Design & The Hospitality Industry: An Interview with Ken Fulk - Public Goods Blog

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Design & The Hospitality Industry: An Interview with Ken Fulk

If you’re unfamiliar with Ken Fulk, you very well may have seen the outcome of his creative vision at one point or another, whether that be in a magazine, online, out to dinner, or on vacation. A true storyteller through his work, Ken’s passion for interior design is obvious once you lay eyes on his creations. 

Legacy Records
Legacy Records. Photo By Douglas Friedman

It’s hard not to feel the inviting presence of the spaces Ken, and his team creates. For myself, seeing photos of his restaurant work instills the desire to get dressed up and go out. Similarly, when viewing the properties he has worked on, I suddenly have the travel bug.  

For Ken, the creation of beautiful spaces goes hand-in-hand with his desire to enjoy it with others. Ken is also a renowned event-planner known for throwing fabulous and opulent parties (pre-Covid, of course).  

While reading Delicious Places by Gestalten, I stumbled upon one of Ken’s projects that jumped out at me. Legacy Records – New York, NY, a former recording studio that Ken helped turn into a restaurant. I noted it, returned, and posted it on my social media as a way to flaunt my own keen eye for design. Soon, I was in touch with Ken himself. 

Legacy Records is a part of Delicious Hospitality Group, which also owns Pasquale Jones – New York, NY, another client of Ken’s.

In the interview below, Ken shares his background, experience with the hospitality industry with us, and so much more. Let’s jump into the questions below; there’s a lot to unpack. 

Legacy Records. Photo By Douglas Friedman

Chris Interviews Ken Fulk 

Chris: Can you describe your design style in two sentences or less?

Ken: There’s an inscription in Latin on our first book that translates to, “Fear is the enemy of good design.” That pretty much sums up my design style/philosophy. 

Did you have an “aha” moment early in your career when choosing interior design? 

I never thought of design as a career option. I was a history and English major in college and sorta assumed I’d go onto law school and eventually stumble into a career at some point. After nearly a decade of ill-suited jobs, a friend gave me the keys to his new apartment and said, “Have at it.” He liked the way I lived and had confidence that I was up to the task of designing his house. Suddenly I not only had a new job but a true aha moment. All the things I had done instinctively since I was a kid – rearrange the living room, plan every holiday, set elaborate tables – the things that nearly seemed part of my DNA had suddenly become my life’s work. 

I read that you had no formal training and are self-taught. How difficult was it for you to find your own path in the design industry? 

I was always very confident in my craft. [I was] hungry to learn and grow but hesitant to be molded into something or someone’s idea of what a “designer” was meant to be. From the start, I became the creative director of my clients’ lives. Helping to design their homes, plan their parties, and select their wardrobes. 

Can you recall a time in your career you felt like you took the biggest risk? How has this shaped your work as it is now?

Perhaps the biggest risk – though I didn’t see it that way – was when I purchased our San Francisco studio building.  It was also the biggest leap in my career. I had no real idea if I could afford it or not, but I was confident it was the right decision. From the beginning, I had imagined it as the Magic Factory – as it’s become affectionately known. A glorious four-story building filled with a collective of creative souls doing incredible things.

Through design, I believe you can translate various perceptions onto a person, such as calmness, luxury, formalness, order, curiosity, and so much more. Two of our partners who curate top-notch guest experiences are Open Air Homes and the Joshua Tree House. Do you feel any particular projects you worked on that have a rare narrative and uniqueness? 

We recently opened the Commodore Perry Estate in Austin, TX. The resort is situated on 10 acres in the center of Austin. As Creative Director, we spent 5 years restoring the 1920’s mansion, building 48 new hotel suites, and crafting a new garden restaurant into the original stone walls surrounding the property. We also founded a private members club connecting some of the most interesting and intriguing folks and fans of Austin to the estate. In my mind, it is without a doubt the most transportive and exceptional spot to open in a very long time. In fact, I so strongly believe in the endeavor that I’ve taken an ownership stake. 

Commodore Perry Estate. Photo By Douglas Friedman

What do you recommend for owners and operators in the hospitality industry looking to separate themselves from the competition and position themselves as a notable and unforgettable experience?

Follow your heart and passion – don’t follow trends or chase others. Build relationships and nurture your clients. In the end, they are what will propel and sustain a business. I wake up every day and give myself a little pep talk and say, don’t screw it up, show up, be present and be grateful. 

Walk me through what happens when you meet with a potential new client, say a restaurant. How do you manage their expectations while also allowing yourself to find room for the creative process? 

Every project we undertake is different. I intentionally strive not to have a signature look or style. It’s as if each job is our first. We spend a great deal of time getting to know and understand the client, the location, and space. We then literally write a narrative. Perhaps odd that in a visual medium, we begin with words, but they become our guide. Which I suppose ultimately makes sense as, at our core, we are storytellers. 

If you were to break ground on a new hotel project of your imagination, where would it be? What would it be like? 

A grand and opulent mountaintop lodge with a forested trail that leads to a white sand beach with warm crystal blue waters lapping at its shores. 

Halfway House. Photo By Douglas Friedman

What type of client most excites you, or do you feel most equipped to work with? 

Good-hearted and kind.

How has COVID-19 affected your work? Has it forced you to think differently about how you approach design? Are there any silver linings? 

We have the very good fortune to be insanely busy. When this all started, I was unsure if we could manage our workload remotely. But not only have we managed to do that, but we have also thrived. We have a team of nearly 90 people who each day slay dragons and literally make magic happen. Also, as someone who normally travels several days a week, I have been able to sink into my life and enjoy my family and home while still being a good steward to my business. Despite all the tragedy and tremendous loss this past year, I will cherish these small and precious moments. 

Have you made any really close friends from previous clients? 

Too many to count. As someone once said, not all my friends are clients, but all my clients are friends.

If the opportunity presented itself, would you ever be open to stepping out of interior design and design, say, a car? Or a line of household products? 

We design all sorts of things. We’ve done a line of slippers for Birdies and all sorts of household accessories for Pottery Barn. We also have a line of hats coming out. I often refer to our projects as movies – so I think film might be the next frontier.

Pottery Barn. Photo By Douglas Friedman

Who is your biggest inspiration? 

My staff.

What do you look for when you are looking to dine out or experience staying in a new property? Do you ever look for something you’d traditionally not design at your firm as a new source of inspiration? 

I look for singular experiences. Places that don’t feel like anywhere else. Standardization is the death of real luxury. 

Any suggestions for someone who is reading this hoping to learn more about interior design?

Read, travel, ask questions.

What are you most looking forward to right now? 

Dinner in Paris.

Carbone, Cavalier, Marlowe. Photo By Douglas Friedman

I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to pick Ken’s brain. Here are the key takeaways for those readers who care about design and the hospitality industry and are looking to start a new career/project. Or, maybe you want the spark notes.

Follow your heart and passion. Take the time to understand your customers. Always seek learning opportunities. Be grateful, and be present.

Thanks again for your time Ken, it was a pleasure!

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