This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
The best ways to explore London are by walking and cycling. I could stroll through the city for hours, along its little streets and byways, marvelling at the assortment of interesting architecture. The UK capital is a collection of villages waiting to be discovered, each with its own individual character. I particularly enjoy the many specialist shops and interesting markets across the city, and I like to catch a glimpse through the windows of people’s homes: the facades that line our streets can be almost identical, yet each interior is unique and tells its own story. As a designer, much of my work is about breathing new life into old buildings or giving character to new ones, and my creative process depends very much on my surroundings and taking in my city.
I walk to work every day along Exhibition Road in South Kensington, with the Victoria and Albert Museum on one side and the Natural History Museum on the other. These two buildings give much pleasure to so many people both architecturally and because of their incredible exhibits and educational lectures. The Natural History Museum, opposite our design studio, is Alfred Waterhouse’s Grade I-listed terracotta-clad masterpiece. It opened in 1881 and is renowned for inspiring building design that celebrates the natural world. Creatures carved into the walls seem both mythical and real. My children used to play in the gardens when they were at school nearby. They accepted it as part of their childhood and I hope will be influenced by it always.
I love looking up and observing the beautiful architectural details that make London so special, from stained-glass windows to statues and fountains. I’m very much inspired to do so by the work of a charity that is close to my heart, Heritage of London Trust (HOLT), for which I am a trustee. It is an independent heritage charity, set up in 1980 by the Greater London Council to rescue historic buildings and monuments. The projects are in every London borough and are diverse. On HOLT expeditions you are often granted access to places you would never normally be allowed in. I visited Alexander Pope’s grotto beside the Thames near Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. It is hidden under a busy main road, where it once would have been nestled in beautiful countryside beside a house that is now demolished. It is in the process of much-needed renovation.
London is a jewel box of creativity. The best place to find cutting-edge design is at the CAA (Contemporary Applied Arts), on Paddington Street in Marylebone, for craftspeople and a mix of different objects for the home. Commissioning artists and makers to create bespoke pieces for my own home and the hotels I design is a luxury for me. I treasure pieces that are touched by someone’s hand and infused with their heart, holding an inherent meaning far beyond buying something off the shelf. It is essential that we preserve a sense of humanity in everything we do.
I love to visit The New Craftsmen at 34 North Row, Mayfair, for great pieces of British craftsmanship and individual design you won’t find anywhere else. I also always try to go to the Royal Academy’s summer show each year; I especially enjoy seeing the students’ work and meeting the artists of the future.
As a designer my biggest inspiration is textiles — organic pieces, remnants, colourful threads, ancient or contemporary, colourful or monotone, linen, wool, dyed or natural. I love them all. I often go to The Cloth Shop on Portobello Road for interesting pieces of boiled wool.
One of my favourite parts of London are the green spaces that stretch across the city and link together like a necklace: Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’s Park. I love watching the summer pavilions being built each year by different architects outside the Serpentine gallery in Kensington Gardens; previous designers have included Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. They are erected every spring and there is always excitement when it is about to be opened in June. Everyone has a different opinion and wildly varying styles are created.
Food and flowers
We are long-term fans of the River Café, the Italian restaurant on the Thames that grows fresh ingredients on its terrace. It’s magical in both the summer and winter. Some of my favourite dishes are the wild mushroom risotto and the Dover sole — and the Chocolate Nemesis cake! Many of the world’s most well-known chefs spent time in the kitchen there with owners Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray, so you always feel like you discovered them first.
We love Japanese food and Engawa, which is part of Ham Yard Village and opposite our Ham Yard Hotel in Soho, is traditional and authentic. We have their brilliant bento boxes, which are served with such elegance and artistry. They look and taste beautiful.
Columbia Road Flower Market (on Sundays) has an abundance of flowers all in one street. It’s a treat to absorb the buzz of the stallholders. Flowers are a great way of instantly adding colour to a room. I like popping into the wonderful art galleries in Shoreditch as well, such as Blue Mountain School, a shop, gallery and incredible dining experience all in one.
Kit Kemp is founder and creative director of Firmdale Hotels and Kit Kemp Design Studio
What’s your favourite London walk? Tell us in the comments