“This is going to become the best club in the city,” Ken Fulk says confidently. We are 49 storeys high, looking down at the Bay Bridge from a new high-rise, the Harrison, packed with multi-million-dollar condominiums that are all for sale. Fulk was hired to glam up the skyscraper’s interior, and thought the top floor should be a swanky members’ lounge and wine bar, where residents could mingle for drinks and host private events while gazing at the glistening bay. The space is both modern and retro. A fire roars in the centre of the room, light fixtures in the shape of pagodas hang from the ceiling and there is a bar covered in crocodile skin. Luxurious amenities are part of the Harrison’s allure, but so is Fulk himself.
San Francisco is having its Manhattan moment. Buildings are stretching skyward, and people are moving here in swarms to seek their fortunes. Fulk is helping reimagine the city’s interiors. He came to prominence in 2013 with the opening of The Battery, a private club, which quickly became an after-hours destination for techies, who linger in banquettes beneath the main lounge’s exposed-brick walls.
But most of Fulk’s business is designing private houses for the city’s wealthy technorati. His clients include Mark Pincus of the gaming company Zynga; Kevin Systrom of the photo-sharing app Instagram; Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp, the online review site; and Michael and Xochi Birch, who sold their social network, Bebo, for $850m in 2008 and now own The Battery. While minimalist interiors are in vogue, Fulk’s signature style is bold, eclectic and gleefully maximalist. “With contemporary design, you feel like you walked into a hotel room,” says Systrom. “With Ken, you feel like you’ve walked into another world.”
Fulk uses loud colours, lush materials and found objects that infuse spaces with playfulness and whimsy. He loves taxidermy and furniture with a backstory. His own office in San Francisco’s SoMa neighbourhood, called the Magic Factory, has doors salvaged from a mental institution and an aeroplane. On the main floor is a shop where clients can peruse some of Fulk’s discoveries. He has two cabinets that were used to archive specimens at the British Museum, and a stuffed musk ox that he bought from a museum in Kansas City when it closed its dioramas. San Francisco is pulled between extreme wealth, poverty and counter-culture, and there are competing elements within Fulk’s own work too. “Like the city itself, there’s a tension between high and low,” he says.
His spaces, when completed, have a theatrical quality to them, which Fulk plays up. Once he has finished a project he often brings clients to their homes to show them the final product, a ceremony which he calls the “big reveal”. For the Birches’ home in San Francisco, he hired men dressed as beefeaters to stand outside the entrance and musicians to play indoors. For another set of clients in Palm Springs, he hired synchronised swimmers, a camel and an impersonator to dress up and sing like Dean Martin. He recently designed a bar for the San Francisco home of Trevor Traina, the boss of the internet marketplace IfOnly. He created customised napkins, aprons, notepads and other swag announcing “Hirst Bar”, for the Damian Hirst painting that is hung there. “It was like I was invited to my own party,” Traina says of the bar’s unveiling.
Fulk’s parties are spectacular, and he regularly organises events for clients, who double as friends. “Fulk is a lifestyle designer, not an interior designer,” says Nirav Tolia, a client and the boss of Nextdoor, a social network. The most ambitious party he has ever orchestrated was the wedding of Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, which took place in Big Sur, California in 2013. The idea was to make a magical wonderland for one night only. Fulk oversaw its creation, including giant iron gates, hand-carved wooden fences and bespoke costumes for 400 guests. The event sparked discontent: some saw the whole affair as a symbol of excess in the tech revolution’s new gilded age.
Understated he is not, and Fulk’s charisma and confidence have played a decisive role in his success. Born and raised in rural Virginia, he has no formal design training. He moved to San Francisco with his husband in 1994, after they met in a laundromat in Boston, where they were both washing matching burgundy and green Ralph Lauren towels. Fulk started a textiles company and co-authored a few children’s books, while he worked part-time at a firm that made theatre props. He later made a name for himself with another business dressing up houses that were on the market. Clients saw how dramatically he could transform interiors, and he eventually shut down that house-dressing operation to focus on decorating.
Fulk’s rise may be surprising to those who subscribe to the stereotype of techies as ascetics who wear hoodies and forgo material indulgences. But entrepreneurs appreciate the quaintness and craft of Fulk’s work. The Magic Factory is part business, with around 50 people on staff, and part atelier. Fulk has an artist working for him who paints murals on clients’ walls and makes wallpaper by hand. This is pricey. Fulk’s work is extremely expensive: most residential projects cost seven figures. The paradox is that San Franciscans dismiss outward expressions of wealth, like driving a Ferrari, as being in poor taste. But they will pay to make their private spaces comfortable and unique.
Fulk’s critics say he cares more about the feeling evoked by a piece of furniture than its provenance, which makes experts in antiques cringe. Others are put off by his love of taxidermy, which set off a minor scandal at The Battery when members objected to the antelope and ram heads on the wall of the main lounge. He is also becoming more commercial, launching his own line at Pottery Barn, an American retailer, with distressed leather sofas and brass drinks trolleys.
His profile is likely to rise further. In October his new book, “Mr Ken Fulk’s Magical World”, a selection of his best work, was published. A Latin phrase, “Timoris est hostis eleganter”, is scrawled across the cover. It means something like “fear is the enemy of good design”. He is taking on more large-scale projects, including an apartment building in New York and a development in Miami. He has already completed several restaurants, including Carbone in Las Vegas, and Leo’s, an oyster bar in San Francisco that looks like an old Floridian country club, with cane chairs and fern wallpaper.
Some of his existing clients wonder how he will pull it all off. “The biggest challenge for Ken is that he doesn’t do a scalable thing,” says Tolia of Nextdoor. “Internet companies are scalable. It doesn’t work that way for craftspeople.” But Fulk has what many techies lack: an old-fashioned appreciation of hospitality and how to live glamorously. Unlike most apps, Fulk will retain his users for many years to come.