At Home With Interior Designer Kit Kemp and Her King Charles Spaniels - The Gloss Magazine
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At Home With Interior Designer Kit Kemp and Her King Charles Spaniels

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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. Kemp 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 Kemp’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. Kemp 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 Kemp 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 Kemp’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 ten 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 Kemp’s capable hands, elements that, in other settings, might not sit together comfortably make perfect sense.

Kemp’s ability to create entire worlds is also in evidence outside. Apart from the topiary animals that frolic across the lawn or stand among flowerbeds, there are three enchanting additions – a shepherd’s hut, a gypsy caravan and a thatched summerhouse.

Every weekend Kit and Tim, who live in London during the week, come down to the house, which is also home to their family and also their three generations of King Charles spaniels. 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, Kemp 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 Kemp 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.”

In the dining room Kemp’s love of bright colours is noticeable. She used South American blankets to upholster the chairs. The rug is Moroccan, and a mobile of swimming fish is suspended from the chandelier.

When Kit rebuilt the house in the 1980s, she added the panelling, along with the inglenook fireplace, to the wood room. The sofas are upholstered in a Dominique Kieffer corduroy.

Kit Kemp with her three generations of King Charles spaniels.

Part of Kemp’s collection of meat platters adorns the area above the kitchen fireplace. She has more of them at The Whitby Hotel in New York, believing that collections of objects make them more fascinating.

The hand-embroidered cushions by Fine Cell Work in Kemps’s design, “Heart of Oak”, sit on a pair of oversized armchairs.

Reclaimed oak floors and a raised stone fireplace from France feature in the green room. The Pippa sofas were designed and made to Kemp’s specifications, with hand embroidery and embellishments.

The blue room – Kemp’s daughter Minnie’s bedroom – is part of a new extension facing the river, and lends itself to a nautical theme. Its ceiling is tall enough to have a boat suspended between the oak beams.

Two large armchairs covered in Kemp’s ‘Ikat Weave’ frame the fireplace in the main bedroom.

From: British Designers at Home by Jenny Rose-Innes, Hardie Grant, £30, Photography: Simon Griffiths.

In the dining room Kemp’s love of bright colours is noticeable. She used South American blankets to upholster the chairs. The rug is Moroccan, and a mobile of swimming fish is suspended from the chandelier.

When Kit rebuilt the house in the 1980s, she added the panelling, along with the inglenook fireplace, to the wood room. The sofas are upholstered in a Dominique Kieffer corduroy.

Designer Kit Kemp with her three generations of King Charles spaniels.

Part of Kemp’s collection of meat platters adorns the area above the kitchen fireplace. She has more of them at The Whitby Hotel in New York, believing that collections of objects make them more fascinating.

The hand-embroidered cushions by Fine Cell Work in Kemps’s design, “Heart of Oak”, sit on a pair of oversized armchairs.

Reclaimed oak floors and a raised stone fireplace from France feature in the green room. The Pippa sofas were designed and made to Kemp’s specifications, with hand embroidery and embellishments.

The blue room – Kemp’s daughter Minnie’s bedroom – is part of a new extension facing the river, and lends itself to a nautical theme. Its ceiling is tall enough to have a boat suspended between the oak beams.

Two large armchairs covered in Kemp’s ‘Ikat Weave’ frame the fireplace in the main bedroom.

From: British Designers at Home by Jenny Rose-Innes, Hardie Grant, £30, Photography: Simon Griffiths.

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