Meet Ashley Sutton, the bar designer taking over the city
Stepping into a bar designed by Ashley Sutton is like stepping into his mind: fantastical and jaw-droppingly creative. He’s designed or opened more than 40 outlets around the world—and the Australian added three Hong Kong bars to the list this year. For the opening of his latest, The Iron Fairies, he tells Xavier Ng about his troubled mind and why he hates drinking.
I’m originally from Fremantle in Australia, near Perth. I left school when I was 15.
I always wanted to be a graphic artist. I got an A+ in art, technical drawing, woodwork and steelwork, but I couldn’t get into graphic art school, because I needed to get a B in math and English.
I didn’t turn up to my math or English classes. I failed all of them, I found them incredibly boring. I used to just draw.
I used to get paid in cigarettes to design tree houses for my mates.
I got a job in stained glass and steelmaking. After that, I worked underground in a mine.
Then I had an accident: I lost my hand [three fingers on his left hand], so I couldn’t work there anymore.
So I started my own little business, making steel doormats and all sorts of artistic stuff.
One of my managers saw that I had drawn these children’s books called “The Iron Fairies” and said that I should get them published. I said no—but he went ahead and published them anyway.
I got an invitation to go to New York with the books. I went there to live for a few years.
I set up a business making actual iron fairies, characters from the books. I needed a factory to make them, so I went to Bangkok to set it up.
I got a call from my Bangkok staff a month after I arrived, telling me they couldn’t work any more because there were too many people watching them make the fairies.
I made the place really beautiful because I wanted to inspire my staff. So I had to come back, trying to make drinks and food for people.
I didn’t really drink alcohol until I was 32. I’d never been to a bar in my life. I was a very quiet person.
I had half a beer when I was 14, and I got a massive headache for three days: The worst tasting stuff I’ve ever had in my life.
I was never a social person. I never had a girlfriend until I was 24, never even spoke to a girl before that. I was just too shy.
I couldn’t handle parties. Seeing everyone drunk, I can’t understand it. It’s very stressful for me.
And I haven’t been able to sleep for my whole life. I can sit in bed for hours, just thinking and thinking.
Drinking does actually seem to ease my mind a bit, if I just have one or two. I prefer vodka soda, no lime.
I’ve never done drugs in my life. Never touched them. I’m too scared to lose control of my mind. That’s why I’m never drunk.
I jumped into this industry not by choice. I had a lot of landlords asking me to do something with their spaces. I found it quite easy, so I suppose that’s how I got into this.
I still prefer not to do it, but I keep getting hired to—I’d much rather design other stuff: hotels, crazy flying machines, submarines.
I’ve been in Bangkok for 10 years. I didn’t want to stay there. But their hospitality industry has kept me so busy, working on one place after another.
I got an invitation to design a place [Ophelia] here in Hong Kong. It’s a beautiful city. People are a lot more sophisticated here.
They’re much more independent, they think for themselves, and it’s a lot busier than Bangkok. It’s got a lot of potential for my work. I can do some crazy stuff here.
I get very passionate in my mind, and I fall in love with so many dreams. Life and passion give me so much power to create.
My building industry background [helps]: I know how to build things.
Maybe other designers have had training in design. But they don’t know how to build stuff, how it actually works: how steel bends, how timber turns. Maybe that’s why my designs work out well.
I love to dream, and I love to bring those dreams into reality.
When I walk into an empty space, within two, three hours, it’s all done: I can see every detail, the smell, the lighting, the grain on the timber, where the people are sitting, the atmosphere, the magic. I get goosebumps.
No one can talk to me for those few hours— I’m deep within my own mind. And then for me comes the worst, most frustrating thing: Because I can see the vision down to the last speck of dust on the table, but I have to wait so long for it to be built.
I wish I was very, very smart and educated in chemistry and rocket science, because I know I would’ve built a rocket by now and I’d be in space.
Unfortunately I’m not good at academics. I’ve never read a book in my life, I can never focus on anything: I read one paragraph and my mind wanders off.
I’d like to design for resorts and hotels. I think I can change the way people stay in a hotel, give them an unbelievable experience.
I just need someone to risk $50 million with me.
NEED TO KNOW...
The Iron Fairies is Ashley Sutton’s third bar in Hong Kong, after the award-winning Ophelia and J.Boroski. LG/F, Chinachem Hollywood Centre, 1-13 Hollywood Rd., Central, 2603-6992.