By Jenny Rose-Innes
Across the arm of a sofa in the sitting room of Kit Kemp’s house in the New Forest is a colourful cloth she found in a second-hand clothes shop in Covent Garden. It provided the inspiration for ‘Mythical Creatures’, the range of china she designed for Wedgwood.
Kit finds inspiration everywhere, and has also collaborated on textiles, wallpapers and rugs. But, in the design world, she is known, more than anything, for her individual take on hotel interiors. More than 30 years ago, Kit and her husband, Tim, opened the Dorset Square Hotel in Marylebone, and since then they have established a string of others, in both London and New York. As well as the hotels, they have their own commercial laundry and a small in-house hospitality school and bakery.
Each property is unique, but what ties them together is Kit’s unpredictable, and often playful, approach to design. Her world is colourful and full of pattern and texture. It’s infused with contemporary art but, equally, presents more mundane objects in a new light. Her interiors are calm and comfortable, yet exciting at the same time. She has an ability to create environments that, while highly distinctive, are always sensitive to their surroundings.
Her father’s family was artistic, so even as a child art was there in the background. ‘I’ve always loved colour,’ she says. Kit grew up in the country, just across the river from where her family house is now. ‘I was a tomboy and spent a lot of time outside – we lived a very rural life, without any neighbours.’ As far as interiors went, she was also practical. ‘I knew how to upholster a sofa and wallpaper a hallway.’
When she left school, one of her first jobs, which she thoroughly enjoyed, was with an auctioneer. She then worked for a shipping company for a while before moving up to London, where she got a job with a Polish architect, Leszek Nowicki, who would often take her to exhibitions. ‘I learnt to get a very good feel for dimensions and space,’ she says. ‘My boss had a very “crafty” aesthetic – very simple. He much preferred pottery to fine china. I gained great experience there.’
After a few years, she started her own small company, again in shipping, and later joined Tim in a business that specialised in student accommodation. ‘When he managed to get the freehold for one of the buildings, he had plans to upgrade it,’ she says. He’d already been using a decorator, but Kit figured out she could do it instead. ‘So that’s what happened – if I decide to do something, I’m pretty determined. I never give up.’
That was in the mid-Eighties, and the upgraded hostel became the Dorset Square Hotel. ‘I remember Country Life calling it the first country house hotel in London,’ she says. ‘It’s a Regency building, and we still have it in the group.’ From then, she says, ‘the interiors of the hotels became my world.’
Their country house, set on four-and-a-half acres near the Hampshire coast with a garden running down to the water’s edge, certainly needed Kit’s clever approach to design when she and Tim found it in 1999. ‘It was built in the 1930s and wasn’t
a very attractive house, really,’ she says. ‘It had been on the market for ages, and we thought we could do something with it because of the position.’
About 10 years ago, they completely refurbished it, adding the orangery – or dining room – as well as an extra bedroom, new entrance hall and stairway. The house is decorated in quintessential Kit Kemp style, with plenty of bold colour and pattern, in wallpaper, upholstery fabric and rugs; an abundance of artwork, including oversized contemporary sculptures and paintings; and a mix of furniture, from the rustic to the more refined. Clearly, pieces have been collected from all over the world – in a bedroom, for instance, a traditional hunting scene hangs above ornate Indian side tables. In Kit’s capable hands, elements that, in other settings, might not sit together comfortably make perfect sense.
Kit’s ability to create entire worlds is also in evidence outside. Apart from the topiary animals that frolic across the lawn or stand among flower beds, there are three enchanting additions – a shepherd’s hut, a gypsy caravan and a thatched summerhouse. The hut had once belonged to a friend, John Harman, who had built it and used it as an office. It has since undergone a significant transformation. ‘As he’s a thatcher, I asked him to thatch it,’ says Kit. ‘There was a boiler in the corner, which we stripped out, and then I asked Melissa to do her magic.’ Melissa White, who worked with Kit on a fabric and wallpaper collection, filled the interior walls with scenes and motifs you’re more likely to find in a storybook, all sitting under a stylised starry sky. The hut provides a quiet working spot for Kit, or just somewhere to retreat to. It’s decorated with all sorts of bits and pieces she has collected over the years, which look all the better for being mismatched.
John also built the summerhouse, otherwise known as ‘the hobbit’s hut’. The gypsy caravan, says Kit, is an authentic one they found in Dorset. ‘Whole families of gypsies would roam the countryside in these caravans. There’s a stove and a pull-out bed in it, and children are completely entranced by it. We have afternoon tea inside and pretend to tell people’s fortunes.’
Every weekend Kit and Tim, who live in London during the week, come down to the house, which is also home to their three generations of King Charles spaniels, and Kit and Tim’s family when they visit. Even before they found it, they’d been renting a little farmhouse about half a mile away, partly as a way of getting their three daughters out of London and attuned to a more rural lifestyle. ‘At first they’d almost hated it, but very quickly they decided they quite liked it, with all the horse riding,’ she says. ‘I loved the farmhouse – it was really rustic and the children could ride their bikes all around the ground floor!’
These days, Kit usually rides on weekends, and does ‘Sunday lunch for waifs and strays – I don’t mind cooking, but don’t enjoy the washing up’. In summer, the family spend a lot of time on the terrace, but Kit says the garden has a lot to offer all year round. ‘I’m no great gardener, but I love gardens,’ she says. ‘When you shut the door of a room, it dies, whereas the garden just goes on and on.’ She has plans to do more in the garden. ‘And we have an old boathouse which I would love to redo.’
How do you like to entertain?
Now that we have redone the house in London, I really would like to have people around in a very simple way. And, actually, I owe people!
How do you relax?
I go riding and walk the dogs. I have a few good friends down here, and we will meet for a coffee. I also love picking flowers on a Friday evening – sometimes I get tense about work, but whenever I start putting the flowers together, I begin to feel so relaxed. I’m really lucky to have that balance.
What’s your idea of luxury?
Going around the garden in the early morning in my nightie, and swimming in the nude.
Is there any piece of advice that has stuck with you?
I think it really is about self-belief, sticking to your guns and not doubting yourself.
Are there any design books you particularly love?
I buy a lot of them – I’m not totally digital. I still love a scrapbook – it means more to me than scrolling through Pinterest. I love Chester Jones’ book, and also love Robert Kime’s work. And Axel Vervoordt’s, too.
What are your favourite holiday destinations?
We always spend summers at home near the coast in Hampshire and Christmas on Barbados. We’ve got lazy about going anywhere new – at least we know that when we go to Barbados everything is organised, so we can just plonk! I’d love to go to India again – I want to look at some designs and furniture – and I should go to the Far East as well.
Do you collect anything?
Many things, such as plates, and then they hang in a group. We also collected bowling shoes – so, peculiar things, which we then make into an art piece. I love using the tops of weather vanes, and door stops. I also collect French pottery – Cluny jugs.
What would you grab if there was a fire?
It’s so difficult with so many memories, but I think I would take the wooden sculpted lion’s head on the console in the green room. He has the friendliest face and the kindest eyes.
This is an edited extract from British Designers at Home by Jenny Rose-Innes published by Hardie Grant Books. RRP $60. Available in Australia from 29 October, at all good book shops.
Photos by Simon Griffiths