day to create the next thing?

Kit Kemp
Well I keep now being asked to do different things and I just have to have this colossal appetite for doing it and while I have that, I’m just going to haul everybody else along with me too.

Elliot Moss
And when are you at your happiest? Tell me, is it in the creative process moment? Is it when you see something brilliant that a young designer has done? Is it when something magical happens in the hotel? You know, when you just feel like the world disappears and you’re in that moment. When is that for you?

Kit Kemp
When I enter a room and I don’t need to do anything and it just looks so fabulous but most of the time I am really only needed when its not looking its very best but also I think to be creative you’ve always got to have that little gap at the top of your head so there always has to be that balance where you can get away and walk, or ride or be in the countryside just to have that punctuation during the week which is just a bit of greenery.

Elliot Moss
You’re a writer as well now, you’ve written a couple of books, one in 2012 I think and one in 2015 if I’m not mistaken.

Kit Kemp
I’m doing another one now.

Elliot Moss
Doing another now, right and what’s driven you to write because you’ve designed, you’ve created a hotel, you’ve got these lines and things. Writings a very different discipline?

Kit Kemp
It is a different discipline and actually it was one of my first loves, writing. At school it was something that was I actually pretty good at so I like to sit down and just put things on paper and of course once you do that it puts everything in place and it shows you where you are and where you have been and it’s a good process.

Elliot Moss
And do you say I’m going to do an hour today, I’m going to do two hours, do you sit and focus like that or is there a different approach for you?

Kit Kemp
Well it’s also a very visual thing because I have photographs and my work is always progressing so I try and keep it current. People don’t really want to know what I did five years ago, they want to know what’s going on now and I have a lot going on. I like to keep busy so I can write it down.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of writing it down and being busy, what are the next few years holding for you beyond the book? What sort of things are you doing that shape the worlds around you?

Kit Kemp
Well, we’ll be probably doing another hotel in New York. I’m going to be over taking over Burgdorfs on the seventh floor which is their home section and doing all things Kit Kemp in there, so we’re quite excited about that. There’s going to be the book next year, then a second Wedgewood collection which is coming out and then this fabric and wallpaper collection that I’m just working on now and it means that I’m going up North which I love, I didn’t know the North before but I’ve been to Accrington and Preston and going to the factories there and as I walk through the mills themselves, I’m seeing names like Pierre Frey and Thibaut, Pierre Fray is French, there’s Dolce and Gabbana that’s Italian and Thibaut which is American and they’re all still printing up North and I just hope that they remain doing that in the future now because you can lose a whole of lot of expertise on recognising colour in one generation and I’m working with these guys that look as if they’ve come straight out of the pub. They don’t look like designers and yet when I talk to them about colour and how to achieve it they’re the guys that know.

Elliot Moss
And that sense of artisanship which is really what you’re alluding to, how do you ensure that you’re as close as you can be to the best?

Kit Kemp
I think one of the greatest gifts is possibly not to be the best but to actually know how to get the best out of other people and that means that you have to understand them and be appreciative.

Elliot Moss
And tell me just before we go to your song choice and I have to let you go today, to you, what do you think now as you look towards the next five, ten years and you are going to be busy because I just heard you know, a mere mortal would have one of those things, you’ve got four or five rocking at the same time. What’s the thing that really matters to you? As you go through now, and you look at these different things, if you look back what will you say was important to you about everything that you’ve been doing?

Kit Kemp
Gosh that’s quite a hard question.

Elliot Moss
I didn’t say it would all be easy Kit. I’ve got to throw one difficult in there. But is it the integrity? Is it the joy of other people, I mean why are you almost doing all these things that you’re doing?

Kit Kemp
I want to know how long it’s going to last. I want to know if it’s going to look as good in ten years time as it does today.

Elliot Moss
I’m sure it will and if it doesn’t you’ll make it better. Listen it’s been lovely to talk to you today. Thank you and I look forward to going to these hotels in New York and going back to the hotels I love in London. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have your chosen it?

Kit Kemp
Every Time We Say Goodbye by Ella Fitzgerald and quite a few years ago I decided I wanted to learn the piano and I had a piano teacher called David Renny and we used to have this joke and I’d say right when everybody gets so fed up and the children leave home, I’m going to go and be jazz pianist in New Orleans and I was trying to learn Every Time We Say Goodbye and David used to say to me, ‘Kit your still the hatchet girl, you haven’t made it onto that piano’.

Elliot Moss
Well here it is just for you. That’s brilliant, thank you Kit.

That was Ella Fitzgerald with Every Time We Say Goodbye. The song choice of my Business Shaper today, Kit Kemp; someone who just said ‘you got to do it, you don’t want to over think it’ and she got involved in creating her first hotel with her soon to be husband. Someone who looked for gaps to enable her to experiment and to find that space for her passion for creativity and someone who fundamentally understood what a hotel is about and indeed understands what a hotel is about and that is creating a sense of arrival. All brilliant stuff.

Kit Kemp

Kit Kemp MBE is an award-winning interior designer. She is Design Director and co-owner of Firmdale, a group of luxury hotels in London and New York. Over her three decade long career, she has collaborated with Anthropologie, Wedgwood dinnerware, Chelsea Textiles, Christopher Farr, and others to produce a wide range of products. In 2012 she published her bestselling book, A Living Space, and in 2015 she published the follow-up, Every Room Tells A Story.

“I’ve got a very good focus on what I want to achieve at the end of the day”

“I don’t want it to feel like a formula or a brand, every one of those buildings should have its own character”

“I wouldn’t have anything in the hotels that I wouldn’t have in my own home”

“You’re never going to be a pussy cat when you have got millions involved”

“I don’t want to come over as some kind of ghastly character, but at the same time I have a level that I expect to see achieved by myself and everybody around me”

“I like to mix things up, and it’s better that something has a bit of soul and feels authentic than anything to do with price”

“I think to be creative you’ve always got to have that little gap at the top of your head”

“Writing is a different discipline and it was one of my first loves”

“My work is always progressing so I try and keep it current”

“I think one of the greatest gifts is not to be the best but to know how to get the best out of other people”