Ask interior designer Ashley Sutton about what he thinks about his recent bar openings in Hong Kong, and you’ll be met with his well known sense of nonchalance: “I dunno, it’s just another bar.”
But his three venues in Hong Kong—peacock-themed lounge Ophelia which opened last year, and this year’s hidden cocktail concierge J.Boroski and storybook concept bar The Iron Fairies this year—are some of the most innovative bar designs Hong Kong has seen in recent years.
His couldn’t-care-less attitude to his completed venues, in fact, mask a lot of passion and attention to detail. The concept behind the most recent opening, The Iron Fairies Hong Kong draws from the first Iron Fairies in Bangkok, Sutton’s debut design project a decade ago, which sprouted from a factory space making iron fairy figurines. Sutton sat down with us right after the opening of Iron Fairies and allowed us to pick his brain.
Do you feel sentimental that your first ever project was brought to Hong Kong?
It’s always a part of my life, because I wrote the Iron Fairies children’s books when I was young, so it’s got a special place in my heart. I wish kids could come here.
It feels like a common theme in your bars, that there are all these secret hiding places.
I try and make it like a secret garden, all about exploration and add all those secrets around the corners for guests. I always liked that, using your imagination, going through the rabbit holes and all that. Growing up, I liked drawing, building treehouses, building underground cubbies, building machines, flying machines that never worked, I did a lot of that stuff.
How does the Hong Kong space differ to the Bangkok one?
They’re different parts of the underground mine in which the Fairies are made. Here it’s the furnace area, where they melt all the steel to make the fairies. The Bangkok one is Old Man Milne’s room.
What’s up with all these real butterflies hanging from the ceiling?
I know a farm that keeps them. The butterflies have a lifespan of five to seven days. When they die, they just drop down. At least they’re being used and not just disintegrating, you know?
Do you feel like there’s a point where you’ll let go of the Iron Fairies story and concept?
My books are with a movie company at the moment in Los Angeles. Iron Fairies has got a lot of future: there can be one in every city around the world, easily. Is it what I want? I dunno—it doesn’t bother me, it’s up to whoever wants to do one. I just like to create different stuff.
How much of the decision to bring J.Boroski and The Iron Fairies, both existing Bangkok bars, to Hong Kong was yours?
All my decision. The space here [on Ezra’s Lane] was one whole space that I had to divide into two. I had to bring concepts that were completely different that wouldn’t compete or clash with each other. It’s always very risky doing new concepts, and I felt that Iron Fairies would work really well with Hong Kong, I was very confident.
"I never wanted to be a designer, never ever."
You used to work in the mining business. Did you ever make a conscious decision to become a designer or was it by accident?
No! I never wanted to be a designer, never ever. I wanted to build boats, I wanted to be a fisherman. What happened was I built a factory to make fairies. My staff didn’t understand my books—actually no one does—so I built this factory to represent my books so my staff could get inspiration. For me too, to create a good working space. Everyone used to come in and just sit and watch us make fairies in this room. They wanted a drink, they wanted to eat, they just loved to be in this room. I had a lot of people. From that day, I had a lot of landlords contact me saying, “I have this space, can you do something with this space?” and I said, “sure I can.”
Why do you shun the idea of being a designer?
I’m not a designer now! I’m not even educated, I left school when I was 15. I’m not qualified to be a designer. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. Anyone can design something. I respect designers that studied it a lot. I look at so many amazing designers now and I’m like “oh my god, why am I even doing this,” it makes me want to go fishing again. Buildings like the HSBC headquarters, I fuckin’ love it. I could do so much. I could kick that ass really good.
Compared to the bar scene, don’t you think designing a boring office would be uninspiring?
I’ll fuckin’ kill it—change the way people work in an office. Resorts and hotels, too. I can’t believe how sad the experience is you get at a resort or a hotel. I’ve been to all the best in the world and you’re just treated as a number. How can you relax like this? You’re not escaping from this world.
What’s the hardest location you’ve had to work with so far?
My least favorite location is a place in Bangkok that I’m about to open, called Dreadnought. It’s the worst location I was given in my whole career. It’s in a shopping mall.
What’s the idea behind it?
It’s a mess hall of a space train traveling to other planets.
What’s your ultimate dream project?
Space ship. Or a big commercial building. Toy shops.
Do you ever wish you stayed in school so you can build space ships?
Yes! I tell many people that - I wish I had an interest for chemistry and rocket science back then. I failed everything - I only lasted two years in high school. Because I never read a book in my life, I can’t read a book, my mind goes off. I only got A+s in drawing and metalwork and woodwork. I always said to myself, “Ash, if you were smart and had a passion for learning that, you would have built a rocket ship by now. Guaranteed.” But at the same time, the day I left school it was the best day of my life. I never regret it.
How do you receive criticism?
There is criticism, but I’d never know. I tend to nitpick, I can get very emotional. I have to let go of the places I create. For instance tonight I can see some changes, and I don’t want to be around to see that, it’s going to make me stressed.
"I get happy if I see other people get a bit of magic in their lives."
Are you happy with what you do now?
I still don’t really enjoy it. What I do enjoy is creating my dreams. My mind takes me to another place every minute. When I dream something up I get really excited in my mind. I have a strong passion for something and then I’ll build it. I get happy if I see other people get a bit of magic in their lives.
Article by Evelyn Lok