A Peek into Firmdale Hotels' Designer Ruby Kean’s Kaleidoscopic World

A souvenir junkie with a personal collection of "bits" from around the world, interior designer Ruby Kean hoards mementos of her travels - be they vintage Italian magazines or little plastic fish from Japan. She then curates her clutter accordingly.

It's these souvenirs that provide her with constant inspiration; infusing a transportive essence to all she creates is paramount. As the architect Luis Barragan said: "The ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery". This sums up Kean's aesthetic in a perfect rainbow stripe.

A fan of Kyoto, a frequenter of the Greek Islands (she's not choosy as to which) and a South West Londoner at heart, her career has taken her from design assistant for Firmdale Hotel's owner and creative visionary, Kit Kemp, to head of design at the groups' New York-based hotel, The Whitby.

Whether elucidating on the enduring appeal of New York Public Library or rattling off a bibliographies worth of places ­to shop for interiors, Kean's worldview is kaleidoscopic. She gives us a sneak peek into it here.

How did you get your job as head of design New York at Firmdale Hotels?

I had always admired Kit's work and was very lucky to get the opportunity to work as the design assistant on her London team. Throughout this time I was immersed in the whimsical world of Firmdale Hotels aesthetic, guided by the powerful mentorship of Kit and the wider design team. Gradually over the years I was starting to head up bigger projects that led to the once-in-a-lifetime experience of moving to New York as the head of design of the then soon to be opened The Whitby.

What's been your career highlight so far?

Without a doubt, installing and opening The Whitby. The thrill of seeing a concept come to life - from conception to execution - and being an integral part of that process, is both exhilarating and incredibly rewarding. Every single detail is carefully and meticulously considered by our design team and I think the most fulfilling part of a mammoth project like that is experiencing the positive responses from it. There are those moments when I'm sitting in the restaurant after a long day and overhear someone complimenting a particular detail - these utterances bring me such joy in the work that I do.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a NY-based retail experience for Kit Kemp. We have had a lot of fun creating and developing new products that encompass the bright, textured and playful feel of a Firmdale hotel. The collection is comprised of furniture, lighting and decorative accessories that really embrace the essence of the brand. It's been a really fulfilling project to get stuck in to, especially being able to bring together different collectives of incredible artisans and craftspeople.

What do you think makes a good hotel?

A good hotel brings to life the perfect juxtaposition between an environment that is serene yet exudes magic. You know you are staying somewhere really special when it transports and inspires you, but somehow manages to also feel like coming home. A good bath with amazing bed linen is also a must!

Where do you go to relax?

Upstate New York. The city has such an intense energy that I thrive on, but I always make sure to take time to escape that - heading upstate with friends is such a lovely way to switch off. The Outlier Inn is one of my favourite spots with its beautifully designed outhouses, cabins and giant yoga dome.

What are your most frequented travel destinations?

I adore Greece and have spent a lot of time there. There is a very real sense of enchantment all around you and every single one of its hundreds of islands has its own set of stories, traditions and charm. No matter what island you are on it's just a good old classic summer holiday. Lazy beach days, long, seafood lunches and balmy car rides in wet towels back in time for a perfect evening by the pool.

If there was one destination you could go back to immediately, which one would it be?

Kyoto is just about one of the most amazing places in the world and if I could move there tomorrow, I would. Some of my most prized paper ephemera comes from the very colourful shop Suzuki Shofudo in the heart of the city.

Does travel inform your work?

Yes. Much of my work is inspired by where I've been and what I've done; whether that's visiting a beautiful countryside garden or seeing the way two colours on a building play in concert with one another - these inspirations always find their way back into the studio. On holiday I am constantly scribbling things down, peeking behind corners and taking pictures of everything that catches my eye because inspiration is absolutely everywhere.

Where are your favourite places in New York?

The Cloisters for a moment of calm among the chaos; BDDW for buying statement furniture and art; St Mazies in Williamsburg for Friday night Flamenco; and, of course, The Crosby hotel drawing room for a Sunday afternoon hot chocolate.

Where are you from and how has that shaped or inspired your work?

I grew up in South West London and throughout my childhood I have always looked up to my father who is a cabinetmaker, antique restorer and picture framer. His relationship with aesthetics, respect for craft and in-depth knowledge of materials has instilled a hands-on approach to design in me, to create works of integrity and quality.

Which destinations inspire your creativity?

One of my rituals when it comes to seeking inspiration is taking myself out on local creative field trips and for me there is no better place to bring an idea to life than the New York Public Library. Not only is it such an iconic and romantic building but it's a wonderful resource, peaceful place to work and right on my doorstep.

What creative references do you return to time and time again?

I am constantly inspired by how different artists interrogate and explore colour and I love developing an artwork into a scheme and wider environment. There are several artists that are inspiring my creative process at the moment from Fay Wei Wei and her ethereal palette to Rose Harris whose vibrant and youthful depiction of interiors dares you to create a space just as bold.

Where is the best place to shop for interiors?

Kempton Market is a London institution for buying antiques and discovering gems. I love the excitement when the van doors open just before sunrise and the pocket torches start flashing in the hunt for goodies. I also try and get to Marrakech as often as I can to forage through beautiful textiles and Tamagroute pottery - Mustapha Blaoui on the outskirts of the souk is a treasure-hunter's paradise.

Tell us about some of your most loved and loathed design trends right now.

I love the intersection of art and interiors especially when it comes to being able to actually step inside a space that is curated and designed in the same way that a museum is. Rachel Chudley does this really well - I love that she expands the function of art by taking details from artworks and creating statement wallpapers and murals. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a strong objection to taxidermy in design. It instantly adds a dark and tired feel to a space and is not something I use in my work.

What's your take on souvenirs?

I am a souvenir junkie and have a personal collection of bits from around the world that live in a big box in my studio. From vintage Italian magazines to little plastic fish from Japan, I curate my clutter and use it constantly in my design projects to infuse a transportive essence in my work. Additionally to interiors, I work as a collage artist and so all of the pieces I have collected over the years play a big role in the artworks that I create.

What are you reading at the moment?

What if this Were Enough by Heather Havrilesky, Alchemy and Mysticism by Alexander Roob and, of course, the newly released Kit Kemp, Design Thread.

And finally, what's in your SUITCASE?

Without question a sketchbook, a film camera and a good sun hat.

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