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Kit Kemp on Design vs Comfort in Restaurants

Brumus at the Haymarket Hotel, London.
Brumus at the Haymarket Hotel, London.

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a column in which Eater National joins with the forces of Curbed National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Here now, Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating.

[Photos: Firmdale Hotels]

British interior designer Kit Kemp has wowed us with her modern whimsy and colorful, vibrant décor at Firmdale Hotels and their in-house restaurants, including The Crosby Hotel in NYC, and the Covent Garden Hotel, Haymarket Hotel, and Charlotte Street Hotel in London. She and her husband, Tim, have seven properties to date, and plan to open another hotel in midtown Manhattan, plus a chic new London hotel/condo project; they're also are revamping London's Dorset Square, the first hotel they ever worked on. We spoke to Kit (whose own home was recently featured in Elle Decor) about barging into the interior design business, bad lighting, and, of course, today’s royal nuptials.

What is it like working with your husband?
We work quite autonomously. He couldn’t bear to have me around all the time. We have the same sort of ideas at the end, but the way we arrive at the end is a different way. We do squabble over design. Now, I know when I can give way. But if you are working on something you are obsessing about, at least there will be a lot of soul. At the end of day, you just want it to be really great.

How large is your design team?
When I did the Crosby it was just Katrina Bradley and myself doing the color and design, then we had an architect. I think it is almost easier. The tail starts wagging the dog, otherwise and you get lured in certain directions. Crosby New York is single-minded throughout, and even when there are quirks, it is a single-minded quirk.

Tell me about your restaurants for Firmdale. Do you collaborate with your chefs?
Yes. I don’t come in like the wicked witch of the West. But very often, I’ll talk to a manager, and then go down the line. We have strong views on how things are done. I like to share my thoughts on the way food is served, garnished, set on a plate, and the pots used for serving.

Do you ever cook?
I always feel that one day I’ll be an amazing cook but I am waiting for that moment. I always think of the wonderful jams and jellies I could put in jars on the shelves, but it has never happened. I’ve been on a five-meal rotation for the last 20 years. My husband has gotten used to it.

Big name chefs: do restaurants need them?
I’m not into massive chefs, with massive egos, doing things that are complicated. I think everyone wants something that is more brasserie style. The food is fresher and cleaner. You can imagine the fridge is cleared out at the end of the day not all these ingredients in the freezer. In the hotels in London we have wonderful breakfasts with pastries and the works. In New York we had problems with rules and regulations. We needed sneeze guards, and no one could really touch anything. We had to build a unit and put a guard across it. Now we can really start having great shellfish people can help themselves to. I have a Danish chef and he may do a smorgasbord.

How about lighting at your restaurants?
It’s crucial. I don’t like lighting that goes on men’s bald spots. I don’t like those restaurants where you feel you can’t speak. I hate tasting menus. I’d rather have three or four good courses, not 14. I don’t need snails on porridge.

Tell me about your chairs at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York: design versus comfort?
The chairs are all well-thought and designed. They are in boiled wool. We’ve put cutouts on the back of imaginary characters taken from Ghana flags. The lamps there are 1950s—circular, polystyrene and plastic lamps—old telephones from London are 1950s Bakelite, wallpaper is 1950s designer, then we have green felt that helps with acoustics, African carvings, and other stuff.

Does the design of Crosby reflect or mirror details of any of your other properties?
Yes, the Crittle (steel-framed, UK-made) windows we used at Soho Hotel in London are the same as those at the Crosby in New York. We thought Soho London and Soho New York echoed one another. That made it very easy for us to think about a village feel. The building in New York: we wanted to do it in a good ecological way. It will be LEED-certified in a few weeks. We got into the swing of that and have chickens on the roof, a sculpture garden, and a ‘meadow’ garden. Soho London doesn’t have chickens on the roof, nor a helipad. The wonderful thing about London Soho is you look across and see people hanging their washing and storing bicycles, going on about their lives. You get the feeling of people actually living there. We like villages.

Your dream project?
It would be so fabulous to design a set for the Royal Opera House. I love, love ballet.

Head over to Curbed National for the rest of the interview. >>>

· Firmdale Hotels [Official Site]
· All Dining & Designing on Eater [-E-]
· All Restaurant Design Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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