'Design eminence': Ken Fulk to bring trademark flair in Four Arts appearance
Ken Fulk’s plane is late, which means the designer extraordinaire is stuck in Washington, D.C., at Reagan National.
Considering Fulk’s fabulous life and his Forbes-richest-list friends, one might wonder: where’s the private jet to swoop him up and fly him home to San Francisco? You know, the jet he designed with glove-leather seats hand-stitched in Italy?
Why is this darling of design — this man who creates homes, hotels, stores, restaurants and parties so extraordinary they can make average Joes glow like Cary Grant — stuck in an airport, waiting at Starbucks with the sweatpants-clad crowd?
Fulk laughs. He maintains the manners of a Southern gent from rural Virginia, while he revels in his rare and special gift: “I see the world in a cinematic way,” he says, as we chat by phone. “It’s my weird little superpower.”
Amid the humdrum, Fulk spots diamonds.
“I just took a picture of the most amazing looking man!” Fulk enthuses. “He had a long white beard, and he was wearing an orange cape, an orange jumpsuit and orange sneakers and carrying an orange suitcase. He’s my new style icon.”
Fulk’s own attire of the day is equally notable, if less orange: a Thom Browne three-piece suit in a gray windowpane plaid, a bow tie in a slightly larger plaid, white shirt, white pocket square, black brogues.
His carry-on luggage reflects his fashionable-but-functional aesthetic: gray Away roller bag with “KEN” monogrammed in orange letters and an L.L. Bean tote, also monogrammed.
“I’m not a sloppy traveler,” says the globe-trotting Fulk, who will travel to Palm Beach for a Feb. 1 talk at the Society of the Four Arts.
Let’s pause here for a moment to get Fulk-y with the proper adjectives.
Is he sloppy? Never. Snobby? Also never.
Snazzy? Always. Over the top? You betcha!
Champagne popping, bar hopping and name dropping? Yes, yes, yes!
He’s designed a bohemian party deck for supermodel Gigi Hadid and the Goodtime Hotel in Miami for recording artist Pharrell Williams. He created a 2013 wedding reception for tech billionaire Sean Parker that he described as “Citizen Kane meets Gatsby” and cost at least $5 million, and he calls his downtown San Francisco 14,000-square-foot headquarters his “Magic Factory,” a nod to Andy Warhol.
He’s feted Stevie Nicks, Tom Cruise and Emma Stone and on and on with the bold-face names. (He demurs, however, when asked to reveal the identity of some friends, recently transplanted New Yorkers, who are going full-on Fulk with their new Palm Beach home.)
If life’s a banquet, as Auntie Mame would say, Fulk’s the caterer.
He’s also the director, the set designer and the star. Vanity Fair magazine calls him a “design eminence.”
He dresses up every day because life is simply more dazzling when you do.
“It’s not about status or being fancy or narcissistic,” he says. “It’s about caring.”
The movies in his mind
Fulk always cared.
As the first page of his latest book, “The Movie in My Mind,” states: “If you’re going to make up a life, make it a good one!”
By the time he was 4, he was in charge of setting the table for dinner — always the good china and fresh flowers — and decorating the family home for Christmas.
Kindergartner Ken loved hitting up the haberdashery, choosing just the right brass buttons for his navy blazer.
He watched old Hollywood movies on repeat, feeding “my illusions of grandeur, as my mother would say.”
“I didn’t grow up with great privilege. I come from a working-class family,” he says. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, and they lived about an hour outside Charlottesville, Va.
“My mother came from a huge family of 12 kids. It was a matriarchal society. My mother and my aunts, they ruled our lives. Food was love, and they dressed up. It was a thing, and I have that Southern thing.”
Another thing: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The architectural marvel shines in his boyhood memories. He visited often and imagined the parties he would plan there for interesting and influential people, and where he’d put in a pool and a fabulous cocktail lounge.
“I was always a bit of an alien,” he recalls. And a tad shy; hence his talent for paying attention.
Fulk combined his love of English and history at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., and after graduating in 1987, he briefly worked in marketing in Boston. When he moved to California in the ‘90s — with the man who would become his husband, Kurt Wootton, a classically trained pianist — he started staging the houses of friends and throwing the kinds of parties no one forgets, even after three martinis.
Today, he is among the world’s top design professionals, one of Architectural Digest’s “AD100,” with a staff of 80-plus creatives helping him execute his “movies.”
Every space begins with a story: Fulk imagines the who, what and where — and what they wear and the secrets they whisper.
As the Robb Report recently wrote, he’s a master of mixing “the exotic, the eccentric and the elegant.” In that way, he’s a bit like Addison Mizner, who brought excitement to Palm Beach in the late 1920s, with his tiles, tapestries and textures — and his jazzy friends.
If you can’t have a scintillating conversation in a bar designed by Fulk, you are hopelessly dull. Sorry. Consult Nick and Nora Charles and jump into the cocktail-guzzling world of “The Thin Man” movies immediately.
To design the Carbone restaurant in Miami, for example, Fulk imagined a world smooth as velvet.
“I wanted a certain unbridled sex appeal, a true la dolce vita,” he writes in “The Movie in My Mind.” “Maria Callas waking up in the arms of Frank Sinatra in a suite at the Gritti Palace. Opulent, glittering and over-the-top pairing.”
He saw it all in his head, just as he had as a boy.
Recently, he got his most over-the-top job yet, literally: reimagining the Cloud Club at the top of the Chrysler building in New York. In 1930, the elite lunch club occupied the 66th, 67th and 68th floors of the spire. The current vision — with Fulk’s spectacular Art Deco design — puts it on the 61st and 62nd floors, on the terraces overlooking the signature eagle gargoyles.
“When I went up to the top of the Chrysler building, way up where the eagles are, with Aby Rosen (who bought the building in 2019 and happens to be married to Samantha Boardman, daughter of Palm Beacher Pauline Pitt), I said to Aby, ‘Did you ever think you would own these iconic buildings?’ He said, ‘No, I knew I wanted to leave Germany when I was 18, but that was about it. Did you know what you wanted to do?’
“I said: Absolutely! Yes!”
His Palm Beach story
Fulk always knew where he wanted to go, and now that he’s here, and in his mid-50s, he also knows this: the real rush in life means rushing less and enjoying every moment more.
It means taking the time to compose an outfit or a place setting or a room.
It’s OK to schlep through an airport to wait for Alaska Airlines, especially when a great character in an orange cape sashays by.
Everything Fulk sees is “like a reel on a never-ending loop … a swirling amalgamation of ideas inspired by my travels, film, fashion, art, history, novels or something as elemental as the scent of a swindling fire,” he writes in his book.
His weird superpower: his reel becomes real
“I have the great privilege of working with people who can have anything money can buy, and what they really want is time well spent,” he says. “Where, with whom and how we construct our lives, it matters. It’s what we all crave: imprinting memories.”
He’s hoping to imprint more memories in Palm Beach, “which is having such a renaissance.”
“I have a good friend — Cornelia Guest — and she and her mother encapsulate my personal romantic notion about Palm Beach,” he says. “The glamour, the pools, the Mizners … it holds a piece of American imagination and fascination, and, yet, people really live there. It feels welcoming.”
Please wave if you see Fulk walking on Worth Avenue.
One thing’s for sure: he will not be wearing sweatpants.
Ken Fulk will be interviewed by style expert and author Steven Stolman as part of Stolman’s “Conversations on Style” series at 3 p.m. Feb. 1 at The Society of the Four Arts, Dixon Education Building, 240 Cocoanut Row. Tickets are $25. To reserve, go to fourarts.org or call 561-655-7226. Signings of Fulk’s book “The Movie in My Mind” will follow.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Celebrity designer Ken Fulk to appear in style talk at Four Arts on Palm Beach