Designer Profile: Kenneth King
This month’s Designer Profile is on Kenneth King, of Kingdom Home. I met Ken a few years ago in Sydney after working in a showroom where we stocked his wallpapers and fabrics. Kingdom Home certainly stood out as a unique brand, amongst an otherwise cluttered market. As I’ve gotten to know Ken I’ve realised he’s just as unique as his brand - in his style, personality and work-ethic. I hope you enjoy my interview with him!
Kenneth grew up in Hong Kong with his sister and parents. He enjoyed drawing from a young age and had an artistic mother, but he struggled with the strict academic regime there, “I wasn’t really good at anything at school so I didn’t have the motivation to study at all whilst I was growing up there… We didn’t have art or anything at school. If you were an artistic child your parents would arrange a private tutor, that was your only chance but my parents and I didn’t see a career for me in art so I never pursued it.”
The family moved from Hong Kong to Sydney, as many people did when the looming 1997 return to China was beckoning. This was just in time for the 16 year old Kenneth as he was finally able to start studying what he loved - art. “At high school I studied visual arts. I was OK, I still wasn’t great, but it was so much better than all the other academic subjects which I was just horrible at.” One particularly inspiring teacher was passionate about art history which also had a lasting impact on the young Ken.
Above: A very literal example of how Australia has influenced Ken's work.
As he graduated high school he applied to study visual communications at UTS, a predominantly graphic design based course. “I didn’t get into the course I wanted [at UTS] so I started studying Interior Design, hoping to change course part way through, but I wasn’t ever accepted!” Another lucky break and moment of good timing, as it was through this he learnt about interior decoration, wallpapers and textiles.
“When I graduated from uni I didn’t really do anything to do with interior design… mainly out of laziness”. If you knew Kenneth now, lazy is not a word you’d associate with him. “I still wanted to design but not interiors exactly… the thought of looking at floor plans and coordinating contractors all day did not appeal to me at all. I didn’t know what my options were though.”
So he made his own opportunities and created a portfolio of his drawings, which he then sent out to a list of “random” people. See, not particularly lazy after all. The list included magazines, designers and brands. Whilst he was contacted by many magazines to do design work for him he realised this wasn’t going to work as they were either not paying him or underpaying him - or by their definition ‘paying him in exposure’. “Magazines were terrible for that, not paying young designers properly…”
Fortunately he didn’t need to rely on that. “I was so bold at the time that I sent my portfolio to Bazmark Inq…” Which was of course Baz Luhrman and Catherine Martin’s company. Catherine Martin was in the midst of developing her own home decor line and was looking for assistance. “I have to be honest, I didn’t know much about her at the time. Of course I knew of her work, just not that she was the genius behind so much of what I’d seen on screen… All I remember is going to her house for the meeting and thinking it was the most beautiful house I’d ever seen - and that I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement before entering the front door!”
His meet and greet was a success and he was commissioned to create illustrations that would later become wallpapers and rugs. “I ended up being a very minor part of her very major overall brand, which became extremely big and successful.” He loved working for Catherine, who clearly nurtured his abilities. “She was pure, hands-on talent and really lovely to work for.” This experience gave him confidence and he started to realise how capable he actually was. With that he started his own line of wallpapers and fabrics under the brand name Kingdom Home.
“Once I launched my line I bombarded Interior Designers with emails.” I asked how that was received and Kenneth replied “Well, when you’re starting just don’t be afraid of people telling you to fuck off!” I can’t imagine many people would’ve said that to him..! It happened that one studio to get in touch with him was Luchietti Krelle. “I actually went to uni with Stuart Krelle and I’m sure he only responded to me because he felt sorry for me”.
I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Kenneth though, as it was this interaction that forged him his most recognisable work yet - the fabulous fronds that adorn The Butler restaurant in Sydney. Perhaps the city’s most instagrammed ladies lunch spot, one which I have personally frequented many times. This is where his commission work really got going. “That started everything. I still send him [Stuart Krelle] Christmas cards every year as a thank you. That project really started my commission work.”
Above: Kenneth's mural in The Butler Potts Point
At that moment he started to recognise his place in the local design scene. “That’s when I realised there was a gap in the Australian market for custom murals.” His unique design style was filling a void as well - Kenneth’s use of historic designs, humour and detail were completely new to the Australian look.
So how has his business evolved since? In his earlier days he had a studio and small showroom in Kings Cross but he quickly realised this was not necessary for his kind of brand. Also, rather than doing the legwork of sales and logistics himself he quickly engaged agents such as Milton & King and Warwick Fabrics to take care of that aspect of his work. “The business is highly enjoyable without those overheads and pressures.” He’s now free to focus more on creativity and creating collections when he pleases. He gains most of his clients via Instagram or word of mouth.
Legacy is something he strives for “This is my ego talking. But one of the reasons I work so hard in design in hope of leaving a legacy one day.” There’s nothing wrong with that! One of Ken and my common connections is our passion for old things. We share a mutual love of antiques and both consider ourselves to be old souls. “I would love for someone to discover my work in the years to come and be inspired. It only takes one person to remember and revive you.” It’s then that we discuss how much we both loathe The Antiques Roadshow.
His creative process for his collection is more commercial than you’d think. “I want to design things that will sell, but have their own point of view.” He says he imagines the function of the design in it’s very early stages, never allowing himself to get carried away. “When I come up with an idea I draw it up quickly, scan it in, quickly form a repeat and figure out if it will work…. I then imagine how other people will use it, whether they’ll understand it… Also it has to be beautiful and has to be easy enough to manufacture!”
Does Hong Kong heritage inspire him? “No, but Asian ‘stuff’ tends to come more naturally to me, though I try not to do too much of that.” This seems an appropriate moment to share that his latest collection is chinoiserie inspired. “I love Hong Kong to death but sadly, when I was growing up there, there was little cultural emphasis on the art and design.” Australia has been much more inspiring to him. “School here is crazy! You get unlimited paint supplies and can kind of do whatever you want.” A comment that makes me appreciate our overly lax system, which I’ve always found totally unsophisticated, a lot more.
Above: An example from Kingdom Home's latest collection.
Apart from the help of his artist friend Cassandra, “She’s great as she and I are just on the same creative wavelength” and the odd bit of clever outsourcing (think back to the agents) Kingdom Home is a one-man-band. “I can hardly manage myself, how would I manage a team of staff?!”
In doing all this work himself did I mention he’s been working part-time for Designer Rugs this entire time, “I started there when I was at uni… I was the only one who applied for the job so I was hired!”. I find it baffling to believe he’s still kept his day job but he says the sense of security is more than worth it. He also loves the company and even has his own range of rugs with them. “They really support young designers, Australian designers too, that go beyond just people who work in interiors.” Which triggers that age-old question in me - should creatives keep their day job? “I believe that if anyone starts their own business it’s really important to keep a second job.” He credits this for keeping him in business for so long “It’s meant I’ve always avoided cash flow problems and never had to do jobs I didn’t want to do. Plus Designer Rugs are great to work for!”
Practical yet creative, a bit of a contradiction in all the right ways. It’s hard to believe he struggled so much at school. His biggest piece of advice to budding designers “You should never wait for work, ever. You’ve got to create your own opportunities. If nobody is knocking at your door, get designing. Keep the wheel turning and you will keep moving. Also never work for free!” As someone who’s just starting out on my own, I certainly feel inspired by that sentiment.
All images courtesy of Kenneth King.