When it comes to parties, few can outbloom event, interior and product designer Ken Fulk, San Francisco’s undisputed Emperor of Entertaining. And, when you consider that the name Fulk comes from the French (Foulques), Italian (Fulco) and Swedish (Folke) words for “folk,” you realize that this brilliant and handsome party-loving gent is clearly living out his destiny to entertain and inspire folks from all walks of life. One of The Salonniere 100, Ken has planned parties for friends and clients including Jean Paul Gaultier and tech titans Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and former president of Facebook, Jeremy Stoppelman, the co-founder and CEO of Yelp, and Mark Pincus, the co-founder of Zynga. Let’s listen in while Ken shares everything from his best entertaining tips and the genius question he asks shy dinner party guests to what Thomas Jefferson and Barbra Streisand have in common.
What three words would you use to describe your entertaining style?
Personal, exuberant and thoughtful.
How do parties in San Francisco differ from those in other cities?
San Francisco is truly a great melting pot of cultures, interests, and ideas. The best San Francisco parties mix these groups – mashing up tech titans with bluebloods and leather daddies. The more, the merrier.
How did you learn to entertain so well?
I grew up in Virginia where entertaining was a very natural part of everyday life. True hospitality was engrained at an early age. I did, perhaps, take to it a bit more than most.
A tableau from Sean Parker’s wedding, planned by Ken and event designer Preston Bailey
What do you consider to be your greatest party victory?
Sean Parker’s wedding extravaganza. It was the most utterly extraordinary experience I have ever been part of.
You’ve been called the Ziegfeld of San Francisco because of the way you produce and create environments. Are there certain films that inspire how you entertaining?
Yes! I often refer to our events and interiors as “movies” in my mind. The theatricality of Hollywood is often a great inspiration for a party. We’ve hosted events ranging from dancers literally “singing in the rain” to masked balls inspired by Eyes Wide Shut.
How does being an interior designer impact your entertaining style?
Creating inviting environments is always important to me. For particular party décor, the Auntie Mame in me loves a good theme. However, I try not to let the perfect get in the way of a good time. I subscribe to the idea that you can always light some candles, cue the music, and let the drinks flow.
I know you love Edwardian suits and bow ties. What do you like to wear when hosting a party?
I always dress up, whether in a bespoke suit or an outrageous costume. You’re the host and it’s your job to look the part!
Has your entertaining style evolved over the years?
With time, I’ve become a more relaxed entertainer. Once the party starts, I stop worrying about the details and just enjoy. A happy host makes for happy guests!
Burlesque performer Dita Von Teese performs at Ken’s party for Jean Paul Gaultier
You’re known for sprinkling unexpected – and sometimes naughty – elements into your parties. Which surprised your guests most?
I hosted a private dinner for Jean Paul Gaultier in celebration of the opening of his exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco. I arranged for a surprise performance by his muse Dita Von Teese. After dinner, a curtain dropped and there was Dita on stage astride a pink velvet mechanical bull. I’m not sure the high-rolling museum patrons attending the dinner were quite prepared for what came next!
What is it about entertaining that brings you joy?
At the end of the day, when everything else is stripped away, it’s the experiences we share with friends and family that really matter. The memories we make are what we carry forward. Entertaining sets the stage for these unforgettable moments to happen.
Where do you find your party inspiration?
Travel is probably my biggest inspiration, but history is as well. I’m always trying to recreate that magical feeling of being in a faraway place or a bygone era, whether it’s reliving a recent visit to India or conjuring the spirit of a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
Ken double checks the table settings at his birthday party before his guests arrive
What are your top five tips for throwing a great party?
1) A great guest list makes a great party. 2) Make one drink well and stick to it. 3) Dim the lights. 4) Make a playlist ahead of time. 5) You can never have enough candles.
In your view, what’s the biggest mistake people make when they entertain?
They forget to have fun. They spend so much time fretting over the details that many guests won’t even notice and not enough time actually being a host and entertaining and engaging their guests.
What is your best advice for excusing oneself from an awkward conversation?
Simply say, “I hate to monopolize so much of your time.”
What is your go-to question to get a shy dinner partner to open up and converse more readily?
“Who is the first person you ever kissed?”
Ken with DJ Kiss at the Ken Fulk Collection for Pottery Barn launch event in New York
What are your three favorite party sources?
We do all of our flowers in-house, so I am very spoiled. I have a long-standing relationship with the caterer Paula Le Duc. She is an absolute gem and her company is the best in the biz. The best cocktails in town are made by Rye On The Road.
What is your favorite host or hostess gift to give someone you don’t know very well?
I always try to give something personal. I also prefer to give something vintage because it feels more special. I once received an antique Limoges porcelain cup filled with the most beautiful sugar cubes–this from a new neighbor with whom I had joked about borrowing a cup of sugar. You often hear not to bring flowers, but if they’ve been cut from your own garden and presented in a beautiful found container, they can be absolutely perfect.
What are your party products of choice?
Party products really do depend on the occasion. We entertain a lot at our home in Provincetown, where we live on the water. It’s not always practical to have china out on the dock, though I do typically stick to a collection of hearty multi-colored Cape Cod glassware for the drinks. For dinnerware, I’m in love with a series of melamine plates from my pal John Derian. They have beautiful vintage patterns and are utterly indestructible. I also have a thing for old silver, which I collect by the basket-full. I like using a wonderful mix of various patterns, typically with a monogram. If it’s a large group, I’ll use monogrammed paper cocktail napkins. Otherwise I use linen cocktail and dinner napkins. As for fragrance, I always have a house scent. When entertaining in San Francisco, we use our own scented candle. It’s a sexy mix of musk, leather, and smoke.
What are your three party pet peeves?
1) Poor lighting. A dimmer switch can be a host’s best friend! 2) Music. Know your crowd and pay attention to the moment. There’s a time for intimate conversations and a time to hit the dance floor. Some of the best instances at a party can be missed when the music doesn’t match the moment. 3) Booze. Never have too little!
Ken’s dream dinner party for eight
I know you like to have dinner parties for eight. Who would be your dream dinner guests?
I also like to have dinner parties for 80, but eight is a nice number. My fantasy guests would include – and note that I’d like them all in their prime, please – Thomas Jefferson for his mind, Liz Taylor for her jewels, Winston Churchill for his wit, Barbra Streisand for her voice, Michelle Obama simply because, Paul Newman just to look at, and Mark Twain to document it and make us all sound clever.
Who is the most interesting person you have ever met at a party?
Beyoncé. Despite being perhaps the most famous performer in the world, she was totally unaffected, completely present, and truly interested in me. She was really quite extraordinary.
If you could host a party for anyone, who would it be and what kind of party would you throw?
The inauguration ball for President Hilary Clinton.
To whose party – future or past – would you most like to receive an invitation?
Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.
Finally, what entertaining trends do you see for 2016?
I think in our crazy world, folks are realizing that community really matters. Despite all of the insanity that roars around us, I believe there is a great desire to connect and share experiences with our friends. Whether it’s an over-the-top party for 500 that lasts into the wee hours of the morning or a casual, intimate dinner at home with good wine and pizza, taking the time to celebrate is more important than ever. It’s my belief that life’s true great luxury is well-spent time and what better way to spend it than at a party!
We couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Ken. You’re a doll for stopping by.
Photo sources: Ken Fulk, Vanity Fair, Getty