Award-winning bespoke interiors designer Kit Kemp has brought her love of clashing bold colours to the nine Firmdale hotels she owns with her husband, Tim. Now she has lent her design expertise to the charity Fine Cell, which has made needlepoint pieces for everyone from Stella McCartney to the Royal Family
‘I am not really one for board meetings,’ says Kit Kemp of invitations to join various Trusts and Boards ‘as I lose track of the conversation.’ But when the late Melissa Wyndham, an interior designer who was also a long-standing Trustee of Fine Cell, asked Kit to put together a collection for the charity, she couldn’t resist. As Kit puts it ‘No one says “no”, to Melissa.’
Kit is a lovely, funny woman who is clearly passionate about what she does. She and her husband, Tim, have turned Firmdale Hotels into an eight, soon to be nine, hotel empire that is said to be worth in the region of £600 million. Although not formally trained as an interior designer, Kit has a knack for clashing bold colours that has won her many awards. It’s no big surprise that she decided to contribute through her design expertise, rather than sit in a boardroom, to a charity that does so much for prisoners in the UK.
We wanted to develop a line of furniture that would look good in the home and have a strong design element
Fine Cell was founded in 1997 to enable prisoners to develop new skills, earn money and most importantly acquire self-belief. The work they produce is largely needlepoint but has also expanded into embroidery, patchwork and appliqué. The skill and success of their work has meant there are more than 270 highly skilled embroiderers working in UK prisons. It is the largest group of embroiderers in Europe. The level of their expertise is clear: designers such as Stella McCartney, Allegra Hicks and Jasper Conran have all commissioned their work and several members of the Royal Family have one of the hand-stitched cushions that can be bought or commissioned online.
It was Kit and Melissa’s aim to create a collection that took this one step further. ‘We wanted to develop a line of furniture that would look good in the home and have a strong design element,’ explains Kit, and this, her first upholstered furniture collection for the charity, features a range of pieces from headboard to tray, each with their own special form of sophisticated stitching and appliqué work.
The Tree of Life headboard (£2,150) is in linen appliqué on boiled wool, and for those who are passionate about stitching a full array of French knots, whipped back-stitch, feature stitch and coral stitch are there to be viewed. The striking image in bold colours accompanies the Folk cushions also in appliqué and boiled wool, which is equally embellished in hand stitching (£285 each or £500 for a pair). They have Kit’s magic touch with strong colour, shape and textural contrasts that are reminiscent of Folk Art and have the organic folksy style that is so fashionable now.
The cushions have Kit’s magic touch and the organic folksy style that is so fashionable now
‘Craft was once a dirty work,’ says Kit. ‘It was thought common compared with art but it is becoming harder and harder to find good craftsmanship, even in art, because the teaching has dispersed, and the skills aren’t being learnt any more. But in prisons, where there is a very low literacy rate and a lot of the time, the learning of a new skill such as this is a lifeline. Also, something such as this headboard gives the prisoners a huge scope to express themselves.’
She adds, ‘these pieces are heirlooms, each one is individually made and can take months to finish. The success is that we listen to what the customer wants. The customer has the opportunity to either buy a piece from the collection or make a commission using our suggestions as inspiration. Each piece can be made bespoke, so,’ she laughs, ‘if they want their coat of arms on the headboard they can have it. We can literally do anything.’
But if a headboard isn’t your thing, there is also a footstool and mirror frame that uses counted darning stitch and crewel wool on a natural linen bases as well as needlepoint trays (£300). Then there are the cushions for which Fine Cell has become so well known. These range in design from motto to bespoke – such as the squirrel that was commissioned by one member of the Royal Family that shall remain nameless.
In addition there is a range where under Kit’s direction Fine Cell has teamed with the furnishing company Blithfield. Here, Kit selected fabrics that would lend themselves particularly well to embroidery. The cushions include The Pineapple and Small Damask, both fabrics from the Peggy Angus collection which draws on the simple lino block motif, while there are also some exciting colour combinations for a more contemporary collection of cushions (£120-£150) and lampshades (£250) in blue and white with red embellishments.
The squirrel design was commissioned by one member of the Royal Family that shall remain nameless
For someone so successful, Kit is a remarkably down-to-earth person. She gets about town on a Serota bicycle, albeit painted in pink and green, and spends most weekends in the New Forest, where she rides her horses to relax. A self-taught designer, she took up the mantel of Design Director for Firmdale Hotels with gusto and clearly enjoys seeking out new designs and artwork to fill the rooms are refurbished regularly every three years.
‘I first came across Fine Cell when I commissioned a series of cushions from them for the Haymarket Hotel and I just thought “what a joy” they were to work with so I was so excited to be asked to come on to this project. Each piece will have the prisoner’s name attached to it so that the buyer knows who made it, and if they feel inclined they can write to the prisoner via the charity. In the future we hope to branch into upholstery and I can’t wait to commission a chair. Every room, every piece in it tells a story and that is what makes this work so exciting.’
Portrait of Kit Kemp: Simon Brown
Jo Denbury is a freelance bespoke interiors writer. She was formerly associate editor of Telegraph Magazine, features director at Elle Decoration and was the founder of Coast magazine