At the helm of our Design Studio is Willow Kemp. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Cambridge university and a Masters in sculpture from Dusseldorf Kunstakademie in Germany. As an Interior Architect and Art Ambassador to Firmdale Hotels, we’d like you to ‘Meet Willow’ as she joins us for a chat about how her involvement at our Design Studio has evolved and how she is scoping an exciting future, where a passion for art, design and architecture meet…
When and how did you become passionate about art and design?
As a child I would rush all of my other homework subjects and leave art until last. This was so I could savour the time spent on it. I used to rearrange my bedroom furniture frequently and I would also make lots of small sailing boats from folded napkins, placing them around the entire perimeter of the room. I guess being the daughter of Kit Kemp must have rubbed off on me!
I love the feeling of calm and focus I get from drawing, mark-making and experimenting. I’m passionate about art and sport. I think that is because they are ways of expressing ourselves and they are completely unique to the individual. You can learn so much from the way someone moves in sport and someone’s art is intrinsically about them. It tells their story, which I find fascinating. I love how we are constantly evolving and this is reflected in the art we can make.
What I love about my job is working with all different types of media; designing a space, installing furniture, using different materials, textures and patterns. I think my favourite part is discovering new artwork, framing and hanging it. That is what really completes a space and gives it soul.
You received an MA in Architecture at St John’s College Cambridge. How did your studies shape your creative directions?
Studying architecture at different institutions can vary a great deal because some place more emphasis on the technical side of things and others are more art focused. I loved my course at St John’s College in Cambridge. Not only because of the inspiring teachers and my fellow students, but because we were encouraged to experiment with sketching and model making. Of course we learned all of the technical skills as well and these have been so useful to me now I work with interiors and product design. You get a real feel for scale, which is so important especially for me, where I work on the smallest details from hotel logos and china dinner services, to fabric, furniture and lighting designs as well as buildings as a whole.
You received a further Masters degree for Sculpture from the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie under Director Tony Cragg. Tell us about your experience studying here and what aspects you enjoyed the most?
After the regimented structure of studying architecture, I thought the freedom of making sculpture would be less challenging and perhaps less stressful, but when you find yourself in a studio where you could literally make anything with anything, it is much more difficult than you would think! It was exciting to be in Germany at such a celebrated art school. The building and studio spaces by the River Rhine in Düsseldorf are incredible and you can feel the history of famous artists who have studied there. It was a great privilege. I would love to go back now that I am more experienced and to have the time and space to work on a new body of work.
Tell us about your involvement with Kit Kemp Design Studio and Firmdale Hotels. How has your work here evolved?
Our Design Studio has taken over a town house in South Kensington and it feels like home. In fact my first home was the building next door! Even when we were allowed to work from home during the pandemic, many of us chose to be in the studio because it’s such a creative space, full of colour and activity. I much prefer to work in that type of environment, where decisions are being made all of the time. There is so much to do and everyone has found their niche. I focus on our collaborations. The most recent of which has been a rug collection for Annie Selke and fabric collections with Christopher Farr. I also create all of our packaging as well as designing our most recent hotel logos. I catalogue all of our artwork and organise art events.
Can you share any pivotal moments that have shaped your career?
Working on Ham Yard Hotel from concept to completion was such an informative experience. Being able to contribute to our family business with all that I had learned through my studies was a dream come true.
Where do you find your inspiration?
From Kit herself! I have shadowed her for years (all my life!) and the way Mum’s imagination works, never ceases to amaze me. There really is no shortcut and her wealth of experience is unparalleled. I also love going to galleries, antique shops and travelling. You need to get out and experience design to know what works and what doesn’t, what you like and don’t like. I keep a sketchbook to document this before I get back into the studio and put my inspiration to use.
What works in Firmdale’s art collection speak to you the most and why?
Tony Cragg’s sculpture at Ham Yard Hotel has a special place in my heart. We commissioned it at the beginning of the design process which took three years. It is a feat of engineering and I remember visiting Tony’s studio in Wuppertal, near Düsseldorf, at the different stages of development. It is a gift to the public as much as it is for the hotel. It gives me energy just looking at it and it will last forever.
What are your ambitions for the future?
We are currently building a new hotel in New York’s Tribeca – Warren Street Hotel. I can’t wait to get there and see the magic come together. We plan and buy artwork in advance and have a good idea of where everything is going, but it’s not until we actually get there that things really come to life.
I’m also so happy to be organising some fabulous art events in our hotels, art walks as well as ‘In Conversation’ events with my favourite artists. I recently did a week of oil painting in the landscape and I was reminded of how much I enjoy creating art myself, so I hope to have some time to do that!
We are so glad you could join us and learn more about Willow. Head to Haymarket Hotel on Thursday 15th November as Willow welcomes artist Sue Lawty at a special Artist In Conversation event.
Sue Lawty first became acquainted with the Kit Kemp Design Studio in 2005 and with the opening of Haymarket Hotel. Welcoming guests to the hotel lobby is Lawty’s 22 foot-long landscape artwork ‘Order’, a collection of small stones woven across the wall, each one worn by the rhythm of the tides. A composition of smaller scale pieces can be found in the conservatory, continuing the exhibition of her refined craft which Lawty describes as “being defined as much by absence as presence”. Tickets are £15 per person and include a glass of wine on arrival. To find out more, click here.