Brendan Mainini Ken Fulk
If designer Ken Fulk's life were a movie, it would begin with a 4-year-old boy in rural Virginia telling his amused parents that one day he would grow up to live in a penthouse in Manhattan.
At that young age, "I hadn't left Virginia," Fulk tells PEOPLE, but "I did always see life in this cinematic way."
"When I was a little kid, I orchestrated all of our holidays, literally down to the minute I would have a timeline. It wasn't because I had to be in charge, but I felt like I wanted everyone to have this great experience and I saw life through that lens, and I wanted to bring people along to bring them joy. It wasn't about control, it was about — it feels like a gift that you're obligated to share."
Cut to Manhattan forty-something years later, and he has not only designed a penthouse, but a 225-unit apartment building in midtown called Henry Hall — a beautiful residential building with a hotel-living feel. He's also established a live/work space in the city called Magic Factory East, as well as The Crown Club in Brooklyn's Barclay's Center, and two new gorgeous cafes known as the Felix Roasting Co.
Douglas Friedman/ASSOULINE The Crown Club, Brooklyn.
But beyond New York, Fulk has planned events and designed hotels and homes all over the world, and in each setting, he says, "I would describe my job as a director, a cinematographer or choreographer of our clients' lives — and I call our projects, from the beginning, I've called them movies."
His new book, The Movie in My Mind, published by Assouline, documents these immersive interiors and events that have the cinematic power to transport and inspire.
Fulk's process begins with a script that puts to paper the continually-playing film reel in his mind. "I was never formally trained, and I don't draw or have a visual way to express myself; I do it in words. We start every project with words. We really write a script, much like a movie," he says. "Then we bring the scripts to life visually, and I depend on this cast of characters," he says, meaning his staff.
"I have amazing people — it is a design version of a Warhol factory, we work with incredibly talented people; we have an amazing art department. I think a lot of that is to facilitate me being able to express these ideas and bring them to life, which is why I think of myself as a director."
Douglas Friedman/Assouline Casa Grande, Mexico.
Douglas Friedman/ASSOULINE Sunfields Manor, Austin.
"To me it's always felt like movie-making, and there's a transportive nature of what we do, and people ask me, 'Where do these ideas come from?' And of course you're impacted by so many things — life, travel, movies and TV."
When designing Carbone Miami, Fulk says he may have started with a question like, " 'What if Maria Callas and Frank Sinatra woke up on the Grand Canal after a crazy night of passion? What restaurant did they eat at?' That's how my weird little head works," he laughs.
Douglas Friedman/ASSOULINE Carbone, Miami.
Douglas Friedman/ASSOULINE Carbone, Miami.
Despite the dreamlike quality Fulk brings to his interiors, "there's a practicality; they have to work, because if they don't, then ... there's a veneer that feels off," he says. "I'm someone who loved Disney as a kid, so it's not a slam on Disney, but there's a Disneyfication of things that can ring false, and you feel sort of manipulated, or you feel like it's transactional. I think that's something that we're able to avoid because I am so insanely detail-oriented that we think of all the itty-bitty pieces. Something like The Goodtime Hotel, where we designed the robes that you wear, we designed the tote that you carry, the uniform for the staff, the fabric in the room has a custom surrealist pictorial on it — every little weird detail, because it matters and the details add to the richness of the experience.
The Goodtime Hotel, Miami. Alice Gao
The award-winning designer says he's also inspired by Hollywood homes both real and imagined.
"I loved Jennifer Aniston's house in The Morning Show when she went cuckoos and went and lived off in Maine. I was loving that house, and she's someone who loves design in real life," he says. "Diane Keaton is another person who is obsessed with design ... she had a great house in Santa Barbara she sold awhile back — that house would be on my list."
Fulk says one day he would like to make a film, and he doesn't mean only designing the set. "I would do a film. I often say maybe I'll make a movie someday."
And if anyone can make a dream a reality, it's Ken Fulk.