Prestige Hong Kong - - CULTURE -

WIL­LIAM HAR­RIS and KRISTINA O’NEAL of de­sign prac­tice AvroKo talk to zaneta cheng about the way ten­sions in art can bring a build­ing to­gether and how such ten­sions shaped their vi­sion for the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Bangkok

At this point, it’s prob­a­bly fair to say that in the world of de­sign, the idea of East meets West is a pretty tired one, and the fresh­ness of an East-meets-West ren­der­ing is akin to a first-year try­ing to pro­duce yet an­other ground­break­ing es­say on Shake­speare’s Ham­let. You can see it in the world, too. Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, the de­sire for cul­tural ex­change, ac­cep­tance – all have been met with back­lash in coun­tries such as the United States and the United King­dom. But with ever more Western­ers set­ting up shop in Asia and vice versa, cross­cul­tural and in­ter­na­tional fu­sion is a nec­es­sary brief – and in view of the cur­rent global cli­mate you could say it’s more cru­cial than ever. Most likely the own­ers of the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok weren’t think­ing of any of this when they were de­cid­ing on the best peo­ple to de­sign the crown jewel of their new prop­erty – three din­ing lev­els right at the top of the Thai cap­i­tal’s new­est ho­tel, on floors 56, 57 and 58, and all con­nected by a grand stair­case. Ask AvroKo why they were hired, and Wil­liam Har­ris, who heads up the firm’s Bangkok out­post, puts it thus. “This was an ex­am­ple where for­tu­nately our work was vis­i­ble and they called us. They were in­ter­ested in hav­ing a high-level de­sign firm that also had a Western sen­si­bil­ity but that also re­ally un­der­stood the Asian mar­ket and Asian sen­si­bil­i­ties – Thai in spe­cific– and there’s just no one else that had that, which made us very unique. “As you so of­ten hear – but we were try­ing to bring our spe­cial spin to it – they re­ally wanted an East-meets-West ap­proach, which is not un­com­mon,” Har­ris con­tin­ues with a laugh. “They wanted to ref­er­ence his­tory, have a sense of re­spect and homage to Thai cul­ture, but also a very for­ward-look­ing per­spec­tive into the fu­ture. They wanted it to be a very unique hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness. They wanted there to be di­verse op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­pe­ri­ence the build­ing in dif­fer­ent ways and so that’s where we come in. They have three floors carved out for that, so it made sense for there to be a pro­gres­sion, to con­nect them all so peo­ple could min­gle and move around the space.” The firm tack­led the project head on, start­ing with the Waldorf’s Bull & Bear res­tau­rant. What would it mean to bring a sig­na­ture New York City es­tab­lish­ment and meld it into the sights, sounds, smells and tex­ture of Bangkok? It turns out that while cul­tures and coun­tries each get their turn on the world stage at dif­fer­ent points in his­tory, at the heart of both the Amer­i­can and Thai ex­pe­ri­ences are sto­ries that share the same hu­man core – a con­stant strug­gle be­tween op­po­site ex­tremes. Har­ris says, “For me, I guess the artistry is in con­nect­ing the dots, ex­e­cut­ing it art­fully and main­tain­ing its func­tion. We started play­ing with the op­pos­ing forces of the bull and bear, the clas­sic em­blems of New

York’s Fi­nan­cial District. Then we found Garuda and Naga, two myth­i­cal an­i­mals in con­stant con­flict. One is at­tack­ing the other to pro­tect the Bud­dha and this is right there in Thai cul­ture – a beau­ti­ful ex­pres­sion of that myth­i­cal ten­sion.” This idea of ten­sion – be­tween his­tory, myth and moder­nity, East and West – man­i­fests it­self in myr­iad ways through­out the three floors. AvroKo em­ployed Thai crafts­men to cre­ate cus­tom art el­e­ments that fea­ture the bull and the bear, and used fab­rics from north­ern Thai­land that are sewn into the Western-style cof­fered ceil­ings. There are stun­ning chan­de­liers and hang­ing sculp­tures jux­ta­posed with an artist’s table, re­plete with paint and shlock marks to give the place tex­ture. In the Loft and Cham­pagne Bar, right at the very top of the build­ing, nat­u­ral­ism comes back in with a pea­cock­feather ceil­ing de­signed to stun. The seam­less in­te­gra­tion of or­nate Thai crafts­man­ship with the sump­tu­ous de­tail of art deco and art nou­veau speaks to the de­sign team’s will­ing­ness to em­brace dif­fer­ent cul­tures and find a way for­ward – so much so that the com­pany re­cently opened a new out­fit, on top of the ex­ist­ing Good Shop (prod­uct-de­sign arm) and Brand Buro (brand-con­sult­ing arm), called Hos­pitable Lab.

Kristina O’Neal, one of the firm’s four part­ners, says, “We’re al­ways try­ing to solve hos­pi­tal­ity prob­lems, so we’ve been think­ing for a while a way to join to­gether a se­ries of ar­ti­sans who think like that as well. It’s a space where all de­sign­ers can col­lec­tively think of fun­da­men­tal prob­lems – from stack­able chairs to mak­ing some­body feel se­cure in the din­ing scene. What should a seat feel like in weight? How should it be on the neck, so you feel the most se­cu­rity – or the sig­nif­i­cance of the chair’s po­si­tion? “It’s whit­tling it down for all as­pects – to look at what the op­er­a­tor needs, what ser­vice needs, what the pa­tron needs – and to cre­ate ob­jects that are re­solv­ing those prob­lems, that are also high de­sign.” Think­ing up new ideas is AvroKo’s modus operandi. The founders, hav­ing known one an­other since they were teenagers, make it their busi­ness to en­sure each of them achieves what­ever hare-brained, blue-sky ideas they have, from set­ting up an of­fice in Lon­don with­out any clients to writ­ing a book, to fash­ion de­sign. Their deep-seated pas­sion for and knowl­edge of food and bev­er­age comes from their own res­tau­rant ven­ture, Pub­lic, which they fa­mously brought to fruition from scratch, a feat made pos­si­ble by the team’s long friend­ship. “We went to col­lege to­gether,” says Har­ris. “Kristina and I were vis­ual artists do­ing a wide range of mul­ti­me­dia sculp­ture and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cept work. Adam and Greg were ar­chi­tects, but we all grav­i­tate to mess­ing things up. “We’d work on one an­other’s projects. One would do a bit of work and come in and ba­si­cally mess it up. And then think all right, I’ve got to fix that. And we got to layer it. It was just fun. Af­ter class, we’d all go and get cof­fees at, like, 10pm – stupid, go to stu­dio and just mess around.” “We all went abroad at the same time,” adds O’Neal. “Adam was in Lon­don, I was in Rome. I mean, we were all spread out and even then we trav­elled to each other and worked in each other’s stu­dio, goof­ing around even at those dis­tances.” Much of the art AvroKo will hang in the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok ho­tel will be cus­tom-made, cre­ated by the team and in the same spirit they’ve al­ways ap­proached one an­other’s work. “Even the art­work we’re do­ing for the Waldorf, we have a stu­dio in Tuxedo Park. We set up the whole stu­dio and we come in and riff, ba­si­cally” O’Neal ex­plains. “I’m, like, lov­ing the ink, I’m lov­ing the draw­ing, cut­ting up the pieces. Wil­liam’s mak­ing new ink pieces. I’m putting them on the wall. Adam comes in and he’s draw­ing, then he’s leav­ing. It’s crazy, this process be­cause you have to have so much trust to be able to do that, to be all over each other’s pieces.” Theirs is an al­most utopian creative part­ner­ship that’s rooted in co­op­er­a­tion, re­gard­less of style or aes­thetic pref­er­ence. It’s epit­o­mised by their homes, which are all on the same street in Tuxedo Park, a town in up­state New York, “My cot­tage is more quirky and eclec­tic than these guys’ [houses]. I think Wil­liam’s is kind of hy­brid and Adam’s is su­per aus­tere,” says O’Neal. They hang out to­gether when they’re there and they all share the same white paint. “It’s kooky,” says O’Neal, “but it comes from hav­ing in­cred­i­ble trust.” Per­haps there’s more to the East-meets-West brief than meets the eye. Per­haps it’s a brief that’s more nec­es­sary than ever – one in which cre­ativ­ity, cul­tural ex­change and open-mind­ed­ness can col­lide to pro­duce thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of dif­fer­ent cross-sec­tions. Har­ris agrees. “Yeah,” he says, “we don’t have a healthy re­spect for rules and boxes. I think that art is en­ergy com­ing to­gether.”



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