Interior and event designer Ken Fulk, 52, was born and raised in Virginia and received no formal training in design. He owned a textile business in Boston for many years, but he moved to San Francisco in 1994 and quickly became the city’s arbiter of taste, designing homes and parties for the city’s top socialites. The creative force behind numerous restaurants and clubs, he has also designed a line for Pottery Barn and authored the coffee table book Mr. Ken Fulk’s Magical World. He lives with his husband in San Francisco and spends the summer at their home in Provincetown.
Jonathan Soroff: Favorite piece in the collection you designed for Pottery Barn?
Ken Fulk: Really, the big idea was that I’m oddly obsessed with penguins. One, because they always look like they’re wearing a tuxedo. They look like they should have a bow tie on, and that’s where it started. We have this great cocktail shaker shaped like a penguin. It’s really sort of vintage, almost deco in its appeal. And in some ways, since I’m always wearing a bow tie, it’s a little bit of a mini-me. It felt festive. That was really the jumping-off point and my favorite thing.
Easiest thing anyone can do to improve their home? Buy a dimmer switch. Everyone looks better when you don’t have such bright light. Everyone looks younger, food looks more appetizing…literally that’s probably my number-one pet peeve. Bad lighting. We’ve done these incredible projects in places like the South of France, and I swear it’s like walking into a Walmart. It’s so bad that sometimes I’ll even dim the lighting in a restaurant if I can find the switch. A dimmer switch is the least expensive, biggest impact thing anyone can do.
What is it about Provincetown? It really does have this sort of intoxicating draw to it. It’s this ramshackle town, sort of perched in this beautiful setting, with all these quirky little houses all piled next to one another. And there’s this rowdy group of denizens that somehow manages to live in harmony. The historical aspect of it—the fact that everyone from the Pilgrims to the whalers to the Portuguese to the Brahmins to the gays and lesbians…It’s like a new bohemia has begun to arise there. And I think anyone who goes there and gets beyond taffy and whale-watching tours in the middle of town, and really explores, experiences something very special and begins to understand it. Ninety percent of it is national seashore. I first went there in my early 20s, and it’s like a siren calling me back.
Most ambitious project you’ve ever undertaken? The easiest answer, without peer, was a five-day occasion in the middle of the redwood forest. It was [internet mogul] Sean Parker’s wedding. No matter what you’ve read about it, no matter what was reported or photographed, I can’t imagine that anyone’s been involved in a more outrageous, outlandish, insane endeavor, truly to the point where it was as if you were in a Great Gatsby/William Randolph Hearst moment. In my book, it was called “The Mad, Mad, Mad Mr. Parker and the Wedding of the Century.” It was multiple days, 365 people; each one had a couture outfit made for them. Nearly 500 staff. Every moment of everyone’s stay, from meals to activities and everything in between, was planned and plotted.
Biggest design flaw in people’s homes? The cover of my book has a Latin phrase that, loosely interpreted, means “Fear is the enemy of good design.” I think people are afraid to make mistakes. They’re intimidated by color. Everyone loves color, but they don’t know how or are reluctant to use it. Too often, they try to decorate for Everyman instead of decorating for themselves and their family and friends and the lives they lead. Not being so consumed by what other people think is key. Not having it look like someone else’s house is scary to people. I have a saying: “If everyone likes something, it’s probably not that interesting.” So be an individual. If you love it, great. I’m the best person to come over and hang out at your house, because I’m so not critical. No matter what it’s like, if you’re comfortable and hospitable, I’m going to have a great time. It’s the people who try so hard to do something they perceive everyone else will like who go wrong. That’s my biggest piece of advice. Don’t be afraid. It’s only paint. It’s only stuff.
You’re known for your use of color. Is there a color you never use? I don’t have any nevers. Some people think I have these dislikes. Even people who work with me will say, “Oh, no. Ken doesn’t like purple.” And I’m like, “When did I ever say that? I love purple.” There are certainly colors I hark back to. I love red. Orange has been the answer since I was old enough to answer the question. It’s always listed as my favorite.
Number-one key to a good party? A comfortable host. I am a crazy, anal-retentive guy who really does sweat the details, and I do think it matters—but only up until the moment the first guest arrives. Then you have to be present. And that’s the fatal flaw of so many parties. If the host doesn’t have fun, then nobody does. That’s a little cliche but so true. And it’s one of the reasons I love to host parties. I always have the best time of anyone there. I try to bring everyone along on that trip. If you’re having fun and you’re engaged with your friends, it doesn’t matter what else happens.
Single largest source of inspiration? Travel is huge. I live in a city, San Francisco, where I find it at every turn—just going to get coffee or running to the gym. We now luckily live in a world where I can quickly snap a picture of anything and share it with thousands of people. And likewise, I can be equally inspired by their thoughts and ideas. We’re bombarded with it, which is one of the beauties of technology.
Certainly it never replaces something suddenly appearing in real life, but for example, I just designed floors for this incredible huge high-rise that were based on a photo I took on a trip to India seven years ago of these 500-year-old floors from a temple. They look so crazy modern, and people keep saying how contemporary they are. And I’m like, “Actually, they’re inspired by something from the 1500s.”
Is there one thing you’re still dying to design? I think I have a movie in me. For all our projects, whether it’s a wedding or a house or an evening or a restaurant, I talk about them as if they’re movies, because that’s how they exist in my mind and that’s how we put them together. There’s a plot. There are characters. There’s a climax. So life has always had that cinematic quality to me. I expect dancers to enter stage left at any moment. Somehow I think we’re progressing in that direction, because we’re very good storytellers. Making a movie might somehow be in our future.