Ken Fulk is a renaissance man, avid traveler, and a design dreamer. He’s known for his artistry and creativity, conjuring cinematic experiences that defy expectations.
Take his longtime partnership with nightlife impresario David Grutman. Together, they have created the pastel-infused Swan restaurant, the whimsical Goodtime Hotel, and the recently opened, equally eclectic and singular Casadonna, all in Miami.
Indeed, Fulk is more than a designer. He’s a director, choreographing unforgettable moments with everything he does. He believes in the power of saying “Yes” and breaking down boundaries, which is why his office is called the Magic Factory, with headquarters in San Francisco, New York, and soon Los Angeles. Fulk is also evolving his business, owning and operating some of the restaurants and hotels he designs. “There’s no exit strategy here,” he says. “People ask if I’ll ever slow down, and I hope not. We will continue to stay curious.”
What were you like growing up?
Ken Fulk: I grew up in rural Virginia in a town called Harrisonburg in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. I lived there my entire life until I went to college in Virginia. Since I can remember, I would go pick out my own clothes: my little blazers with the blue buttons. I was in charge of every holiday. Even a simple Sunday lunch, I had to set the table, climb on the step stool, get the china out, cut the flowers. I’m still that same person. I saw the world through beautiful, rose-colored lenses. It wasn’t so much about being in charge as it was about wanting others to have the best possible experience. I still feel that today, and it’s what we do for our clients.
Did you travel much as a kid?
KF: We would go on family vacations that involved piling in the car. We weren’t jaunting off to Europe. But in my mind, I sure was. It was the active imagination of a child. When I was a little kid, my parents would bring me out and say, ‘Tell everyone where you’re going to live when you grow up.’ And I said, ‘Manhattan.’ I’d been maybe a hundred miles from my house. And they’re like, ‘Where will you live in this land called Manhattan?’ And I was like, ‘A penthouse.’ It was always in me that I was meant to have this big, crazy life.
We did a book launch last year, and I was on top of the Chrysler Building with [real estate developer] Aby Rosen. We were standing there together out on the terrace overlooking New York, and I said, ‘Aby, did you dream when you were a kid that you would be the prince of New York owning these iconic buildings?’ And he said, ‘I always knew I would leave Germany, but I didn’t know I would do all of this.’ He said, ‘What about you, Ken?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. It’s all I ever thought about.’
What were your parents like?
KF: My dad grew up on a farm, lied about his age, and joined the Army at 17. He did go off and see the world, and came home and met my mother at a dance. She was dancing with her sisters, and he was watching. It’s kind of the tale of their marriage in some ways. She danced, and he watched. Her family owned restaurants, and my parents owned some restaurants. It was a busy life. My mother’s family held sway. They were loud, and they’d show up to the house at midnight as if it were afternoon tea. My family was matriarchal, and entertaining was essential. You knew how to throw a good dinner party. You knew how to welcome people to your home and make them feel like they belonged.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
KF: I went to Mary Washington College, which is now the University of Mary Washington [in Fredericksburg, Virginia]. I loved my college experience. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was an English major and a history major, and I’m a decent writer. I thought I might go to law school because it was the only way I could think of delaying deciding what to do. I took a sales job for 3M. It was like joining the Army. It was intense, and I hated it, but I’m competitive. And so I had to be good at it. I quickly realized, ‘What have I done?’
What made you want to leave 3M and enter the design world?
KF: I knew I was different my whole life. I knew I was gay, but I couldn’t say it. I didn’t know what it was. A lot of this coincides with me becoming my true honest self when I finally met a boy in a laundromat in Boston who had my same towels. I accused him of stealing my towels. He was tan, handsome, and boyish. He left the laundromat but came back five minutes later and gave me a card that said, ‘Call me sometime.’ That’s my husband, Kurt. It was 32 years ago. But part of becoming who I am and finding a career was finding out and being okay with who I was.
I was always this showman, but there was a piece of me that was not okay with keeping the world at bay. When that changed and I felt like I could be my true self, suddenly my world changed because I felt like I was whole. I could go out, and I could be honest with myself and with the world. I went into business with a friend, and we made shower curtains and pillows that I designed. Then, I started another company that was bed linens and pajamas for kids. We wrote a bunch of storybooks to bring the characters to life. We sold the intellectual property to the Discovery Channel. We thought we were going to become rich and famous. No one became rich and famous, and I needed a job. A friend knew I loved design and that I had a knack for it. They hired me to decorate their new apartment without any constraints. I sanded the floors, I painted the walls, I sewed the drapes, and delivered a turnkey apartment.
What brought you to San Francisco?
KF: I had moved to Boston out of college, met the boy in the laundromat, visited California, and was gobsmacked by it. We picked up and moved. I credit San Francisco—my adopted beloved hometown—for allowing me to invent myself. San Francisco is a place that you can invent a life, and I did. After delivering that apartment, it was like a faucet [turned on]. I had all sorts of jobs all over the place. From the beginning, we did anything for clients. I would put together a dinner party. I would pick out a tie to wear on an interview. We became indispensable tastemakers for our clients. I would wave my hands and talk about what a room, a space, a party was going to feel like, and I could paint a picture with words. I can see these things finished in my head from the beginning. They may morph and change, but I know what they look like.
What were those early years like?
KF: For the first several years of my business, I didn’t hire anyone with classic design skills because I didn’t want to have a business like anyone else. I felt that would box me in. There was a part of me that didn’t want to be called out as a fraud. I didn’t want to feel small. I wanted to know that we could do anything. I still believe that today. It’s that mix of naïveté and fearlessness, or willingness to fail, that has allowed us to do all sorts of things.
When did the firm go from something scrappy to what it is today?
KF: I started my business in 1997 with just me. By 2005, I had a bustling business, but I was still under the radar. In 2007, we bought what I call the Magic Factory, which is a four-story building in the South of Market District in San Francisco. It was an S&M leather factory for 35 years. I had this bigger idea that we would have this Warhol-like creative hub. Then people started paying attention. I would host crazy, blow-the-roof-off parties that had blue bloods, billionaires, leather daddies, and drag queens. People hadn’t really experienced anything like it.
You were doing mostly residential projects. When did hospitality become your calling card?
KF: I remember vividly, I was sitting in our house in Provincetown, Massachusetts and [Major Food Group partner] Jeff Zalaznick called me. We talked for more than an hour. I walked away from that thinking, ‘We speak the same language.’ I went back to our team, and we took Sadelle’s and imagined it soup to nuts. We understood that these aren’t restaurants, they are experiences people want to remember. That’s when we got a lot more hospitality work. One of the biggest early projects was the Battery, which is a private social club in San Francisco. We created it on the back of a napkin. It was a big endeavor, especially for us.
You partnered with Pharrell and David Grutman on the Goodtime Hotel in Miami. What was that collaboration like?
KF: I met Pharrell through my friend Dave Grutman, who started out as a nightlife impresario in Miami and has now become a behemoth of hospitality. It was an unlikely pairing, but we both got it. We knew what mattered and how to connect to people, and that we weren’t just creating spaces. They were igniters for people. Pharrell is very different. He is quieter and more thoughtful. The first time I met him, he had everyone pause, and he gave thanks for bringing me into his life. We designed lots of custom things [in the hotel], from the carpet that looks like wet footprints coming and going to each room to the leopard-print robes. It was fun to see it come to life. What started as a bunch of lots in a forsaken area of Miami Beach has become an iconic place.
You live in San Francisco, but you’ve also made a home on the East Coast.
KF: We have an apartment in New York. We have my home in Provincetown. We pick up every spring and head there and stay deep into the fall in this little sliver of sand. The most mythical, magical little town on the planet where my heart often resides.
However, the most constant place in our lives is Durham Ranch in Napa Valley [California]. I joke that it’s like a gay Green Acres. It’s beautiful. It is not fancy. It has giant, 400-year-old oak trees, rock-strewn creeks, a big old party barn, and an old rancher’s cottage. Durham Ranch is named after our first golden retriever we got in Boston before moving to San Francisco. With that, we created this habit of naming houses after our dogs. But I can’t afford to name any more houses after dogs because we have too many dogs and not enough money to buy houses to name after them.
How do you create a cinema-like experience in your projects?
KF: I’ve always referred to our projects as movies. I look at life through this cinematic lens. We start out every project with words. It makes our spaces feel different. We never repeat ourselves. We have a history, and we’ve done lots of work, and we might reference previous work, but it’s always a new recipe.
How do you stay inspired?
KF: Whenever I walk through a space, I get quiet, which is odd for someone who talks a lot. I take it in, and it’s almost like I get a vision. One of the beautiful things about technology and the world we live in is that it’s much more egalitarian. It’s almost unavoidable to not see the inspiration around us in our everyday lives.
What is your superpower?
KF: Saying ‘Yes.’ It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you young. We spend our youth being told all the things we shouldn’t do. We have our wild days, and then we begin to shut our worlds down. We have fewer friends. We don’t want to go places as much. And so to say yes, it’s intoxicating.
How would you describe your style?
KF: Fashion is self-expression. I remember reading the short story Clothes Make the Man about appearances and how they matter. It wasn’t about being fancy but about self-expression. You’re expressing yourself, but you’re also engaging with people. I talk to so many people because someone will say, ‘I love your bow tie,’ or ‘Those shoes are amazing.’ It’s engagement in a fun way.
Is there something you have always wanted to do but haven’t yet?
KF: I want to make a movie. I’ve always believed in the exceptionalism of what we do. Not that it’s perfect or it is the best, but we do extraordinary things that we document in books or magazines. But the process and the enormity of things we do, it’s like a flying circus. To share that on film—to be able to document and better capture this madcap, wonderful, thrilling, scary, exciting, beautiful world we have the privilege of creating would be meaningful to me.
What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
KF: I’m a homebody. I don’t like being the center of attention. It goes back to fashion. Wearing an outfit, dressing up, it’s almost like a costume. My default is to be at home with my dogs and my husband. Yes, I’ve always dreamed of this big, crazy life, but I have to put on my costume to do that. It’s the yin and yang in life. In the most private moments, I’m inward and insular, and it’s where I feel safe and loved. But when I get dressed up and go out and put on my top hat, I can be that guy.
What has been your secret to success?
KF: Not being afraid. In our first book, it says, ‘Fear is the enemy of good design.’ You could apply that to many things. It’s not like I’m not scared at times, but I never let it stop me. The willingness to fail and not being afraid of what other people think has led to us achieving things we might not have had I been afraid to take the chance. Success is the willingness to go on a crooked path.
What has been your greatest lesson learned?
KF: As my mother would’ve said, ‘Don’t get too big for your britches,’ which for me means to stay humble and be present. I live in a world where we’re constantly pushing to the next thing. It’s easy to gobble it up and be tempted to move on to the next shiny object. What everyone wants is the chance to be present and imprint memories with people they love. You have to recognize what’s important, stay humble, and don’t be an ass. Our world would be a better place if we could all be kind. Soak in the goodness and remind yourself that we live on a head of a pin and how fortunate we are.
This article originally appeared in HD’s November 2023 issue.