Kit Kemp Brings a Fresh Pop of Color to New York City

a woman sitting on a staircase
Kit Kemp Brings Color to New York City HotelsSimon Brown

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Kit Kemp’s new hotel, nestled in the heart of Tribeca, was meant to be seen. “If you went to the top of One World Trade Center, it would stand out,” she says, laughing. It’s just the latest from Firmdale Hotels, the British-based company Kemp cofounded and co-owns with her husband, Tim. The Warren Street Hotel, which opened in February, is part of Firmdale’s roster of nearly a dozen hotels—eight in London and three in New York City—and has 57 rooms and 12 residences meant for long-term stays, as well as the 150-seat Warren Bar & Restaurant. Its facade is powder-steel-coated in a delicious shade of blue, with all mechanicals hidden within a large bright yellow box on the roof. The color is classic Kit Kemp.

a room with a bed and a mirror
A room at the Whitby Hotel.Simon Brown

Color, character, craft, comfort, and curation are the “five Cs” Kemp, creative director of both Kit Kemp Design Studio and Firmdale Hotels, often uses to describe the pillars of her style. Each property boasts layers of color and pattern in textiles and wall coverings often of her own design. High art—a Fernando Botero sculpture at the Crosby Street Hotel, a Tony Cragg at the Warren Street Hotel—mingles with collections of woven baskets or vintage telephones. Each room across Firmdale properties is unique—a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, an exuberant mash-up that in the wrong hands could be a disaster. Yet Kemp’s designs have managed to seduce New York, a city that is notoriously color-phobic, creating buzzy and enduring hot spots in the process. Some have state-of-the-art screening rooms, which are often booked for premieres and entertainment industry events. Celebrity sightings are commonplace, and have included Emma Stone, Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, and Oprah.

a bedroom with a bed and a shelf with flowers
A room at the Warren Street Hotel.Quentin Bacon

Kemp is “gratified and proud” of the response to her hotels. The 73-year-old self-taught interior designer has been working from a young age. Her father was an aircraft designer, and the options presented to her by the career master at her school, where “you were either going to be a teacher, a shorthand typist, a nurse, or a librarian—that was it,” were unacceptable to her. The Hampshire, UK, native left home as a teen and made her own path. She found jobs with an auctioneer and in ship broking. In her twenties, she worked for the architect Leszek Nowicki, who had an immense and enduring influence on her style and love of craft. She realized she could instinctively understand how to reupholster a sofa and hang wallpaper, and that it was a gift she could use.

The Kemps, who met at Nowicki’s wedding, debuted their first hotel in 1985, after being turned down by 14 banks securing funding. In 2012, they were each awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for their service to charity and the hotel community. Today, Kemp oversees a team that includes two of her three daughters, Willow and Minnie Kemp.

a living room with a fireplace
The Crosby Street Hotel lobby.Marius Chira

Kemp has come to define a new subset of British style: vibrant colors, intentionally clashing patterns and textures, animal figurines in places you might not expect them, and wallpapers that take a twist on toile. The brightness and humor feel like a deliberate reaction to rainy English days. Kemp designs and sells collections of fabric, wallpaper, china, glassware, furniture, and bath and body products, which are all featured in Firmdale guest rooms. She’s also written four books. Her motivation is something very simple: “It’s a love of color that would come across in the way that you dress, in the way that you surround yourself, and just joy,” she says. “I think there’s a real joy of life as much as anything else.”

A version of this story appears in the April 2024 issue of ELLE.

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