Kit Kemp Design Secrets - headboard

Master the art of the headboard

Transform your bedroom from functional to formidable in six easy steps. Renowned British designer Kit Kemp, in an extract from her newest book, Kit Kemp Design Secrets, explains how.

Many of us know her name from her masterful work as Creative Director of Firmdale Hotels. Her hospitality interiors are boldly designed, and include London’s colour-rich Ham Yard Hotel and New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. Collectively they have injected energy into their once-neglected neighbourhoods. Internationally acclaimed, Kit Kemp is equally lauded for the interiors her own studio creates, as well as for her ranges of textiles, fragrances and homeware. She is a champion of British art and craft, collaborating with distinctly English brands including Christopher Farr, Andrew Martin and Wedgwood on collections of tableware and soft finishings. She is a maximalist, combining pattern play with a brave use of colour, often with folksey results. It’s this that makes it easy, when browsing Instagram or Pinterest, to recognise a Kit Kemp headboard. She’s aced transforming what is often an under-designed and unexciting element in our homes into something that becomes a statement piece. 


Oversized headboards have become one of the Kit Kemp Design Studio’s most iconic and recognisable design features. They play into all the things I love to accentuate in a room – our headboards are bold, striking and memorable. 

Elevating the humble headboard to create maximum impact in a room not only provides a lovely way for showcasing the detail of a fabric’s beautiful embroidery, appliqué, collage or beadwork, but it is also the perfect opportunity to create something truly personal and unique for your bedroom. Here are some tricks of the trade for creating your own headboard centrepiece:


Find a fabric you love and go for it – you might be making the headboard the focal point of a room, but it’s actually a relatively small area in relation to the rest of the space, so don’t be afraid to use something bold. 

Choosing a fun print or weave with multiple colours can also help to guide a room’s colour scheme. For example, if the headboard fabric is made up of blues, greens and yellows, you could then use blue on the walls, another patterned fabric with a complementary green for the curtains, and a combination of blues and yellows for the valance. 

A headboard is also the one upholstery item that requires the least meterage of fabric – so if you’ve fallen in love with something really special, use it on the headboard and pair it with a more economical plain or striped linen for curtains to help even out your budget.


When choosing a fabric, consider which headboard shape lends itself best to the design and pattern repeat of the fabric. With a geometric pattern or stripe you may want to accentuate the vertical with a more upright, elongated shape; a floral motif might be best complemented with a softer, more feminine edge. Of course, there are no rules, so play around and mix things up – a floral fabric used on a more streamlined shape can feel chic and modern; the curves of a headboard might echo the curves of an overscaled botanical print.


I’m always looking for ways to layer extra accents into a room – here are some examples for headboards:

Studding Metal upholstery studs are a great way to help define the headboard edge like a frame. I use a wide variety of sizes and finishes – I’m particularly fond of large, widely spaced, nickel studs because this feels really strong and contemporary.

Piping Contrast piping is a favourite upholstery design detail which works equally well framing the front edge of a headboard as it does on a chair or cushion. Leather and wool piping also lends additional colour and texture; vertical piping within a headboard’s design can also be effective for separating fabrics if you are combining patterns with plains.

Contrast depth Upholstering the depth of a headboard in a contrast fabric is another clever detail (above). It outlines the headboard and lifts it from the wall, making it really pop. It works best in a plain, picked out from one of the colours in the main headboard fabric, ideally contrasted with the wall colour.


Using a combination of fabrics and textures is a great trick for adding an extra layer of detail to a scheme. Using a smaller scale print or plain as a border, paired with a larger print as the main headboard fabric, lends depth and interest. Pair plains to create a dynamic colour blocking effect, which looks especially strong against a patterned wall.


One of my great loves is sourcing antique textiles on my travels because they so often inspire my designs. While they look beautiful hung in decorative frames, I also can’t resist using them for upholstery. Very often, the fragments and panels I source are not wide enough to cover a headboard, so I pair them with a complementary fabric to cover the full width. At the Knightsbridge Hotel, I used an old Designers Guild blanket with two drops of orange moon tweed along either side to make up the full width (pictured in point two above).


A headboard can also provide the perfect canvas for storytelling – it infuses further narrative into a room, whether that be with the whimsy of Goddess Aurora flying through the sky, surrounded by her cherubs (above right) or a simple, subtle embellishment of an existing pattern. On a headboard upholstered in Blithfield’s ‘Oakleaves’ fabric, taken from its Peggy Angus collection, the veins of some of the leaves, and the petals of flowers chosen at random, have been hand embroidered in accents of vibrant red, yellow and green by Fine Cell Work. In this bedroom (above left), I started with ‘Tasha’s Trip’ on the curtains. With my design team, we enlarged and deconstructed the flower detail, creating a bespoke beaded collage design to be stitched onto the boiled wool upholstering the headboard. Appliqué like this allows me to play with scale and texture, as well as adding an individual, unexpected touch that cleverly ties the whole room together.

Kit Kemp Design Secrets is published by Hardie Grant Publishing. Its recommended retail price is R520.

Words: Introduction by Martin Jacobs and extract from Kit Kemp Design Secrets
Photographs: Simon Brown
Production: Martin Jacobs