Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Each and every week hoteliers Kit and Tim Kemp do the rounds of their seven London hotels, like conscientious doctors on their home visits.  They see themselves as their guests’ representatives, constantly checking over the hotels from their point of view and ensuring that their visitors are well looked after. For Kit Kemp, as the design director of Firmdale Hotels, there is also the added task of making sure that the hotels always feel fresh and vibrant and leading a constant but subtle process of renewal and updating. It is a big responsibility.

‘It’s important that every week we see a whole bank of rooms in the hotels,’ says Kit Kemp. ‘It is like doing our rounds and Tim goes around between them constantly on his scooter. We never lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day somebody is paying to stay with us and you want to make absolutely sure that they are having as good a time as they possibly can. You feel responsible for everybody, including the guests.’

The Kemps launched Firmdale Hotels together back in the mid-1980s, with the Dorset Square Hotel in Marylebone. Ever since they have been adding others to the group steadily, project by project, including the Covent Garden Hotel and the Haymarket Hotel. They set themselves apart through Kit’s focus on a design style that is warm but inviting, with an emphasis on colourful wallpapers and enticing fabrics, as well as many bespoke elements along with playful touches and engaging artworks. Add to this Tim’s focus – as chairman and managing director - on planning, finance, strategy and carefully growing the group and husband and wife complement one another perfectly, with their roles clearly defined almost from the start.

‘We are quite autonomous when we are at work, in a sense,’ says Kit, ‘and that works well for us. When we opened our first hotels we would hardly speak to one another for several months at a time, but we have got much better over the years. I have my own studio space in Thurloe Square and Tim has his office in Golden Square. I started off in a cubby hole and now have a building so I do really appreciate it. It’s a luxury to have my own space.’

Kit started her first career in the shipping industry, first as a broker and then founding her own company – Barnacle Communications – providing graphic design and brochure services. Then she met Tim, who had already built a substantial property business and had developed hotel accommodation for students. They began working together, with the student buildings providing a testing ground for the skills that would then help them to launch Firmdale. Unusually for the hotel business, right from the beginning they decided that they would buy their own sites, design them from scratch, manage the construction process and then run and operate the hotels themselves. 

‘There are so many facets to it and not one bit that can’t work,’ says Kit. ‘It’s the whole thing and quite demanding, but that’s the exciting part of it really. The other exciting part is keeping the whole thing alive and moving along, because you can’t just leave a hotel when it’s up and running. It has to be rejigged constantly and the guests love to see that things are happening.’

Working with a design team of nine, including her own daughter Willow, Kit’s studio is full of fabric samples and inspiration boards. Here Kemp has also produced collections of her own fabrics for Christopher Farr and Chelsea Textiles. Anthropologie have just asked her to design a capsule furniture and lighting collection for sale in their stores in the UK and America. A particular love of fabrics, pattern and colour also feeds into Kit’s book, A Living Space, published last autumn by Hardie Grant, and the design of a bedroom for the recent Wool House exhibition at Somerset House, organized by the Campaign for Wool, where fellow designers included Ashley Hicks, Donna Wilson and exhibition curator Arabella McNie.

The latest project for the Kemps and their design and construction teams is Ham Yard, a new build hotel in Soho and the largest Firmdale project to date by far. Due to open in spring of next year, Ham Yard includes 96 bedrooms, 24 serviced apartments, retail space, a fully equipped theatre, a gym and a bowling alley with vintage fixtures brought over from Texas. A warehouse has already been filled with furniture sourced for the building.

‘It’s more than twice the size of some of our other hotels, like the Soho Hotel,’ says Tim Kemp. ‘And each project is bespoke. They are all different and special to themselves. It is testing but we do have a lot of experience and we have been working with the same people – like our project manager Ron Cheles – for a long while now and we all get on extremely well. We work as a team and there are a lot of links in the chain but I do know exactly what I want. We do our own construction, we are the main contractors and we have our own joinery shop all because at the end of the day we could never get the level of service that we wanted and the attention to detail elsewhere.’

At the centre of the Ham Yard development will be a courtyard, which will be graced with a monumental bronze sculpture by British artist Tony Cragg. It was a piece that Tim particularly wanted to have and fits with the Kemps’ shared interest in bringing in painting and sculpture to the heart of the hotels, including many specially commissioned pieces. Working closely with art consultant Louise Hallett, Kit has commissioned or sourced pieces by artists such as Tom Stogdon, Sue Lawty, John Virtue and Anna Raymond. Stogdon is a clear favourite and has produced pieces of both art and bespoke furniture for the Kemps, including a sculpture in the garden of their country home and tables for the Somerset House exhibition. 

‘Art is a very important part of the hotels,’ says Kit. ‘We like work by living artists and would much rather have something that has a bit of heart to it than something which is meant to be an investment. Having work by somebody like Anna Raymond is much more fun to me that having to look after something that’s worth mega-bucks and which might be a real nuisance to look after.

‘We have built up a network of artists and craftspeople that we work with but nevertheless you still have to look for new people. The wonderful thing is that you are putting their work into the public eye but then they become more and more popular and you can’t afford them anymore. So you have to find somebody else….’

A piece by Anna Raymond sits above the fireplace in the Kemps’ Knightsbridge home, where art is also an important element. The Kemps have lived in the Edwardian house for ten years but their home constantly evolves and changes. Having found that the family was always congregating in the old kitchen at the front of the house, while so much of the rest of their living space remained unused, the Kemps decided to reconfigure the ground floor and moved the kitchen to the heart of the house, sitting right alongside the sitting room and a new dining area overlooking the garden.

‘I think there should be lessons at school explaining that women are going to move things around,’ says Kit, ‘so that men are aware of it from the start. Tim is beginning to get rather reluctant about making any more changes at home.’

At weekends, the family go down to their country home in the New Forest, where they are able to relax and recharge. Both Kit and their daughter Willow ride, with Willow competing in dressage events. Eldest daughter Tiffany runs a dog grooming business in the country, while the Kemps’ youngest daughter Minnie is studying graphic design in Leeds.

For both Tim and Kit, the New Forest is a place to unwind and enjoy their garden. The Kemps share an interest in gardens, with many of the hotels featuring gardens of one kind or another. Their first New York hotel – Crosby Street – has a rooftop garden and their second in mid-town Manhattan, where building world starts on site shortly, will replicate the idea.

‘We will be growing vegetables on top of the new hotel, which is what we are doing at Crosby Street,’ says Tim. ‘We have 5,000 square feet of garden there and chickens and everything. During the summer we are self-sufficient in berries and lettuce and the chickens lay eggs and occasionally fly off the top of the building. With the little square at Ham Yard we will be planting five mature oak trees, which we bought from a nursery a few years’ ago. It’s such a good thing to do and I could see that’s where we should be planting. We are surrounded by cement and brick in the city so adding some greenery can be really wonderful.’

Sustainability has become another key aspect of the design and day to day running of the hotels, with the Kemps also supporting the Trees for Cities initiative, which helps to introduce new planting to urban areas. With patrons such as Jamie Oliver and Richard Rogers, Trees for Cities is a charity headed by Sharon Johnson that plants and protects trees across London – including the streets of Lambeth, Lewisham and Newham - and many other cities, as well as encouraging fresh greenery through projects with schools, parks and playgrounds, estates and community gardens. This year Trees for Cities hopes to plant 40,000 trees across England, helped by a wide range of commercial and private donors, as well as some Lottery funding.

For the Kemps playing a part in such causes is one more facet of a multi-layered company that is becoming a family business, with Willow – who studied architecture at Cambridge – now working in the design office. There are also hopes that Minnie, too, might join Firmdale.

‘The hotel business is made up of pretty much everything that you do in daily life – the food and drink, legal, training, design and architecture. It just goes on, like a spider’s web,’ says Tim. ‘So for the children there’s a lot of different things that they can do within the company. It’s a real community. There are so many layers to the cake and that’s what makes it interesting.’


Firmdale Hotels –

A Living Space, by Kit Kemp, is published by Hardie Grant, 30.



SITTING ROOM (ALONGSIDE KITCHEN) Fireplace period French. Painting over fireplace Anna Raymond Two pink armchairs upholstered with fabric from Raoul Textiles Large sofa Vaughan, upholstered in red and white fabric from Keros Small sofa covered in linen from De la Cuona Large b/w artwork Juliette Losq Coffee table bespoke, Kit Kemp Metal chair Hilary Batstone Antiques Wooden sculpture by window David Nash Wooden table in corner by window Found in Dorset Mirrors antique French

DINING ROOM Dining table I & JL Brown Large chairs upholstered in Bennison fabric Light fixture Kevin Reilly Small chairs Philippe Hurel Fabric on smaller dining chairs Kvadraat

DRAWING ROOM Sofa covered in boiled wools by Holland and Sherry and Sequana plaid inserts Armchairs Orange Bennison fabric and the William IV style chair is covered in Rug company tapestry carpet. Green boiled wool chair is our design collage. Coffee table Sarah Kaye Lamps with orange Turkish ikat fabric shades Curtains made with Robert Kime fabric Large landscape painting Caroline McAdam Clark

BEDROOM Curtains Kit Kemp fabric for Chelsea Textiles PORTRAITS AT HOME With Kit Kemp and daughters Willow and Minnie


Kit and Willow at their desks. Kit and Willow looking at fabric samples with studio staff Flora Pownall and Farleigh Hungerford

Kit at Christopher Farr with Michal Silver and Matthew Bourne of Christopher Farr HAM YARD Tim Kemp with project director Ron Cheles at Ham Yard

Tim Kemp with Firmdale colleague Sara Barranger, in Soho, near Ham Yard

MOPED SHOT Tim Kemp on moped in Soho, near Ham Yard



Rug Kit Kemp for Christopher Farr Fabrics and curtains Kit Kemp for Christopher Farr, including 'Willow' for curtains and 'Bookends' on armchairs. Slate and timber tables artist Tom Stogdon Embroidered headboard Pippa Caley Artwork over fireplace Anna Raymond Portrait of Kit with Campaign for Wool curator Arabella McNie (check)

Kit pictured with Bridgette Kelly, Campaign for Wool event director (check) Chair Amy Somerville Wool bear Shauna Richardson Rug Arabella McNie

Portrait with fellow Wool House designer Ashley Hicks outside Somerset House

Kit and Tim Kemp in the garden of Number Sixteen. Kit, Tim and artist Tom Stogdon in the garden of Number Sixteen with Tom's sculpture, one of many pieces bought or commissioned by the Kemps.

Portrait of Tim and Kit with their dogs at the Haymarket Hotel. Portrait of Kit and Tim outside the hotel with dogs. Tim and Kit Kemp having lunch at the Brumus restaurant at the Haymarket Hotel with friends - writer and journalist Fiona McCarthy, who co-authored Kit's book, A Living Place, published by Hardie Grant, and interior designer Harriet Anstruther.

Crush Room Kit Kemp meeting with former dancers Stephen Wicks and Mark Wellford of Bloomsbury Flowers, discussing flowers. Bloomsbury provide flowers for all the hotels.

Kit Kemp visiting the Julian Opie exhibition and pictured with Alan Cristea and art advisor Louise Hallet Separate portrait of Kit with Hanna Sorrell of the Alan Cristea Gallery


Kit Kemp pictured with Sharon Johnson, chief executive of Trees for Cities at Denmark Hill.