September 27, 2012 Filed under: The Buzz
A LONG table had been set for an impromptu dinner party in the top-floor loft of Ken Fulk’s design studio in the South of Market neighborhood here, candlelight illuminating discs of silver-rimmed china and glass vases filled with magenta peonies.
Mr. Fulk had culled an impressive gathering of 18, including Jeremy Stoppelman, a founder of Yelp, and Malin Giddings, the city’s most prominent real estate agent. At one end of the table, Susie Tompkins Buell, who founded the clothing maker Esprit and is a good friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton, was discussing the presidential campaign with Catherine Wagner, an artist.
After the halibut and berry cobbler were cleared, Mr. Fulk floated among guests, making sure their glasses remained full, his hand sometimes lingering gently on someone’s shoulder. Most stayed until 11 p.m., late by local standards.
“It was a really fun, eclectic crowd,” Ms. Wagner said later. “When I thought about it, I wondered, who else but Ken could bring all these different people together?”
Most in San Francisco’s suddenly bulging upper class have heard of Mr. Fulk, who is bridging the divide between San Francisco’s entrenched dynasties and the newly minted technology millionaires who are moving into the neighborhood. He holds lavish parties, like the bash at his studio last March, when Dita Von Teese stripped to her underpants and rode a mechanical bull to celebrate the de Young Museum’s Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition; or the black-tie masquerade ball in 2010 for his friend Denise Hale, the jet-setting grande dame of Russian Hill, whose 400 guests were greeted by bare-chested men in top hats.
A former stager for home sales, he now designs the interiors of homes and offices for Silicon Valley players, like Mr. Stoppelman and the billionaire Mark Pincus, a founder and the chief executive of Zynga. And with the help of a staff that numbers 35, he advises on all matters of style and taste.
“Everyone wants to go to his parties because he is polite, thoughtful and so much fun,” said Ms. Hale, who has attended her share of swell parties. (She was once married to the director Vincente Minnelli, the father of Liza.) His social and professional ascent is one of the most interesting things to happen to San Francisco in years, she added, saying, “I’ve never met anyone like him.”
But Mr. Fulk, 47, who grew up in a small town an hour’s drive from Charlottesville, Va., and has lived in San Francisco for 21 years with his partner, Kurt Wootton, said that any consideration of his growing prominence is irrelevant. He is in the service of his wealthy clients, he said recently over lunch at Jane, whether they want him to plan the perfect dinner party, advise on art or refurbish a home in two months.
“I think sometimes people have a perception of me, that I am outlandish,” Mr. Fulk said. (To be fair, he does have an eight-foot-tall giraffe neck and head mounted on his living-room wall.) He’s aware that not everyone appreciates his taste: a friend of his had reported a woman as saying recently, “I’m not going to get on the Ken bandwagon.”
Regardless, “I am not going to change who I am,” Mr. Fulk said, blue eyes twinkling.
THE first-floor atelier of Mr. Fulk’s studio, a former leather-and-bondage toy factory, is a baroque mélange of curios and oddities. A polar bear pelt covers a table; the wood floors are overlaid in carpets of red and gold. A Moroccan lamp hangs overhead, illuminating two vintage wooden mannequins and a shelf of old cameras and silver whiskey flasks.
Mr. Fulk has long shown a talent for hospitality, though he has no formal training (he graduated from the University of Mary Washington, where he studied English and history, in 1987).
“At 4 years old I was in charge of Christmas,” he said. “I would go out and cut peonies and bring them in and put them in vases. I’d pick out my own clothes. I was just that guy.”
He remains obsessive about detail: At the July dinner, a woman discreetly walked around the loft monitoring the volume of a singer Mr. Fulk had hired, making sure that guests could hear one another speak.
It was in the mid-1990s, when San Francisco’s real estate market began to overheat, that Mr. Fulk, who had been working in publishing, was asked by a friend to stage a house for sale. That led to designing interiors. “All of a sudden I had this business,” Mr. Fulk said. “What it provided was for a lot of people to know me.”
This was useful, because Mr. Fulk’s interests go beyond parties and décor, to creating a lifestyle that clients don’t have either the time or the knowledge to imagine for themselves.
“New entrepreneurs have an appetite to learn: they are empire-building,” said Trevor Traina, an Internet entrepreneur and the son of Dede Wilsey, one of San Francisco’s most prominent socialites, whose father was the White House chief of protocol under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Ken provides that service, an entree. He has a sense of humor, savoir-faire and he’s a little bit edgy. But not too much. He doesn’t put on airs. And that’s why he’s the guy a lot of young entrepreneurs look to.”
For Michael and Xochi Birch, founders of the social networking site Bebo, Mr. Fulk has served as a sort of full-service concierge, outfitting their homes in London and San Francisco, as well as acting as the creative director for a private club they are building in a 1907 brick building on Jackson Square.
In 2008, the Birches sold Bebo to AOL for $850 million. That same year they bought a $29 million five-story house in the Gold Coast section of Pacific Heights. Their real estate agent introduced them to Mr. Fulk, who went on to completely redo their home — painting walls cerulean blue, buying furniture and art, even stocking the house with food and alcohol (he recreated an English-style pub with Guinness on tap) — in six weeks.
“We just let him go and gave him complete authority,” Ms. Birch said. “Basically we told him how we wanted to live in the different rooms, and he made it happen. He gets it.”
For his final flourish, Mr. Fulk named the house Birch Castle, a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of its size. He ordered coasters and matchbooks with the Birch Castle name and custom-scented Le Labo candles. When the couple finally moved in, two Beefeater doormen from the Sir Francis Drake Hotel were waiting to greet them, while a man sang Beatles songs in the recreated pub. (Who says Silicon Valley is low-key?)
“This is something Michael and I would not do for ourselves because it seemed too self-promotional,” Ms. Birch said. “But people get the irony of it. People don’t take it seriously.”
MS. WAGNER, the artist, first discovered Mr. Fulk after he’d spent about $500,000 one year on her work for clients, hanging it in rooms later photographed for his Web site, as she put it, “next to a stuffed leopard over a couch.”
“I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘No way,’ ” she said.
Several months later, she met Mr. Fulk at an event, and now the two are close friends. “He found a completely new way to look at my work,” Ms. Wagner said. “The way he mixes it up, it comes from an authentic place.”
It wasn’t the last time Mr. Fulk would act as an enthusiastic if unconventional patron of the arts. In June he helped organize a party for Mr. Traina to celebrate an exhibition of his photography collection, including Diane Arbus’s haunting “Identical Twins,” at the de Young Museum. The party had an “American Graffiti” theme, with burgers, shakes and fries, and Mr. Fulk hired twins who resembled the girls in “Identical Twins” to walk around, as amused guests looked on.
“This was a rocking party,” Mr. Traina said. “And here was my mother in her Chanel and diamonds.”
Nirav Tolia, the chief executive of the social networking site Nextdoor, met Mr. Fulk in 2007 and said he has helped him shop for clothes and stocked his refrigerator with food as well as designing two homes. When planning his wedding, to Megha Tolia, he again turned to Mr. Fulk. “We even asked Ken for advice on the name of our son,” Mr. Tolia said. (They went with Deven Nirav, born on Thursday.) “We trust his taste.”
At one of Mr. Fulk’s dinner parties, Mr. Tolia was introduced to Ms. Wagner, whose work he now collects. “I’ve been to her studio,” Mr. Tolia said. “Now, if I want to, I just call her. That wouldn’t have happened without Ken.”
Mr. Fulk has also become the go-to guy for a group of about 12 Silicon Valley chief executives who get together for dinner the third Wednesday of every month. Attendees said that it is called the CEO Dinner Club and that members include Mr. Tolia; Mr. Stoppelman; Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn; and David Goldberg, the chief executive of SurveyMonkey and the husband of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. The bill sometimes hits $15,000, according to several attendees.
For Mr. Stoppelman, Mr. Fulk arranged cocktails on home plate at AT&T Park, followed by dinner in the San Francisco Giants locker room. For Mike Cassidy, a senior executive at Google, Mr. Fulk called his good friend, the award-winning chef Gary Danko, who agreed to host a private dinner in Mr. Danko’s home. “He gets access to anything he wants,” Mr. Cassidy said admiringly. “He has connections and ways of getting things done.”
Mr. Fulk professed complete contentment with his role. “I’m supposed to do this, and I can’t tell you why,” he said. “I’m supposed to remind people that life can be exuberant. The city is mixed up. There are the Gettys of the world, the leather daddies and the newly minted billionaires. And the outlook on life is, it is all good.”