Nov 8, 2023

Episode 119

Ken Fulk

ken fulk interior designer


Designer Ken Fulk is known for his artistry and creativity, conjuring cinematic experiences that defy expectations. Take his longtime partnership with nightlife empresario David Grutman. Together, they have created the whimsical Goodtime Hotel and the recently opened, equally eclectic and singular, Casadonna, both 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 office, owning and operating some of the restaurants 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 evolve, grow, and stay curious.”


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Ken Fulk. Thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Ken Fulk: I am delightful. How are you?

SSR: I’m good. Thank you. All right, so we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

KF: I grew up in rural Virginia in a town called Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, where I lived my entire life until I went away to college, also in Virginia, even though I always joked that I was an alien when I was brought home because I was always this funny kid that somehow they were okay with having an alien. I used to joke and tell my parents to show me the basket that they found me in on the river because I always had these sort of illusions of grandeur as my mother might have called them.

SSR: Oh, my God. I love it. So you say you’re a weird kid, but were you creative? What were you like? What were you into as a kid?

KF: Since I can remember, I would buy all my own clothes. I didn’t actually buy them, but I would go pick them out. 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 always say it was sort of like I’m still that exact same person. I saw the world through beautiful, rose-colored lenses. [They showed me] how life might be better if we celebrated it. 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. It’s why I have a job. It’s what we do for our clients. We really craft the best possible experience for them, so they can imprint memories.

SSR: I love it. And did you travel much as a kid?

KF: I traveled in front of our television as a kid. 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 of this sort of illusionary life that I was meant to live. I’ve told the tale that 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 think 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 always was 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 Aby Rosen. We were standing there together this moment out on the terrace overlooking all of New York, and I said, “Aby, did you dream when you were a kid that you would sort of be the kind of prince of New York owning these iconic buildings?” And he was like, “No, no. I always knew I would leave Germany, but I didn’t know that I would do all of this.” And he’s like, “What about you, Ken?” And I was like, “Absolutely. It’s all I ever thought about.” So it’s a wonderful life, so.

SSR: What were your parents like? Were they creative or inspiring?

KF: Certainly. I mean, I only half joked that I was an alien from the standpoint that I was different. My parents, my dad grew up on a farm, and lied about his age, and joined the Army at 17 or something crazy. And 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. And it’s kind of maybe the tale of their marriage in some ways. She danced and he watched. And her family owned restaurants, and my parents owned some restaurants, and it was sort of a busy life. My mother’s family held sway.

They were loud, and ever present, and show up at the house at midnight as if it were afternoon tea. And so, it was an interesting upbringing where I always had this sort of other life running in my head of what my life might look like. And so, it was wonderful. My mother, I grew up in a household where it was very… My family was very sort of matriarchal, and entertaining was essential. People didn’t hire decorators because no one was sort of rich. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. And 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. And so, it was just sort of ingrained in you that it was expected. It was sort of a southern thing.

SSR: So when did you decide or did you decide that you want to be a designer? And you said you were in Virginia until you went to college. So where did you go to college and what were you looking to study there at first?

KF: I think like probably most kids, at least at that period of time, I went to Mary Washington College, which is now University of Mary Washington, a magical place to go to school. I loved my college experience. And I think if you met anyone that I went to school with, they would all tell you the same. We had the best college experience ever. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was sort of like, it was a wonderful liberal arts education, which I highly recommend. That’s become a bit more uncommon. But it was because you weren’t supposed to know what you wanted to do. You were supposed to go and learn, and have experiences, and figure out what you might want to do. And so, I was an English major and a History major because I loved history, and I loved reading, and I’m a decent writer. I’ve become one. So that’s what I did. And I thought I might go to law school because it was the only way I could think of delaying making a decision about what to do, and it’s what every boy and girl in a liberal arts college that weren’t sure. We would go to law school, but I didn’t. I took a job because a friend got a job in marketing, which was basically a sales job for 3M, which was Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, the people who make Post-it Notes and Scotch Tape. And it was like joining the Army. It was a crazy intense sales job, and you bonded. You had to be at work at 6:00 AM. It was crazy stuff, and I hated it, but I’m super competitive.

And so, I had to be good at it, and you made a bunch of money. And really quickly I realized, oh boy, what have I done? I’ve sort of gotten on this train that you watch other people get on, that you get a job, and you make money, and suddenly you kind of feel stuck. You’re like, “How am I ever going to not do this?” Because I got to make the money, and I don’t have the capacity to just go follow my dreams, and make up a job. And so, I wasn’t sure how I was going to figure out what I was supposed to do.

goodtime hotel miami beach pool pharrell williams

The Goodtime Hotel in Miami Beach, a collaboration between Pharrell Williams and Groot Hospitality; photo by Alice Gao

SSR: Then what happened?

KF: It sort of coincided with the fact that I knew that I was different my whole life. And my family sort of embraced the fact that I was this kid who took charge of everything and picked out their own clothes. But I was also different where I knew. This is becoming suddenly like a big tell-all podcast here.

I knew I was different from the standpoint I knew I was gay since I was… But I couldn’t say it. I didn’t really know what it was. But since I was four years old, I knew I was different than the other boys. I belonged to a swim team since I was six years old because I just wanted to be near those beautiful… We would swim at the college in town, and I just wanted to be near them. And so, a lot of this coincides about me becoming my true honest self when I finally met a boy in the laundromat in Boston who had the same matching towels. I accused him of stealing my towels.

I’m actually in Boston now. I can almost see where the laundromat is from where I’m sitting. And he was wearing a Hotchkiss T-shirt and Reebok sneakers with no socks and soccer shorts. He was tan, and incredibly handsome, and boyish. And he left the laundromat, but came back five minutes later and gave me a card that said, “Call me sometime.” And so, that is my husband, Kurt, now. And that was 32 years ago. But part of becoming who I am and finding a job, or a career, or a calling was finding out and being okay with who I was.

Because I was always this sort of showman, but there was a piece of me that was not okay that I had to keep the world at bay. And so, 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. And so, I first started a business. I went into a business with a friend as a textile company, and we made crazy shower curtains and pillows, and I designed them. I didn’t know anything about them, but I would do all the trade shows. I had models in Speedos and bikinis inside working showers that I built at the Javits Center.

And then, I started another company that was going to be bed linens and pajamas for kids, but we wrote a bunch of storybooks to bring the characters to life. It was like Sesame Street on acid. These crazy doodles. And we sold the whole intellectual property to the Discovery Channel. And we thought we were going to become rich and famous. We had fancy actors giving voices, all this stuff. No one became rich and famous, and I needed a job. And a friend knew that I love design, and that I had a knack for it. And so, they hired me to decorate their new apartment really without any constraint. They were just like, “Here, have at it.” They gave me some ridiculously small amount of money. And I sanded the floors, I painted the walls, I sewed the drapes, and delivered a turnkey apartment.

SSR: Was this in Boston or had you moved?

KF: I had moved to San Francisco, which is an integral part of my sort of biography. Because I had moved to Boston out of college, met the boy in the laundromat, visited California, said, “Why doesn’t everyone live here?” We were both just sort of gobsmacked by it. And so, we picked up and moved. But I do greatly credit San Francisco, my adopted beloved hometown for allowing me to really invent myself. San Francisco is a place that you can invent a life, and I did. Our current book has a quote, my own quote in the front of it that says, “If you’re going to make up a life, make up a big one.” And that’s what I got to do in San Francisco. And so, from that day after delivering that apartment, it was like a faucet went off. I had all sorts of jobs all over the place. I had one in France and Martha’s Vineyard.

I put myself out there, and it was like, “Here, meet my friend. Here, meet my other friend.” And from the very beginning, we did sort of anything for clients. I would put together a dinner party. I would pick out a tie to wear on an interview. I would, of course, classic design we would do. I did early on a client’s wedding. It’s like, I got you. I can figure this out. And so, we sort of became comrades, but kind of indispensable taste makers for our clients from the very beginning. At first, it was just me, and then one other person. And then, gradually we grew to the company we are today.

SSR: So looking back, were you crafty? I mean, did you know you could draw? 

KF: No, I can’t draw. I have no artistic bent from a… I don’t draw. I couldn’t really sew, but I can figure out how to get it together. But I’m not crafty in the least bit, which is sort of a funny thing because in the beginning, all I could do, which still sticks with us until today, I could wave my hands and I could talk about what a room, or a space, or a party, or I could tell you what it was going to feel like, and I could paint a picture with words.

Because if I have a superpower, it’s that I can actually see these things finished in my head from the very beginning. They may morph and change, but I know what they look like. And so, I can describe them with words. And I have to bring people along by describing spaces and experiences with words. And so, for the first several years of my business, one, I didn’t hire anyone with classic design skills because I didn’t want to have a business like anyone else because I felt that would box me in.

There are probably a part of me that didn’t want to be called out as a fraud. You don’t know what you’re doing. You weren’t trained to do this. But it also, I didn’t want to feel small. I wanted to know that we could do anything. And I still believe that today, that we can do anything. And it’s that sort of a mix of naivete and fearlessness maybe, or willingness to fail that really has allowed us to do all sorts of things.

And so, that has continued. Now, of course, we have highly trained people, architects, designers, graphic artists. But in the early days, it would be painters, teachers, waiters. If you got it, and sort of could understand my crazy way of seeing the world, or at least buy into it, it was great. I was like, “Come along for the ride. We’ll figure this out.”

casadonna restaurant David Grutman Tao Group hospitality miami

The recently opened Casadonna restaurant from Groot Hospitality and Tao Group Hospitality in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood; photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo

SSR: So when did it become something more cohesive? When did it become Ken Fulk design?

KF: It went from being scrappy, from being a couple people, I would say within the first… I mean, I’ve had a business a long time. Everyone’s sort of like, “Oh, you’re an overnight success.” I’m like, “What? That was a long overnight.” I started my business in 1997 with just me. That was when I did that apartment. And so, I would say by 2005, I had a bustling business, but I wasn’t what people might think of us today. I was still sort of under the radar. And then in 2007, which is sort of a funny time, because it was a financial crisis. We bought what I call the Magic Factory, which is a big four-story building in San Francisco.

It was built as a furniture factory in the teens, 1911 or ’12, after the big earthquake. But more infamously, it’s in the heart of the south of Market District in San Francisco. And it was sort of the epicenter of the leather scene. It was an S&M leather factory for 35 years. And this guy did not go out of business. He bought a building double the size down the street. So if times get tough, I might resort back to S&M leather maybe.

SSR: Why not?

KF: Why not? We moved. We often play with it. We do fun little double entendres with our history. But I think when we moved into that building, and I sort of had this bigger idea that we would have this kind of Warhol-like creative hub was really when the spark sort of ignited. And I think then people started paying attention. I would host crazy, blow-the-roof-off parties that had blue bloods, and billionaires, and leather daddies, and drag queens. And people hadn’t really experienced anything like it.

And also, I used to be very shy of press and having my name. Even though I had a company that was named after me, I grew up in a world where you didn’t talk about yourself because it wasn’t polite. And now we’re in sort of this explosion of our kind of narcissistic world where everyone is a brand and everyone’s an influencer, which is perfectly fine, but it’s still a funny thing for me. But I grew less shy when I had more mouths to feed. And also, it became less about me. It suddenly wasn’t just Ken Fulk, it was… I don’t know why I keep doing that. What is that?

SSR: You’re not real. You know?

KF: Yeah, I’m not real. I don’t know. But it became something bigger, and it was something worth sharing, and worth talking about. And so, we sort of began. We’ve never had a PR company, by the way, despite the ridiculous amounts of press we’ve received, we’ve never had a PR company. And so, yeah. Then, I would say from then on, we began to become the company we are today.

SSR: You were doing mostly residential. When did hospitality become something you wanted to try your hand at? Or was it just a job that came your way, and then you kind of fell in love with it?

KF: I think part of it was because I did grow up with a family that owned and operated restaurants, and you knew what it meant. And I still believe this, that sort of we’ve done a couple of great projects with my friend, Pharrell, who this is his mantra. And we’re both from Virginia, so maybe it’s a Virginia thing. But that our greatest calling is to be in service to others. And that that is sort of the higher purpose of us as humans, to be in service. And so hospitality, I would have to say, is certainly in my blood. But it-

SSR: Did you grow up in those restaurants at all?

KF: I was young. Oh, sure. I mean, I was there. I would pretend to be the host. And then, I worked in restaurants. While I was starting my business, I was the host at my friend. My friend who now works with me in sort of a funny turn of events. But I worked in his restaurant in the late ’90s while I was launching my business. It was his business partner whose apartment I did. And I was dressed up then. Even then, I would work the door. And it was San Francisco, so everyone else was in jeans and T-shirts, but I was in a three-piece suit. And so, everyone thought I owned the restaurant. But really, I was just very good at making people be okay with a three-hour wait for a table because I’d try to be charming.

SSR: I feel like you would’ve been the best host.

KF: I think I’d still be. It’s because of my fallback.

Crown Club lounge at the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, New York

The opulent Crown Club lounge at the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, New York; photo by Alice Gao

SSR: Exactly. Wait, so your parents’ restaurants, what type of restaurants were they?

KF: They were all over the map. There was a restaurant inside, which was a grand hotel. But it was sort of the three-day a meal coffee shop restaurant with a counter. There was like the college hangout. The place that had pool tables. And then, they owned what was sort of the local Beer Joint, I think it’s what they called it. But I wasn’t supposed to know it. They hid it from me because they were embarrassed. Or they didn’t want their kid to know that they owned the… But it was probably the most profitable restaurant that they owned.

I think that’s what drew me to hospitality. But it was never a decision, like, “Oh, I’m going to…” It was much like everything we did. I’m like, “Of course, we can design a restaurant.” Or, “Of course, we can design a hotel.” I think one of the things that… Certainly, the first ones were in San Francisco, where we’ve done numerous restaurants. And then about, I don’t know if it’s been a decade or not, but we opened the New York studio. But we had already done, I think, restaurants in New York. We did Sadelle’s there. It was one of the first ones that we did, which we created that really as a brand from the very beginning. I got a call from Jeff Zalaznick, my friend, who is one of the three guys with Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone at MFG.

And it really wasn’t much of an MFG, then they had Carbone. And he called me, and talked about opening a bagel restaurant. And I’m like, “Why are you calling me? What make you think?” And it became very quickly that we understood the bigger idea that these aren’t restaurants, these truly are, which is almost sort of cliche to talk about now. But these are experiences people want to remember, not just what they ate. They want to remember how they felt. And so, you’re creating these environments for people to do just that. And I think when we began our relationship there, I think that really began a lot more of our hospitality work.

Though I would have to say one of the biggest early projects was the Battery, which is a private social club in San Francisco. It’s probably the first one that happened in San Francisco, maybe in more than a hundred years that a modern day social club would start from scratch. And we really created it kind of on the back of an napkin, writing down with Michael Birch what a social club would be. And it’s a hotel, a gym, a spa, multiple bars. And it was a big endeavor, especially for us who had never… I’d never taken on a giant building with all of those elements in it. But it was very natural, and I felt super confident about it, which is funny to think about. But I’m seldom daunted by that sort of thing. I’m like, “We’ll figure it out.”

By the way, that truly is my superpower. I think saying yes, it probably scares the bejesus out of some people, but it enthralls me because it keeps you on your toes. I think it keeps you young. We close down our worlds I think as we get older. We spend our youth being told all the things we shouldn’t do and don’t do. Then, we maybe have some of our wild days. And then, we began to shut our worlds down again. We have fewer friends. We don’t want to go places as much. And I’m like, “No. Say yes.” It’s intoxicating.

SSR:  You only live once. So you mentioned Pharrell and you mentioned Major Food Group, two of your big clients. How did Major Food Group find you? Did you ever ask them?

KF: Oh, I know how he found me. He went to the Battery and stayed. And called me, at least, I think that’s it. No, that was Eric. Eric Birnbaum, who has a company called Dreamscapes. But Jeff, I literally think he got my name from someone, somewhere. But I remember vividly, I was sitting in our house in Provincetown, and he called me. And Jeff is this blustery New Yorker, and I’m sort of Mr. Polite on the phone. And you wouldn’t put us together, where physically, I’m this little guy. He’s this big guy. He’s a loud guy. I’m not a loud guy. But he called me, and again said, “We’re going to open this bagel restaurant. It’s named after my grandmother.” I’m like, “What?”

But I think we talked for more than an hour. And I walked away from that thinking, “Okay, they get it. We speak the same language.” I went back to our team, and we took Sadelle’s, and imagined it soup to nuts. We created a brand. We literally did the logo, everything. I flew to New York. I’d never met the guy in person. We went to the back table at Carbone, and I laid out what I thought Sadelle’s was going to look like. And at the end of it, he was like, “This is the best freaking presentation I’ve ever seen in my life. This is it.”

And most people wouldn’t have done that. I didn’t have a contract, with no money. I just sort of almost couldn’t not let it out. I knew what this place was supposed to look like after having talked to him once on the phone. And so, that’s really how we began our relationship. And it was sort of instantly with this shorthand. And I have to say with Pharrell, it was the same sort of thing. He certainly celebrates other creatives. He has been a real champion for anything that we do and a great partner in creative endeavors. And so, it’s wonderful to have the privilege to work with people like that.

Sadelle's restaurant from Major Food Group in the Bellagio Hotel & Casino Las Vegas

Teal hues and expansive windows define Sadelle’s from Major Food Group, located in the Bellagio Hotel & Casino Las Vegas

SSR: Yeah, because now you’ve done multiple venues for Major Food Group, right?

KF: We have. We’ve done multiple Carbones. We’re doing more. We have a large clubhouse getting ready to open in New York, ZZ’s, which has turned into a very posh members club. It will have the world’s only private Carbone inside of it. Part of my job now is to act as a reservation agent for the Major Food Group because all of my friends and people I’ve met casually call me, and text me, and email me constantly to get them a table somewhere in the Major Food Group world.

SSR: That’s amazing. And then, how did Pharrell find you? 

KF: met Pharrell through my friend Dave Grutman, who started out as a sort of nightlife impresario in Miami, and has now become a sort of behemoth of a hospitality guru. And so, again, the yin and yang. I met Dave by his pool wearing a Thom Browne suit. There were a couple of beautiful topless women sunbathing by the pool. It’s 10 in the morning. He wants to get on his boat. It’s an episode of Entourage, but-

SSR: Wait, did he call you down to Miami?

KF: Yeah. And so, again, it was an unlikely pairing, but I think we both got it. We knew what mattered and how to connect to people, and that we weren’t just creating spaces. And there weren’t even just backdrops for people. They were igniters for people. And Pharrell, who is very different than either of those two previous human beings, and the fact that he is more quiet and thoughtful. First time I met him, he had everyone pause, and he gave thanks for bringing me into his life. And it was a lovely, kind, uplifting, and a great collaborator.

SSR: Was the hotel you did in Miami with Pharrell your first hotel?

KF: I think I’d know the answer to that. It’s certainly the first hotel of that scale. It’s a big hotel. It has 226 rooms. The pool deck is over an acre. But I was actually involved in that project before Pharrell. I was involved in that project when it was just a glimmer of an idea. It was multiple lots and kind of a forgotten area in South Beach that had to be… I became a lobbyist for the City of Miami Beach. I went and presented the project to the little city council. And Morris Adjmi, who was the amazing architect who helped design the building. And then, Pharrell got involved. And it sort of went from being this wonderful idea to being supercharged with creatives. And he really, I have to say, he honored our creative process and really allowed me to be me. And the whole thing was this fun love letter to Miami. And the pool deck there alone is over an acre. It’s big.

SSR: Yeah. It’s beautiful. I mean, and I even love the name the Goodtime.

KF: That was Pharrell a hundred percent. We had all these name explorations. And he floated that idea, and everyone in the room was like, “That sounds like maybe the wrong kind of hotel.” And he was like, “No, no. It’s about…” And we began the branding explorations. Of course, he was right. It’s the perfect name for the hotel representing that we’re good humans, we’re good to one another, we’re good to the planet. We can have a good time while being good people. And it really manifested itself. And we did so much fun things. I don’t know if you’ve seen them. But for instance, we designed all of this stuff was delightfully custom by us. So from the carpet to your room that looks like wet footprints coming and going to each room to the leopard print robes. And now, you see all of these very cool, lots of young folks hanging out by the pool, and pink and green leopard print robes that we designed. And it’s just to the great surrealist print that’s on all the curtains and these great beach bags you can carry around. It’s really fun to see how it’s come to life. And what started as a bunch of lots in a forsaken area of Miami Beach has become an iconic place.

the Goodtime Hotel in Miami, Florida, Pharrell Williams and David Grutman

A tropical mural graces the lobby at the Goodtime Hotel; photo by Alice Gao

SSR: Was Grutman involved from the get-go or was there another developer?

KF: The developer originally was my friend Eric Birnbaum, who did find me through the Battery, who helped put together all of this project. And he’s really the one who began to collect all these people.

SSR: He’s the mastermind. Got it. So tell us about your company today because you have your San Francisco office and you also have a New York office. And you bought a similar-ish building, right? 

KF: Yeah, we have a Magic Factory East in Tribeca, where we’ve also given some legendary parties, by the way. And it’s a wonderful vibrant studio. I guess you can have breaking news. We have a starting a Los Angeles studio, which is exciting. We have a team already in place in Los Angeles. We have people in Miami, people in New Orleans, sort of spread all over. But really now three fulltime studios, but we do work all over the world, which I like.That kid in Virginia who finally gets to travel the world and do all those things he hoped he could.

SSR: And you have. You’ve also made home on the East Coast as well.

Ken Fulk: We have. We have an apartment in New York. We have my home in Provincetown, which if you follow me or know me, it’s certainly an anchor in our lives. We pick up every spring, and head there, and stay typically deep into the fall in this little sliver of sand. The most mythical, magical little town on the planet where my heart often resides, so.

SSR: And then, you have a Durham Ranch property, right? 

KF: We do. The most constant place in our lives have been Durham Ranch for more than two decades. We have had this wonderful property in the Napa Valley. I joke that it’s kind of like a gay Green Acres. It’s beautiful. It is not fancy. It is giant, 400-year old oak trees, rock strewn creeks, and a big old party barn, and a wonderful old rancher’s cottage. But we love it. And my dogs swim in the pool. We go on big hikes.

There are tents. I’m probably the only person who’s ever been on the cover of Wall Street Journal Mansions for tents. Our tents are on them. It’s like, “Finally, I’m on the cover of Mansions.” But it’s for our tents that we put on the property when we first bought it while we were trying to figure out how we were going to use the property. We put these wonderful tents that still exist today up on top of a hill, so we could stay there. And it’s still maybe the best place to stay at Durham Ranch.

And Durham Ranch is named after our very first golden retriever that we got here in Boston when we lived here before moving to San Francisco. And he is still sort of the most noble beast we’ve ever had the privilege to know, and he was never at the ranch. With that, we created this habit of naming houses after our dogs. But I definitely 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. Maybe a tent. Maybe they’ll each get a tent.

SSR: They’ll each get a tent. I love it. Did you find the property? Were you looking for something, and then renovated it?

KF: Our very first house that Kurt and I ever had together that we ever owned was a property in Old Town Napa, which is the… Napa Valley is a small valley. It’s 29 miles long, the series of little towns. And the sort of workhorse kind of county seat of a town is the town of Napa, which has become quite posh now. But when we were there, everyone had sort of moved out to the bucolic towns of Yountville, and Rutherford, and St. Helena. The town of Napa was a little forgotten, and there were these big grand old houses. And Kurt’s father loaned us the money to buy a house. And I, of course, went at it, and painted, and finished floors, and decorated it, and we loved it. But as my career took off, and I couldn’t really drive back and forth, because we were living there full-time. We eventually took an apartment back in the city.

We ended up selling that house. Someone had sent us a check in the mail literally to buy the house, and it was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. And I was like, “Oh.” So we sold that house and I sort of regret it. When we first moved to California, we would drive up to Napa, and we would pretend that we owned this ranch. We would make up these stories about our fabulous life that this mythical ranch that obviously didn’t exist because we would just go up for the day. We couldn’t even stay the night. We were like paupers. And so, I, after selling that house, we went up for a Christmas party. And the next day Kurt drove back to the city, and I was putzing around.

It was before the days of Zillow, but I would keep little wishlist of properties that I watched. And one of them had been in escrow forever. Anyway, I went out to see it. I called myself on the phone and left a message. It was back when you still had an answering machine, for Kurt and I. And it was like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Because I was so mesmerized with this dilapidated old, it had been a piece of a cattle ranch. And it was this pond and old white fencing, and this little dilapidated rancher’s cottage. And I could just see our dogs running through fields of gold, so to speak. And so, we bought it, and then spent a couple of years reimagining it. It is still a piece of my heart for sure.

SSR: Yeah. And it’s so eclectic and beautiful.  I feel like that’s a lot of what you do is like, you seamlessly mix these time periods, and these patterns, and textures, which is harder to do than not. Do you think that’s part of what you love to do is kind of bring all these different influences together and create just a layered story of sorts?

KF: Definitely. I think that all of our projects, our most recent book is called The Movie in My Mind. And it is because, one, I’ve always referred to our projects as movies. And I’ve sort of seen them that way because I look at life through this cinematic lens, and it is. All of our projects are a layering of either real or imagined experiences. And so, we still start out every project with words. I start talking. And then, we write them down. And they become the narrative for the project. So it’s almost like pitching a script. I’ll be like, “Imagine Jackie O in Gestad in 1974 meets Ralph Lauren in Colorado at the ranch with a dose of James Bond.” It would be all of these things. And that’s what I mean when I talk about people who can learn to speak the language that I do with these sort of weird references.

But I do think it is what we do, and what makes us different, and what makes spaces we create feel different. But also, make them relatable, because we typically take something that in some ways feels familiar to people that often might have a historical reference, yet somehow becomes a mash-up, so that it is fresh and invigorating, like something you’ve never seen, yet you somehow feel attached to it. But there are also spaces that you can be in, live in, want to be in. They’re relatable in some fashion, even if they’re fantastical. And that’s the hard part. And it’s not an exact science. Because every time we start from scratch, we never repeat ourselves. We certainly have a history, and we’ve certainly done lots of work, and we might reference previous work, but it’s always a new recipe.

SSR: How do you stay inspired? Because a lot of this pulls from different eras of history, and fashion, and design, and everything. So are you constantly still being that history buff you once were? How do you stay inspired? 

KF: I sort of get these weird ideas in my head. Whenever I walk through a space, I get quiet, which is odd for someone who talks a lot. And I sort of take it in, and it’s almost like I get a vision. But it is just from inspiration in general. I think it’s one of the beautiful things about technology and the world we currently live in that a lot of people bemoan, but it is much more egalitarian. The sharing of beauty. Beauty is obviously all around us.

But the idea that the kid in me, that if I could have gone and looked at Istanbul through whether it’s Instagram, or Pinterest, or whether I could have gone to Egypt or gone to… I probably would have to go and get the encyclopedia and think about it or wait for someone to come with a travel log or maybe seeing things on TV. But I think that is something that’s its impact on our lives, and on design, and inspiration, and creativity, I think is maybe underestimated because it’s staggering what we get to experience now.

Does it take the place of me? But I get it everywhere.  We did social club here in Boston in a glorious McKim, Mead & White building. It’s called the Quin. And even though Boston is a city that I lived in, that I’m here frequently, that we’ve now done lots of work in, every time, I see something new, whether it’s the mansard roof or the copper detailing with the crazy gargoyle downspout that might become ensconced somewhere.

It’s almost unavoidable to not see the inspiration around us in our everyday lives. And so, that’s the part of me that I think is like a sponge that I don’t… Yes, do we get it at the click of a button? Do we get it on our feeds? Do we get it when we hop on a plane and go to Istanbul, or Paris, or Rome? But we also just get it constantly. It’s the pattern the tree leaves make on the pavement, and you see it, and could it become a rug or a wallpaper? It’s like you kind of can’t turn it off.

SSR: You mentioned earlier that you’re always dressed up even at the pool at David Grutman’s. How would you describe your style? 

KF: It was definitively always me. You see pictures of me when I was really little. I bought my mother’s dresses. It just fashion and design and it was all one thing. And frankly, it still is. We’ve done amazing work in the fashion world. Because we’re not a design company, we’re a creative agency. We’ll do all sorts of creative endeavors. We’ve done, which I think I’ve spoke about before, but for Dolce Gabbana, we’ve designed these amazing headdresses that went down… They designed couture gowns after we designed our headdresses. In other words, their gowns were made to match our headdresses that we designed and shipped off to Milan. Kendall Jenner wore them in a double page spread in Vogue, which are pretty incredible. We’ve had collection of beautiful slippers with Birdies we’ve done.

So fashion was part of who I was because it was self-expression. I remember reading the little short story, Clothes Make the Man, about sort of appearances and how they matter. And it always was important to me because it was self-expression. It wasn’t about being fancy. I dress up, that’s sort of what I called it. But whether it’s up or down, it’s sort of the act of caring. And you’re expressing yourself, but you’re also engaging with people. I talk to so many people because someone will say, “Oh, my God. I love your bow tie.” Or, “Oh, my God. Those shoes are amazing.” And it isn’t just self-affirmation, it engagement in a fun way. And I feel like you’re putting something out there for people to enjoy.

SSR: Yeah. And is there a job that you have always wanted to do but you haven’t done yet or a project?

KF: I want to make a movie. I think we’ll make… I’ve always, and not in a bravado way, but sort of believed in the exceptionalism of what we do. Not that it’s always perfect or not that it is the best, but we do extraordinary things, that we do our best to document in books, or you see glimpses of things in magazines. But the process and the sort of enormity of things that we do, it’s like a flying circus. And the idea to share that, I think, on film, to be able to document and better capture this madcap wonderful, thrilling, scary, exciting, beautiful world that we have the privilege of creating would be meaningful to me, and to document, to share, to celebrate. And so, I think that is something I would love to manifest.

SSR: Is there something people might not know about you?

KF: I’m a homebody. I love being home. I don’t like being the center of attention, which is weird for someone who has a company that bears their name, who gets their picture taken a lot. And it almost goes back to I love fashion. But wearing an outfit, dressing up, it’s almost like a costume, where you sort of put on your cape, and you go out, and fight the battles. And I feel that a bit like it’s for me who loves to orchestrate things and loves to be a ringmaster.

I don’t always like being or I don’t really like being the center of attention. And so, the fact that given my default might be to be at home with my dogs and my husband, and not sort of even though, yes, I’ve always dreamed of this big crazy life, it’s sort of like I have to put on my costume to go do that. I don’t know. It’s like I love it, but yet it’s the yin and yang in life. It’s sort of like, I don’t know, sometimes when you meet famous people or actors, and they’re almost shy.

You meet crazy people who on stage are these amazing performers, and then they’re very sort of reserved and quiet when you actually meet them in person. And there’s that dichotomy. And I think there’s a little bit of that in my life where, in the most private moments in my life, I’m very sort of inward, and insular, and it’s where I feel like safe and loved. But then, when I get dressed up and go out, and put on my top hat, I can be that guy.

Commodore Perry Estate, Auberge Resorts Collection, in Austin, Texas

Floral paintings hang on wood-clad walls in the dining room at the Commodore Perry Estate, Auberge Resorts Collection, in Austin; photo by Douglas Friedman

SSR:  And then looking back, what do you think has been your secret to success?

KF: I think not being afraid. In our first book, in Latin, roughly translate or loosely translated, it says, “Fear is the enemy of good design.” And I think you could apply that to many things. It’s not like I’m not scared at times or I don’t, but I never let it stop me. And so, the willingness to fail, I think, and not being afraid of what other people think or how they’re going to… I think that has led to us achieving things that we might not have had I been afraid to take the chance or the risk. And that’s really scary. It goes back to saying yes.

And so, you have to sort of be okay with failure or accept the fact that we all fail. It’s something every day and we make mistakes every day. But success is just like, it’s the willingness to go on a crooked path. You have to be willing to go on that journey. And so, on the outside success looks like, wow, look at the life they had and how easy it is. And I always think, no, it’s the opposite. You just have to be willing to keep going. And so, I think that is what has been the key. It’s like the failures are the key to your success.

SSR: You’ve evolved your firm and what you guys do. And then also, don’t you now own [some of your projects]?

KF: So we’ve become operators of our project and owners of our project. So we own restaurants and hotels. Because for me, originally, it was also giving away the baby. We create these things, and then you hand over someone else to raise your kid. And so, yeah, it has definitely been the continual growth. There’s no exit strategy here. It’s all about continuing to… People are like, “Oh, will you ever slow down?” I’m like, “I hope not.” And so, yeah, I think we will hopefully continue to evolve, and grow, and stay curious.

SSR: So we always end the podcast with the title of the podcast or the question that is the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

KF: As my mother would’ve said, “Don’t be too big for your britches or get too big for your britches,” which for me to stay humble through whatever success you have and to be present. I live in a world where we’re constantly pushing to the next thing. And so, it’s really easy to gobble it up and be tempted to move on to the next shiny object. Yet, I have the privilege of working for people who money is never an obstacle to something. They could have anything they want. And what everyone wants is the chance to be present and imprint memories with people they love. And that’s why they have these things.

You have a plane because, yes, it’s a convenience, but it’s also what it might facilitate you being able to do… We designed a crazy plane for a family who wants… I know this sounds crazy and extravagant. It’s not lost on me that an individual would have a big giant plane, but yet it is the world I live and work in. It’s so that when they fly back to Argentina, because they want the entire family to go and have an extraordinary experience. And if they had to go on three planes to get there, it might not ever happen. And that the joy might start. And it’s less about status and more about being able to take this vast wealth they’ve accumulated.

But it’s also simple things. Maybe that sounds too out of touch and too crazy because it is all of those things. But what is similar and universal, I guess is what I’m getting at, is to recognize what’s important to be present, to stay humble, and grounded, and don’t be an ass. It’s true. It’s like be kind. Our world would be such a better place if we could all just be kind. And it’s a journey. It’s not a destination. It’s like you got to do it along the way every day. Because it’s the little things when you’re… And so, yeah, I think that that’s my… It’s a lesson that I try to learn every day. It is to soak in the goodness and to remind yourself that we live on a head of a pin and how fortunate we are.

SSR: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. It’s always such a pleasure talking with you. I love it. So thanks for joining me today for our podcast. And can’t wait to see the guest editor issue, the November issue.

KF: I can’t wait either. Hold onto your hat.