Designer Spotlight

Ken Fulk Conjures Everyday Magic through Interior Design

Designer (and dapper dresser) Ken Fulk is known for his fantastical interiors and events, not to mention a loyal roster of clients who trust him to completely transform their abodes – and surprise them with the results. Some of these are captured in his lush new book, Mr. Ken Fulk’s Magical World. Top: In designing the Sonoma, California, vacation home of Michael and Xochi Birch, known as the Lake House, Fulk was inspired by great resorts of the early 1900s. The salon features a wall of steel and glass, a nod to turn-of-the-century industrial design. All photos by Douglas Friedman, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Abrams

The last time Introspective visited Ken Fulk, he was living above the store. The San Francisco–based designer had bought an early 1900s brick palazzo, just off Folsom Street, that he dubbed the Magic Factory and filled with dozens of hard-working conjurers. Their output ranged from lavish parties, like the Big Sur wedding of Facebook billionaire Sean Parker, to extravagant renovations of some of the grandest houses in the Bay Area. But the Magic Factory was more than Fulk’s design studio. He converted the building’s ground floor to an appointment-only boutique called Peep Show, which has sold everything from custom Hermès bow ties, jewelry, books and antique furniture to taxidermy squirrel lamps. And the top floor became the place Fulk lived with his longtime husband, Kurt Wootton, and their three golden retrievers.

But six years ago, with Fulk’s company requiring the entire building, he and Wootton bought a house in San Francisco’s peaceful Clarendon Heights neighborhood. It’s “a quirky-crazy architectural marvel. It’s not a grand house, but it has illusions of grandeur,” Fulk says, adding that it “quickly became the backdrop for my very loose interpretation of a Japanese lodge — by way of London, with a dash of Kenya and Denmark for good measure.”

As the work space in the Magic Factory expanded, so did the kinds of projects Fulk was asked to undertake. Already designing fantasy backdrops for San Francisco’s blue bloods and newly moneyed techies, he created a club where they could mingle. “It’s about bringing the tattoo artist and the jazz musician and the socialite and the software billionaire together — to avoid the usual self-segregation,” he says of the two-year-old club, called the Battery. Next, he became creative director for a San Francisco condo building called the Harrison. His contributions include a lobby with cerused oak walls and intricately patterned marble floors, plus a vintage baby grand piano, and a top-floor club that should have been called Over the Top. Meanwhile, he created his first line for Pottery Barn, including items like a nickel-plated cocktail shaker in the shape of a penguin, bringing his off-center sensibility to a mass market.

“It’s about bringing the tattoo artist and the jazz musician and the socialite and the software billionaire together — to avoid the usual self-segregation.”

The Battery, a San Francisco members club, had as its goal to bring together people of various occupations, ethnicities, ages and incomes. Fulk served as creative director, and his studio designed the 60,000-square-foot space, bringing on a team of five full-time architects to complete the job.

The main floor of the Battery contains a restaurant and the 360-degree House Bar, one of five bars in the building.

Fulk and his team spent seven weeks working to update Domaine de la Cavalière, a 400-year-old, 240-acre operating farm in southern France, before his clients arrived for the summer. He restores a new part of the property every year and started hosting an annual party for the entire village. Above, a vaulted stone sheep barn serves as a dining space.

The main dining room at Las Vegas hotel Carbone has booths inspired by opera boxes and a 1960s vintage Murano glass chandelier that was originally designed for a Ferrari dealership in Philadelphia.

Fulk hosted a signing of fashion illustrator David Downton’s book Masters of Fashion Illustration on Valentine’s Day at Peep Show, his by-appointment-only San Francisco boutique located on the ground floor of the Magic Factory, his four-story ca. 1908 studio. Photo by Drew Altizer

Rafael Arana, Fulk’s in-house artist, painted the malachite and gold wall at Peep Show. Fulk has a penchant for malachite, especially this Fornasetti table, and he asked Arana to paint the wall almost as an homage to it. A Giò Ponti chandelier hangs over the table, which is surrounded by chapel chairs that Fulk purchased in Paris.

The Magic Factory features a French factory table topped with embossed crocodile leather.

At Sky High, a Big Sky, Montana, home owned by Fulk’s friends, he outfitted the master bedroom with a custom four-poster bed and antique antler chairs. At the unveiling of the completed residence, Fulk surprised the homeowners with dinner and a performance by a bluegrass band.

Soon after Fulk outgrew the Magic Factory, he found he had outgrown San Francisco, in a way. “A lot of work springs from New York, and a presence in the city meant we could be better stewards of that work,” he says, explaining his decision to buy a Manhattan loft that has become his base of East Coast operations. Already, he is working to reproduce his success at the Harrison as creative director of Henry Hall, an innovative residential community going up near Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. He has an ongoing collaboration with the hot restaurateur Mario Carbone, for whom he designed Sadelle’s, a Soho bagel shop with elements of a French patisserie, and with whom he has a few other projects in the works. And from New York, it’s a short hop to Cape Cod’s Provincetown (where Fulk spends summer weekends in an oceanfront house that he and Wootton rescued — it was, he says, “truly the Grey Gardens of Provincetown”) and to Miami (where he is working on an as-yet-unnamed hotel and pool club). He also occasionally jets to the south of France, where a client has hired him to salvage a 400-year-old farm. “Every year we restore a different part of it,” he says.

When he was first trying to find a place in Manhattan, he looked in Chinatown and the Lower East Side — even considering a former synagogue — before settling on a 5,000-square-foot loft in TriBeCa. (Photographer Bruce Weber is an upstairs neighbor.) The place, he says, “is the visual in my head when I think of life in New York City.”

It is there, in Fulk’s “fantasy loft,” that he greets a reporter. He is dressed sedately, in vintage khakis and an English wool hunting jacket, but on his feet are a pair of furry Gucci slippers. The outfit is a little bit preppy, a little bit showbiz, befitting a man who grew up in rural Virginia admiring Thomas Jefferson but who, in his dazzling new design book, Mr. Ken Fulk’s Magical World (Abrams), compares himself to P.T. Barnum and Florenz Ziegfeld. Indeed, he celebrated the book’s publication at the loft with a party “with a DJ and a crazy swing band and a dancing rabbit.”

Leading a tour of the loft, Fulk points to its vast Edward Wormley sofa, which he had reupholstered in “the green it was meant to be,” and a Fornasetti table that had been in a badly lit room in San Francisco. “Here, I get to see it in the light,” he says. The space is so big that Wootton’s baby grand piano is barely noticeable in the corner.

The Oasis is a Palm Springs, California, retreat that Fulk designed for clients who told them they wanted to “dance on tables” in their new home. The vibrant glass-walled living room features a custom sectional sofa upholstered in Missoni prints and set on brass plinths.

The pool at the Oasis overlooks a golf course and the San Jacinto mountains. A troupe of synchronized swimmers performed at the home’s unveiling.

Fulk and his team, plus hundreds of craftspeople and artisans, worked seven days a week, 12 to 18 hours a day, to transform the grand, five-story San Francisco home of Bebo founders Michael and Xochi Birch in just six weeks. The home, dubbed Birch Castle, features a dining room lacquered with 20 coats of peacock blue.

Fulk prepares for a party at Durham Ranch, the 76-acre former cattle ranch that he and Wootton share in St. Helena, California. The ranch is named after their first golden retriever.

A cottage at the ranch features a portrait by François Bard that commemorates Fulk and Wootton’s first three golden retrievers: Durham, Baxter and Clare.

For the wedding of tech entrepreneur Sean Parker and Alexandra Lenas, Fulk and his team transformed a deserted Big Sur campground into an enchanted forest, complete with outfits for all 365 guests custom made by Academy Award–winning designer Ngila Dickson. Photo by Christian Oth Studio

Fulk’s San Francisco home, which he shares with his husband and their golden retrievers, was designed by modernist architect Warren Callister in 1959. In his book, Fulk writes that updating the space required a “surgical approach.” The original homeowner was particular about whom she would sell the house to, so Fulk sent her a heartfelt letter about his commitment to maintaining the house’s integrity.

Baxter’s Landing, Fulk and Wootton’s ca. 1900 shingle-style home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was in a state of disrepair when they purchased it. So, they embarked on a renovation project to restore the property.

Left: The library at Baxter’s Landing, painted a bold saffron, is decorated in a seafaring motif. Right: The kitchen features an antique butcher’s block from the Brimfield flea market.

Fulk and Wootton’s San Francisco home, which Fulk refers to as “the tree house,” was designed by modernist architect Warren Callister. The living room ceilings are nearly 30 feet high, and the windows offer sweeping city views.

Fulk picked up some of the furnishings in his own 22,000-square-foot San Francisco warehouse — the perfect place, he says, “for a professional shopper.” Other pieces came from 1stdibs. (“We’re big fans and early adopters,” he states.) These include 19th-century Snead & Co. cast-iron bookshelves, the kind used at the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. And at least one item came from a client’s house: a large landscape painting that the client found too somber but that Fulk thought would be perfect for the loft’s large kitchen.

Despite all his hotel and condo projects, homes are still at the heart of Fulk’s practice, and his clients trust him with big chunks of their fortunes. In 2009, he heard about a house for sale on the edge of San Francisco’s Presidio and decided to buy it for “dear friends” who were also clients. The couple was out of town but allowed Fulk to write a check for $1 million to secure the property. When they returned to San Francisco, Fulk threw them a dinner in the house’s dining room. Approval granted, Fulk says the clients “disappeared” for four years, during which he transformed the building into “a soulful, moving house” with most of its fittings hand-drawn and hand-crafted. (Among other features, a coiled ribbon of a spiral stair now links the building’s four floors.) When the renovation was complete, Fulk invited the clients back — for a party at which folk rocker Elvis Perkins sang a song written for the occasion. 

The attention Fulk pays to the “reveal” is a big part of what makes his practice special. One couple asked him to turn a house outside Palm Springs into a place where they could “dance on the table,” he says. A year later, he had given them just that. When the clients arrived at the renovated house, there was a camel outside (for rides around the desert property), a Dean Martin impersonator singing on the patio, and synchronized swimmers performing in the pool. Plus, the house was ready to move into. “I know what kind of shampoo they use,” says Fulk, explaining his full-service operation.

“We try to make every moment in our clients’ lives matter,” says Fulk, “whether we’re working on something that only lasts one night or a farm that’s been there for four hundred years and may last another four hundred.” Either way, he says, “there’s always Champagne and a few good tears.”

Ken Fulk’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

<i>Study for "Boy with Melting Ice Cream Cones"</i>, 1940, by Norman Rockwell, offered by Heather James Fine Art
Shop Now
Study for "Boy with Melting Ice Cream Cones", 1940, by Norman Rockwell, offered by Heather James Fine Art

“A vast majority of my personal art collection consists of portraits. This one might be my new holy grail. Norman Rockwell, long overlooked as old-fashioned and sentimental, has indeed taken his place as a true great American artist and portraitist. Plus, I love the anecdote that this particular gent was deemed too handsome for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post!”

Cartier diamond and gold Dice cufflinks, offered by Bentley & Skinner
Shop Now
Cartier diamond and gold Dice cufflinks, offered by Bentley & Skinner

“I have a thing for cufflinks. These are fun and full of swagger. I can just imagine walking into a Monte Carlo casino dressed in black tie with these on my cuff peeking out from my jacket when I roll the dice!”

Apparatus horsehair fixture, offered by Apparatus
Shop Now
Apparatus horsehair fixture, offered by Apparatus

“We used these sconces at a rustic modern ski lodge in Montana. I adore the authenticity of the horsehair and metal. Incredibly simple and terribly chic.”

Giò Ponti headboard and double bed, offered by Compasso
Shop Now
Giò Ponti headboard and double bed, offered by Compasso

“This just might be one of the most gorgeous things I have seen! Thoughtfully designed by the masterful Giò Ponti with pure sex appeal. A James Bond–worthy bed!”

Art Deco–style George V napkin rings, offered by AC Silver
Shop Now
Art Deco–style George V napkin rings, offered by AC Silver

“I love antique silver. It’s all I use for my own homes. This set of sterling Deco napkin rings is the perfect gift. I would have them monogrammed — and try to resist putting my initials on them”

Illum Wikkelsø for Holger Christiansen easy chairs, offered by Studio Schalling
Shop Now
Illum Wikkelsø for Holger Christiansen easy chairs, offered by Studio Schalling

“Now these are easy chairs — easy on the eyes and the bottom! Their exaggerated sculptural shape makes a statement. The perfect anchors for any room.”

Loading next story…

No more stories to load. Check out The Study

No more stories to load. Check out The Study