By Anna B. Billingsley
How does someone get to have a global enterprise carry his name? How does he get to be the life of every party, not to mention the inspiration behind these parties? To design spaces and create occasions for celebrities and tech moguls? To be featured in Architectural Digest? And to produce a named collection within an iconic American retail brand?
How? For Ken Fulk ’87, it’s by dreaming big and never saying no. “Yes, this is exactly the life I envisioned for myself,” Fulk said in August on the morning of Pottery Barn’s launch of the Ken Fulk Collection, 60 pieces that reflect the designer’s whimsical and sophisticated style. The interview was in The Magic Factory, the eclectic San Francisco headquarters of Ken Fulk Inc., its three floors abounding with exquisite decorative touches and fresh flowers.
Fulk finds power in saying yes. His modus operandi: Accept the challenge, then find a way.
“When I was 4 years old, I did this parlor trick,” he said. “My parents would call me into the room and ask me where I wanted to live when I grew up. ‘Manhattan,’ I would answer. Where in Manhattan? ‘A penthouse.’ ”
This was a kid who had rarely left his hometown, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and certainly had never ventured into New York City. He was also the kid who “wanted to make sure everyone always had a grand experience, even with Sunday supper.” Fulk said he was prone to flights of fancy and constantly had “funny little movies” running in his head.
“It’s been a winding road, but I kept thinking: Manifest your dreams and you can have a great, rich, abundant life.”
He’s not living in a Manhattan penthouse. But nearly five decades later, Ken Fulk has arrived. Tree House, his home in San Francisco, overlooks the metropolis that has embraced him. He has other magnificent homes in Napa Valley and in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Be on the lookout for them in national magazines, the likes of Vanity Fair, Elle Décor, and House Beautiful. His business is booming, and it takes him all over the world.
“My time at Mary Washington laid the groundwork for me to launch my own company,” said Fulk, a history major. “It was the foundation, providing me with the confidence and knowledge that I could create my own path.”
That path wasn’t so clear at the time he picked up his diploma on Ball Circle. After taking a position in a constrained corporate marketing environment (“that felt like joining the Army”), Fulk worked as a textile designer, putting his stamp on shower curtains and children’s pajamas. He co-authored a series of funky children’s storybooks called Doodlezoo.
When that venture hit a dead end, Fulk said, “Now what do I do?” By that point, he had met the man who would become his husband, Kurt Wootton, and they had moved to California.
Interesting side story: Wootton, a classically trained pianist, also is from Virginia, and they both are 50-ish. While they lived in the same places – Wootton graduated from Hampden-Sydney College – and traveled in the same circles, they didn’t meet each other until they both moved to Boston and realized they owned the same towels. In a coin laundry, Fulk accused Wootton of stealing his burgundy and forest green Ralph Lauren towels. Ken and Kurt have been together ever since.
It has been an adventure, Fulk said. Even when money was tight, they’ve lived in glamorous style, always scraping together funds for “magical dinner parties and exotic trips.”
Finding himself on the West Coast with no clear career course, Fulk was asked to refurbish a friend’s house. The friend had a low budget, and Ken had no credentials. “He just liked the way I live,” Fulk said.
Putting the Fulkian mark on that house was enough. “It was like a faucet was turned on,” he said. “I realized I could do this as a profession. Almost immediately, I had all this other work – around the world. It just kept coming.
“I saw this as something bigger than me,” he said. Ken Fulk Inc. was born and has relied solely on word of mouth.
What exactly do Fulk and his 50 employees do?
“We are a multidisciplinary creative agency,” Fulk said. The agency offers design services, branding and graphics, complete coordination of private events, and concierge services.
In a way, he serves as curator of his clients’ cultures; he designs not only homes but also wardrobes, dinner parties, and family vacations. For example, Fulk said, if someone wants to spend a weekend at the lake, his company would set up the space, arrange transportation, light the fire, and stock the refrigerator.
Lately, Ken Fulk Inc. has been branching more into architecture and commercial spaces. One recent project was The Cavalier, a restaurant and bar attached to San Francisco’s trendy new Hotel Zetta. With the air of a British pub, the space has been described as “oozing classic sophistication.”
And Michael and Xochi Birch, who sold their tech company to AOL for $850 million, tapped Fulk to decorate their five-story bayview home and transform a turn-of-the-century San Francisco building into The Battery, a trendy private social club.
“Ken is the greatest living genius of interior design and architecture,” according to Fulk friend and client Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster. In addition to designing Parker’s residences, Fulk was the mastermind behind Parker’s over-the-top 2013 enchanted forest wedding in Big Sur, reported to cost upward of $4 million.
On the heels of the Parker wedding and with the addition of several Fulk projects in the Big Apple, a headline in the New York Post blared: The designer every tech billionaire should know in 2015.
After visiting The Battery and other places where Fulk had worked his magic, Sandra Stangl, president of Pottery Barn Brands, cold-called Fulk and told him she wanted to work with him. “We are thrilled to partner with Ken on the first collaboration of its kind for Pottery Barn,” she said. “We love the wit, whimsy, and effortless elegance he brings to everything he does.”
The Ken Fulk Collection, on the cover of Pottery Barn’s August catalog and featured in stores, includes furnishings ranging from a $10.50 bottle opener to an $8,895 quilted-leather sectional sofa. Many items pay tribute to Fulk’s beloved golden retrievers, Delilah, Duncan, and Hubbell.
“We do things that are unique to us,” Fulk said of all of his work, which he considers a “love affair” rather than a job. His frame seems too small to hold all the avant-garde, chic, showstopping, irreverent – and always big – ideas that constantly brew.
“I am not the best designer. I am not the best event planner. But I am good about building relationships,” he said. Fulk’s clients become lifelong friends.
So have many of his Mary Washington classmates. Todd Vecchio ’87 met him freshman year when Kenny, as he was known then, “drove up in a Datsun 280 or 260 Z looking like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. ” Vecchio, who has kept up with his classmate for 32 years, last saw him on the West Coast when they met for lunch. Having asked where Vecchio and his wife were going for dinner, Fulk surprised them by calling ahead to pick up the tab.
“Kenny is a super funny, super nice, gracious person,” Vecchio said. Even during their undergraduate days, he said, Fulk was dapper. “He had style from Day One. He was a meticulous dresser … everything about him was perfect.”
During the interview, Fulk’s face lit up when talking about his college days. “I loved Mary Washington,” he said. Finding the campus “idyllic and beautiful,” he was smitten, he said, after visiting during high school for one “crazy, fun weekend.”
Active in student government, Fulk ran on a ticket his freshman year of enhancing campus social life. “It was a cusp of a time for me. … I really found my voice at Mary Washington,” he said. “I learned to lead, to live and collaborate with others, and to be a part of a community.”
Photos of Fulk in yearbooks show a strikingly handsome man surrounded by young women. “I was treated like a rock star,” he said. “Girls would steal the pockets off my jeans and keep them.”
Nowadays, though Fulk is constantly on the go and in demand – two assistants were waiting to whisk him to another appointment – he is nostalgic about his roots and his Mary Washington days.
His father died in August. His mother and only sibling – a sister eight years older – still live in the Harrisonburg area, and Fulk visits whenever he can. Home is the same modest dwelling to which Fulk was brought from the hospital half a century ago.
It looks just about the same, he said. “I’ve never redecorated my parents’ house,” said this sought-after world class designer, “because they’ve never asked me to. It’s comforting and completely bizarre all at once.” Asked how folks in his hometown regard him, Fulk laughed and said, “as an alien.”
Humble, not haughty, about his success, Fulk acknowledged, “I’m the luckiest lad ever.” He added, “I feel like I’ve won the lottery. … I am the rare person who has found what I love to do.”
But for Fulk, it’s not so much about the fame or the money. “It’s the lives we’ve touched, the experiences we’ve helped create, the touchstones we’ve been privileged to share.
“All I can say is that we’ve had a hand in the intimate, special occasions and spaces where people live out their lives,” Fulk said.
“We help make memories, and at the end of the day, that’s all we really have.”