Designer Spotlight

Master of Maximalism Ken Fulk Shares Some of His Most Fantastical Interiors

Portrait of Ken Fulk
“I would never have a signature look,” says designer Ken Fulk, whose new Assouline book, The Movie in My Mind, has just been released. “It’s almost lazy. Every situation, every place is new” (portrait © Brendan Mainini). Top: His study in the 2021 Kips Bay Decorator Show House Dallas, his featured room in this year’s 1stDibs 50, showcased a Second Empire JACOB-DESMALTER fauteuil at an Art Deco SüE ET MARE desk from Moxie. All photos by Douglas Friedman unless otherwise noted   

How to set the bar high: Call your business the Magic Factory, and make it your stated mission to “always overdeliver and never disappoint.”

That formula has worked for designer Ken Fulk, whose superpower, he tells Introspective, is a lifelong ability “to imagine things the way they could or should be” in sumptuous detail.

This faculty has enabled him, with no formal design training, to compile a prodigious portfolio of homes, restaurants, resorts and hotels — both outside commissions and enterprises in which he has ownership stakes — distinguished by their cinematic scope. Some are fantastically maximalist, every square inch an opportunity for color, pattern or ornament. Others are riffs on Hamptons beach houses, Napa farmhouses or Tahoe cabins, so monumentally scaled and boldly executed that they elevate the archetype itself. 

The 56-year-old Fulk, a member of this year’s 1stDibs 50, chose the name Magic Factory in 2006, partly in homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory, a creative hotbed in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and partly because he felt it conveyed a mindset unlimited by “a predetermined ‘This is all that we do.’ ” 

“I would never have a signature look,” he says. “It’s almost lazy. Every situation, every place is new.” 

For proof of the sorcery Fulk and his 80-person San Francisco– and New York–based team perform, thumb through the splendiferous new monograph from Assouline, Ken Fulk: The Movie in My Mind

Among the featured projects are a 30,000-square-foot Technicolor vacation home on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez; the Vienna residence of the U.S. ambassador to Austria, with murals and furnishings inspired by Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann; Sun House, a California farmhouse reimagined as a fantasy of latticework, inlaid floors and hand-painted murals; Miami’s 266-room Goodtime Hotel, a pastel confection whose owners include entertainment mogul Pharrell Williams; Tosca Cafe, a legendary, century-old San Francisco bar once frequented by Beat poets and other cultural icons and now revamped as a moody restaurant with red leather banquettes and opera on the jukebox; and the Commodore Perry Estate, a 1928 Italianate manor in Texas Hill Country transformed into a destination resort, whose vintage woodwork and ironwork were only a starting point for Fulk’s wry, glamorous decor. 

Sunfields Manor in Austin, Texas, designed by Ken Fulk
The book includes a first look at Sunfields Manor, the Austin, Texas, home of businessman Bradley Heppner and his wife, Aurelia. The Louis XVI–style bergere, one of a pair from JLF Jean Luc Ferrand, sits across the coffee table from a Swedish banquette. Fulk’s firm designed the custom chandelier, while the enormous hand-carved and painted sideboard is Venetian. 

“We’ve been gifted with incredible spaces,” says Fulk. “I feel an obligation: ‘Don’t muck it up.’ ” 

In recent years, Fulk’s inner cinematographer has led him, almost by chance, to become a rescuer of some important architectural treasures. He sees his accidental mission as “saving extraordinary places but not keeping them in amber.” Instead, he picks up where history left off and creates something brand-new. 

In San Francisco, Fulk spent years driving past an imposing but derelict Neo-Romanesque church, wondering why someone didn’t do something about it. He finally decided to be that someone, marshaling his connections and resources to restore the 1913 building and launch the Saint Joseph’s Art Society, a nonprofit where artists in varied media can create and show their works in a soaring sunlit space, pristine from floor to cupola.

Kitchen in California designed by Ken Fulk
Fulk turned what he describes in the book as “a simple, modern farmhouse” near the California coastline “into a magical realm where couture designs and eye-catching artworks” keep company with “ornamental latticework, tracery ceilings, inlaid stone floors and hand-painted murals,” as well as “high-fashion fabrics.” The wallpaper is from Scalamandré, and the pendants are from Contardi Lighting

Similarly, a few years back, while gazing out the window of the 1760s house in Cape Cod’s Provincetown that he shares with his husband, Kurt Wootton, Fulk decided to buy and restore what he calls the “rotten, daunting” 18th-century house across the way. Reborn as the nonprofit Provincetown Arts Society, an extension of Saint Joseph’s Art Society, it hosts exhibitions, lecture series and other events, with eight bedrooms for recipients of live-in artist residencies.

The building’s original beamed ceilings and wood floors were meticulously salvaged, but the furnishings, in the interests of economy, are a sprightly mix of reupholstered auction finds and donated antiques, matter-of-factly juxtaposed with a rotating array of contemporary artworks.

Salon of San Francisco's Saint Joseph’s Art Society designed by Ken Fulk
In the ground-floor salon of San Francisco’s Saint Joseph’s Art Society — a multipurpose nonprofit that he founded — Fulk used LA MAISON PIERRE FREY’s Le grand Corail fabric to craft dramatic swaths of drapes; he selected another Pierre Frey fabric, this one a velvet, for the upholstery. The artwork is a photograph of a scarlet ibis by DARWIN, SINKE & VAN TONGEREN

In Boston, meanwhile, Fulk reimagined the many rooms of the 1888 McKim, Mead and White–designed Algonquin Club, a once-stuffy, deteriorating Beaux Arts masterpiece. Now a new private membership club called the ’Quin House, it is a showhouse of flamboyant neo-Victoriana, with Lincrusta wallpaper, leopard-print bergeres and curved velvet sofas dripping foot-long fringe.

Among the ’Quin’s dining options are the haute Bondo, a woodwork-laden Gilded Age salon dominated by an enormous glittering chandelier fashioned from the roots of a tree, and a charming trellised tearoom within what was formerly a large brick air shaft.

Fulk sourced an array of unusual vintage accent pieces and lighting for the 150-year-old structure’s interiors, including patinated-bronze coffee tables, from Gottlieb Gallery, for the entry foyer; a trio of 1960s blown-glass and brass chandeliers, from Davidowski, for Scottie’s champagne bar; and, in the casual Cafe Q, a folk-art billy goat of gilded pine by contemporary American artist Will Kautz, from Sylvia Antiques.

Interior of the Saint Joseph’s Art Society, designed by Ken Fulk
To house Saint Joseph’s Art Society, Fulk turned an abandoned, early-20th-century Neo-Romanesque San Francisco cathedral into a light-filled venue where artists of various stripes could create and show their work. There are also areas for gathering and socializing, plus an Assouline bookstore, among other retail spaces. 

Fulk’s recipe for such worthy but neglected historic places? “Bring them back, fill them with life and create community for them.”

A bit of drama and whimsy doesn’t hurt either. LA MAISON PIERRE FREY’s Le grand corail fabric, for example, swathes the walls and forms draping curtains in the ground-floor salon of Saint Joseph’s Art Society’s, and in the church’s lofty main space, bear-shaped taxidermy molds reimagined as flag bearers by Dutch artists DARWIN, SINKE & VAN TONGEREN hold the society’s standard.

Exactly how Fulk works his magic is a bit of puzzle, not least to himself. “Where I got this gift is a mystery to me,” he says. He praises his talented team to the skies, but he is undoubtedly the auteur, relying on what he calls “the never-ending loop or reel” that has played in his mind since childhood. 

The oval library of Texas Hill Country's Commodore Perry Estate, designed by Ken Fulk
The oval library of Texas Hill Country’s Commodore Perry Estate — a 1928 Italianate manor that Fulk turned into a luxe resort — shows off an array of newly acquired antiques, plus its original paneling and moldings. The furnishings include a bronze-and-brass chandelier and a 1940s loveseat, both in the Empire style, plus a Victorian tuxedo armchair and alabaster lamps. 

Fulk doesn’t draw, so, “we start every project with words,” he says. “People sit around, I tell tales of how I see things, and we bring them to life, whether it’s a dinner party, yacht, plane or hotel. I often use cinematic or cultural references that stay with a project from beginning to end.”

He launched the group’s work on Tosca, the iconic San Francisco bar, with the evocative line “Dashiell Hammett, Francis Ford Coppola and Allen Ginsberg walk into a bar . . .” and a Napa Valley farmhouse redo with “one part Falcon Crest, two parts Petticoat Junction.” The jumping-off point for the ‘Quin House was “Rock stars move in to their grandfather’s mansion.”

Thus begins a complex process that bears more than a slight resemblance to the development of a stage or film production.

Baja California home designed by Ken Fulk
Fulk collaborated with modernist Mexican architecture firm Legorreta on a 30,000-square-foot Baja California home for longtime clients. The project “was not simply about building just another big house. It was a chance to set the stage for experiences,” writes Fulk. “These clients understand that a vacation home is about the memories we create, the moments that leave an imprint on us and keep us coming back year after year.”

Growing up decidedly middle-class in rural Virginia, with a mother who teased him for having what she called “illusions of grandeur,” Fulk honed his aesthetic imagination in his hometown’s two movie palaces. Film was an inspiration. “You sat in the dark and watched a beautiful, glamorous, scary, inspiring world,” he recalls. “It must have planted a seed in me.” 

It’s a seed that continues to germinate in endlessly creative ways. Fulk will soon be pulling out the decorative stops on an overhaul of the majestic Blantyre, a 1902 Tudor-style mansion turned hotel  (“like an American Downton Abbey,” he says) in Western Massachusetts’s Berkshires. And he’ll do the same for Soniat House, a beloved New Orleans hotel that’s an atmospheric mash-up of three early-19th-century townhouses in the French Quarter. 

Pink courtyard at the Baja house designed by Ken Fulk
The Baja house’s pink-hued courtyard boasts a central water feature planted with an allée of six palm trees.

What else could Fulk possibly have on his agenda — an overhaul of the Chrysler Building, the nation’s best-known Art Deco landmark? Well, yes. 

The Magic Factory’s latest gig is a reimagining of the building’s Cloud Club, which originally occupied its 66th, 67th and 68th floors, just beneath the iconic spire. Entrusted with reincarnating this hallowed establishment, a few floors lower down, Fulk — an unpretentious guy who met his now-husband in a Boston laundromat three decades ago — feels the pressure.

The front cover of Ken Fulk: The Movie in My Mind
The Movie in My Mind is Fulk’s second book with Assouline. His first, Ken Fulk’s Magical World, came out about five years ago.

“How do you honor that? How do you do something that isn’t simply historical re-creation-ism? How do you push it forward and not disappoint? It’s definitely a challenge,” he says, “Talk about ‘Don’t muck it up’!” 

Fortunately, Fulk has another superpower: innate optimism, or what he calls “saying yes to the thing you don’t know how you’re going to accomplish but you’ll figure it out. 

“I get frustrated when people pontificate about the glory days,” he adds. “Even though we do things that have a nostalgic flavor, I’m oddly not a nostalgic person. The most exciting things are ahead of us.”

Ken Fulk’s Quick Picks

Josef Hoffmann hanging pendant, new, offered by Woka Gallery
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Josef Hoffmann hanging pendant, new, offered by Woka Gallery

“I love these pendants. The original Josef Hoffmann version inspired a custom pendant we created for the just-opened private dining room at Dirty French Steakhouse, in Miami.”

Pair of rustic Adirondack hunt scene pictures, 20th century, offered by Newel
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Pair of rustic Adirondack hunt scene pictures, 20th century, offered by Newel

“I’ve long been a collector of American folk-art frames. Tramp art, Adirondack style — these would be a great addition to my collection.”

Venetian seahorse bench, 1870–80, offered by Kirby Antiques
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Venetian seahorse bench, 1870–80, offered by Kirby Antiques

“This is all the things I’m crazy about right now: Baroque style, grotto inspiration, Venetian painting, silver gilt — it has it all! And it would be so chic in a penthouse entryway.”

Verner Panton chaise longue, 1960s, offered by ma+39
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Verner Panton chaise longue, 1960s, offered by ma+39

“The finish on this piece is fantastic. It’s sometimes hard to combine the grooviness of Verner Panton into a mix of various styles and periods, but this example would look beautiful in any setting.”

Venini chandelier, 1950s, offered by Venfield
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Venini chandelier, 1950s, offered by Venfield

“I’m always ready for a heroic chandelier, and this tear-drop-shaped Murano glass one, from a palace in Biarritz, is no exception. It’s not so big that it would never fit into a residential project, but it’s large enough to be a major moment over a big oval dining table.”

French Art Deco sideboard, 1930, offered by The Furniture Rooms
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French Art Deco sideboard, 1930, offered by The Furniture Rooms

“A pristine example of nineteen-thirties craftsmanship. The grain of the walnut and the curves and trim are just impeccable. Would be beautiful alongside the Panton chaise!”

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