Kit Kemp's Colorful Approach to Creating the Perfect Garden
The prints-happy interior designer trades flowery textiles for a tapestry of real-life blooms.
Celebrated interior designer Kit Kemp has built her career on pairing riotous prints and bold hues in unexpected combinations-sometimes the more clashing the better. "I don't like anything that looks too perfect," says the co-owner and creative director of Firmdale Hotels, who has outfitted some of the globe's most stylish accommodations-from The Whitby and Crosby Street hotels in New York to London's Ham Yard and Charlotte Street hotels-in her signature British maximalist aesthetic. That means everything is fair game: Suzani textiles, blousy florals, modish geometries, and all the colors of the rainbow.
But Kemp's preference for statement-making doesn't stop at a room's four walls. "I love the idea of something a little frothy and overgrown for the garden-it's very English," says the prolific designer, citing the walled grounds at Bloomsbury Group hangout Charleston Farmhouse in East Sussex, U.K, as inspiration. The only rule? "There must always be a reference to the interior," she says. In the designer's recently published third book, Design Thread, she details her multi-layered approach to landscape architecture. "Gardens change colors with the season, they lure you around corners and hold a little bit of mystery in their growth and reproduction," she writes, noting that "whenever a door closes [in an interior], a room sighs and visually goes to sleep."
Not so in the garden, which is in constant flux. "If you get the framework right, it's almost like an heirloom-it keeps going," she says. According to Kemp, one way to ensure that kind of teeming life and energy in an outdoor space is through your choice of greenery itself. "I love the garden to look organic, not quite so engineered with hard lines," she says. "You have to think about the near, middle, and far view." Kemp likes to vary the heights of different plants to give a sense of variation. A grassy area might be dotted with bluebells and snowdrops to make up the foreground, while sculptural alliums and daphne make up the next level; small magnolia trees may give way to larger laurel trees, completing a subtle graduation of heights.
Some of Kemps favorite trees offer their own seasonal variation. "You have blossoms in the spring, maybe fruit in the summer, a nice leaf in the autumn, and beautiful bark in the winter," she says. Many of her go-to flowering plants are fritillaria and euphorbia, larkspur, phlox, delphinium, and crocus-blooms with interesting shapes and rainbow-like shades.
Kemp also considers the role of vignettes in the garden. "I like a grassy garden with a little chair and table-when it's see-through it's sort of there but not there," she says, echoing her design for the private balcony that connects through glass doors to the second-floor Meadow Suite at the Crosby Street Hotel, in New York, seen above. A quiet section of wall could be used to display a collection of rustic bird boxes, and acanthus, angelica, and iris planted at the edge of a little pond can create a painterly reflection on the water, she says. "At the bottom of my own garden I have a shepherd's hut," she says. "It is my shed on wheels-a romantic folly where I work. Men have their man caves, and I have my gypsy caravan."
Smaller gardens can be just as whimsical-and highly curated, she insists. "You have to be experimental to get the scale right," Kemp says. "Perhaps you choose a camellia tree instead of a laurel because the leaves are smaller, or small stone mushrooms or a wigwam made of spiky sticks tied together with twine nestled in the center of a box planter." But whatever you choose, one thing is certain: Kemp recommends using as much color as possible. "I'm always going to have lots of colors popping in. I don't mind if they clash-in fact, I quite like it."