Meet Ash­ley Sut­ton, the bar de­signer tak­ing over the city

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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.

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