Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Designer I Love: Ken Fulk

Exclusive View: Bold Color, Vivid Impressions, Vibrant Lives 
In conversation with San Francisco designer, Ken Fulk

Designer Ken Fulk Embraces Elegance, Wit, and a Jolt of Color
With a glance at Napoleon, English country houses, Thomas Jefferson and Palladio, designer Ken Fulk takes a fresh approach to interiors.

Overly reverent?

Not at all. Too, too serious? Never.
Witty and fresh? Always.

San Francisco interior designer Ken Fulk, originally from Jefferson country in Virginia, moved to San Francisco ten years ago. He kept a low profile in the design arena, worked hard for an escalating roster of ultra-private clients, stayed focused, and now finds himself the darling of the design world.

“Design should inspire you and make you smile, and it should never be a bore,” Fulk told me. 

“Décor has an essential practical purpose, but it should also lift our spirits, and make us feel happy to walk into a room.”
He founded Ken Fulk Design, after testing the waters by designing for handpicked clients.  New clients have found him through referral.
Fulk by-passed design school and a classic apprenticeship with a design firm. He traveled, stayed in all the best hotels, observed, studied important and significant historic interiors, traveled more and often, and worked closely with leading antique dealers, furniture designers, style stores, vintage collectors and art dealers. He has kept a love profile. Fulk and his teams now work with ultra-private handpicked clients for whom he creates interiors of great joyfulness and verve, within a very fast turnaround time. His 35-person firm is currently working on projects from Aspen to Provincetown and Manhattan, and from Silicon Valley to Sonoma Valley and the Napa Valley, and from Pacific Heights to the Dordogne.

Diane Dorrans Saeks recently sat down with Ken Fulk at the classic favorite haunt, Zuni Café in San Francisco.

Between bites of piccolo frito of vegetables, and blood orange, sliced fennel and frisee salad, Fulk expounded on design, and the subjects of modern living, books, travel and paint were dissected.

DDS: You are such an inventive, creative, and visionary designer and your clients love you (they tell me you changed their life). What was the moment you decided to become a designer?
Like many things in my life I believe it wasn’t a choice but somehow pre-ordained or unavoidable. It’s the lyric from that Leonard Cohen song? I am not the one who loves — it’s love that seizes me. I feel seized by design. It’s part of who I am and not simply some vocation I chose. I always say I’d be doing this regardless if I was getting paid for it or not — though thank goodness I am paid!

DDS: You are confident in many styles—and have avoided a ‘signature’ style.
I have not intentionally avoided a “signature” style. It’s simply a factor of the way we approach projects for every client. Each residence is always deeply personal and expressly oriented to the client who is going to inhabit a space. I don’t impose my ideas.  I’ve never been a ‘one-size-fits-all’ designer. We are creating an individualized environment not looking to put our stamp on it. And it is true that we come to the table with a strong point of view.

DDS:  Who has been an inspiration and mentor to you?
The strongest inspirations in my life have perhaps been geographical. I’m a southerner by birth, and have been strongly imprinted with its since of place, far beyond the clichés of southern life. Day to day life in the South I carry with me, and it is truly ingrained as the importance of a life well lived. The south is a very matriarchal society and my early years were shaped by my Mother and her four sisters. As a young lad, everything I learned of manners, decorum, taste and style came from them.
The other locale that has inspired me greatly is Paris. I recognize a strong correlation between my southern roots and the City of Light. Apart from the sheer miraculous beauty of Paris there is the same inherent approach to living well. There is a graciousness that occupies even the simplest gestures. Whether it is the morning coffee and a croissant, standing at the bar with your compatriots, or the simple joy of sitting on a bench in the Tuileries, life is always relished and not rushed.

DDS: Who are your favorite designers?
KF:  I don’t really pay enough attention to other designers’ work. We are, thankfully, so busy doing our own thing that there isn’t time to study and appreciate the great design being done by others. I did have quite a crush on Christian Liaigre’s designs for the longest time. I think of all contemporary designers his work is amongst the most timeless and his furniture the most likely to be collected in the future.
The majority of good design I’m surrounded by is in other fields.  I have had an obsession for the past several years with the men’s wear designer Thom Browne. His clothes are a thoroughly modern interpretation of the traditional gentlemen’s wardrobe with impeccable attention to detail. His suits are a ridiculously expensive addiction. I think I’m so attracted to his work because while classically tailored they can be fearlessly modern. That is something I strive for in our own work.

DDS:   Which architect has inspired you the most?
I grew up near Charlottesville, Virginia, where Mr. Jefferson loomed large. To me, he was the first and greatest of American designers among a few other accomplishments! He took a traditional European sensibility and created something uniquely American. To this day I can stand at the top of the lawn of Jefferson’s University (U.V.A) and simply be full of awe.

DDS:  Favorite rooms?
My bedroom at our ranch in St. Helena is all white. It’s perfectly serene and simple. The windows look out onto a majestic oak and across to a wild meadow. It has a ridiculously high bed with a deep feather top. It is the perfect place to while away my weekend.
Room 107 at the Chateau Marmont feels glamorous but understated. It’s old Hollywood glamour at its best. Originally a one-bedroom apartment, it has a terrace that overlooks the lush courtyard, and LA is spread out beyond. The spaces are furnished with a simple assortment of mid century pieces.
The Fishing Cabin at Manka’s Inverness Lodge in Inverness, Point Ryes is an idyllic rustic retreat. The main lodge burned a few years back, but this jewel thankfully survived. Old French leather club chairs, an enormous ocean rock fireplace, a deep soaking tub, and an outdoor rain shower make this one of the most special, romantic, and memorable places I’ve had the luxury to enjoy.
The Apartment at L’Hotel in Paris. This is famously where Oscar Wilde died. It was restored several years ago by Jacques Garcia and is opulent Left Bank Paris at it’s best. Filled with luxurious fabrics and antiques, it has a terrace overlooking the church of St. Germain-des-Pres.

DDS:  Which design books do you treasure the most?
A House Is Not A Home, by Bruce Weber (Bullfinch Press 1996). It is a wonderful collection of photo essays exploring the meaning of a home. For the longest time I gave it to clients as a house warming gift. Unfortunately I am down to my last copy.
Bunny Williams’ An Affair With A House. It’s a great tribute to a treasured home. It spoke to me because I often think of myself as having a love affair with a given house. Right now I’m madly in love with our house in Provincetown.  I covet the Greco-Roman temple/pool cabana she built from raw timber. It is jaw dropping.
I am still enraptured by the interiors captured in The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, Vendome Press ( 2009). It explores a genuinely magnificent collection and an incredible collaboration.

DDS:  You are a skilled host.  Who would be your four dream dinner guests?
Oscar Wilde for witty conversation, Julia Child to help prepare the meal, Chet Baker to serenade us, and a young Paul Newman just to look at.

DDS: Your favorite architecture?
The short list is anything still standing by Palladio, Jefferson’s Monticello, a Lake Shore Drive apartment by David Adler, and Aero Saarinen’s main terminal at Dulles Airport. The last one may seem a bit unusual, but when I was a child my uncle worked at the Airport. I used to get to visit him and go up into the tower and watch the planes land. To me that swooping wing-like edifice at night was one the most glamorous places I had ever seen. Modern and lyrical, it remains one of the most impressive of public structures. Sadly over the years it has been burdened with surrounding uninspired bunker-like terminals.

DDS:  Some of your favorite resources for antiques?
I could simply move into my friend Stephane Olivier’s shop on rue de l'Universite, on the Left Bank in Paris. Everything he collects is based on one guiding principal — it must be a thing of beauty. He has an incredible and unwavering eye for finding or creating just the right pieces. In Europe, I always visit Axel and Boris Vervoordt at their castle and the Kanaal  headquarters nearAntwerp. They are undoubtedly the finest collectors in the world, and they inhabit some of the most inspiring residences and headquarters anywhere.

DDS: Favorite pieces of furniture.
The pair of ten-foot custom Edward Wormley sofas that anchor my living room in San Francisco. I purchased them from my good friend John Meaney of 20th Century gallery in San Francisco. I had them restored and then covered in glorious sapphire blue silk Bergamo velvet. I smile every time I see them.

DDS: The five most versatile paint colors?
Picket Fence white by Ralph Lauren is a true classic white. Not cold, but not too cream either. I painted every surface at my ranch with it, inside and out.
Fairview Taupe by Benjamin Moore is a wonderful “non” color. It is the perfect warm brown/grey/green. I love it in a dining room or bedroom.
Everyone seems to always be searching for the perfect chocolate brown. I found it in Ralph Lauren’s Mahogany. It is magnificent with crisp white trim in an entry.
Perhaps an unusual choice — but one of the most versatile of colors is Pumpkin Pie by Phillip’s Perfect Colors. It can look smashing (pun intended) in a traditional setting and equally good in a modern space.
Stout by C2. I am crazy about this color. I especially like to use it on trim and doors. It is indeed the color of good Irish Stout!

DDS. Favorite fabric?
Salt, a super-heavy, beautiful linen by Christian Liaigre for Great Plans. It is literally the color of salt — and like salt, it’s pure and simple and is good on just about everything.

DDS: What do you love most about being a designer?
Nearly everything (except perhaps the billing!) I always say it’s as if god made a job for me.

DDS: What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
Be fearless and listen to those voices in your head (the good ones at least).

DDS: Best advice you ever received regarding design.
Lighten up! You’re not performing brain surgery, for goodness sake.

The house in Sonoma:

Where: A new family house near the Square in Old Town Sonoma.

Who: A  couple with two young children. This is their primary residence.

What: A modern take on the classic historically inspired American house.

Designed and built from the ground up. The house has no formal living room and everything is somewhat casual. Each room opens to the outdoors. Though minutes from the town square, it looks out to expansive views of the vineyards and has a tennis court and pool.

Ken Fulk reports: “This house has the perfect combination of open-air and indoor/outdoor California living and has great classic bones. The interior décor and completion of the interiors were a complete surprise (they saw nothing) for the clients. We worked off a relatively small budget, and I revealed it to them one evening after an insane three day install. They had been living next door in the one-bedroom guesthouse for a year. We took them over to their new home and popped corks. The night of the reveal we stayed up until 4am dancing on the kitchen counters! Never have their been more thrilled clients.”

A shingled house in California:

Where: A Mid-Century residence perched above the bay in San Francisco.

A first home for a newly married couple and their soon to be baby girl.

What:  A sexy refreshment of a mid-century shingled home in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Ken Fulk reports:  “The house had sadly been 80's-ized. We took it back to its simple clean origin and then added a big dose of sex appeal. The wife is a major fashionista and wanted the house to have a little runway inspiration. So this was our jumping-off point. We chose furniture, fabrics, and colors that fit the bill.”

A Residence overlooking San Francisco Bay, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge:

Where: The top of San Francisco's gilded Pacific Heights neighborhood.

A young couple with two children and a third on the way.

What: Originally the site of a very bland and boxy fifties house on stilts, recently converted into an elegant limestone manse.

Design comments:
Ken Fulk said:  Certainly a rare opportunity. I was referred to the couple and after a short meeting I explained the various ways we worked — ranging from clients who are intimately involved in the process to ones who simply want to be surprised. They chose surprised. The only request for the entire house was a proper English pub (he's a young Brit) — so we imported an authentic old pub from England. Outside of that request, they saw/knew nothing. We provided everything from art to silverware — from Guinness to shampoo.

How long? We moved them in immediately for just a couple of months. They lived on a mix of items from our inventory, and a few pieces from their former house.  After the holidays they were off on an extended trip for six weeks. So the real completion began.
We worked around the clock. Literally an army of artisans. We labored furiously to create a sense of history and place for the home — erasing the newness. Every corner of the house was touched.
Walls, floors, baths, kitchen — everything was reinvented. Even an outdoor theater was added. It was like a show house on steroids. In the few months prior to the installation we had been searching the globe for all things under the sun. Daily, cranes arrived to hoist everything from massive French ironwork tables, antique limestone planters, the original English pub, and a pair of 18th century stone lions. I fear a documentary opportunity was indeed missed.

Ken Fulk recalls:  We delivered the house, ready to inhabit and enjoy, in seven weeks - start to finish.
On the night of the "reveal" Beefeaters (costumed doorman on loan from the Sir Frances Drake hotel in downtown San Francisco) guarded the door to their new castle. An acoustic guitarist played the Beatle's catalog in the pub, and a DJ spun records in the kitchen. The following afternoon the best possible compliment arrived... "Ken we had huge expectations for the house — and we have to say you exceeded them. Thank you.”

Photography of interiors by Matthew Millman, San Francisco. Used with express permission.

Portrait of Ken Fulk by Philip Harvey, San Francisco, used with permission.


  1. So in tune with his ideas- the South does ingrain itself on you. Jefferson a big check- I seem to remember a similar blue green paint at Monticello KF uses in the Sonoma house. Oscar Wilde is my hands down pick for dinner as well. Applaud his use of colour with controlled abandon- there is a grounded traditional element to most of these rooms, the common thread that gives them youth, garners respect-speaks volumes of sophistication.pgt

  2. My dear, what a cultured, erudite conversation you had with Ken Fulk. His design is bold, decadent and sumptuous and glowing with the fin-de-siècle imagination. My favourite one is the house in Sonoma. The sitting room with a stag head on the mantle piece put a smile on my face - but the extraordinary thing about that room is its colour - almost like advocado green (make me think of Turkish gentleman's hair salon - in a nice creative way, I mean). You see I wonder if the designer creates each interior with the imagination that Oscar Wilde wouldn't mind living there. I feel like in any minute, Dorian Gray would walk out from that living room or des Esseintes, a neurasthenic aristocrat character from A Rebours, a novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans.

  3. PS. my dear, how much I missed your blog. Why it's not coming up on my update bloglist. Now, I'm going to relish reading your Matisse (one of my beloved artists) post xx

    Thank you so much for your comments.
    Ken is very witty and bright--and he has quietly gained a tremendous following in San Francisco (for clients who have houses all over the world). There are many new clients arriving in town (tech world) and they love him because he can install fast if that is what they need (baby on way, just can't wait for custom furniture).
    I am so sorry for this tech problem--it is a FEED BURNER PROBLEM that we are working on this weekend...please be sure to scroll back and read all my brilliant recent features--on MATISSE'S HOUSE for example and many others you have missed.
    Next up--THE GEM PALACE IN INDIA...You will love...and if it does not come up on your FEEDBURNER PING...click on your bookmarks and read it there.
    Cheers...and next time I am in Turkey I will watch for a men's barber/haircutter...to see the color of their walls. Mmm...
    Onward and upward, DIANE

  5. ok. this post is out of control amazing-ness. i absolutely love it. all the goodness. wow! i mean, i am really inspired by you and this amazing write up....
    bowing down..

  6. Dear Diane,
    I just wanted to say that the images you have shown of Ken Fulk and his work are inspiring to me and also the rooms in the Sonoma house in particular are gorgeous. I love the chandelier in blue in the dining room with the contemporary dining table. As always, a pleasure both visually and a great read. Thank you!!! Maryanne:)

  7. Yes, I missed you too!
    Great interview.
    It makes it all sound such fun! I am sure the clients love that just as much as they relish the jaw dropping taste.
    The blue chandelier IS fab!
    Best Wishes
    Robert Webber
    The Hegarty Webber Partnership

  8. Great blog. Thank you for an inspiration.

  9. Dear Diane,
    Thank you for your interview with Ken Fulk. You bring out the best in people and I was enchanted. Things like ... his career wasn’t a choice but somehow pre-ordained or unavoidable. Fascinating, nothing is a cliche.
    xx Marcy

  10. Fantastic post and those images - WOW gorgeous design.

  11. So glad I found your blog, such gorgeous spaces ! That blue chandelier makes such a statement.

  12. Diane! What a wonderful article! I am a huge Ken Fulk fan so this piece was a great read. Hope to see you sometime soon!

  13. What an incredible post. I am awestruck.

    I remember being floored by the Wormley sofas in a magazine article. How refreshing to see that his clients also appreciate that fearlessness.

    I think he actually does have a signature style--flat out fabulous.
    I am far too much of a control freak to just hand over the reigns, but if anyone could persuade me to . . .

    I look forward to reading your past and future posts.


  14. Love his style and particular approach to interior design! Exellent interview! XoXo Maca