I FEEL LIKE I CAUGHT Ashley Sutton on the wrong day. As we begin our conversation over the phone, I detect weariness, a hint of boredom, and that familiar clinking of alcohol and ice. Yikes.
“Fire away,” he says.
So I did, and I learned this much about him: He curses like a sailor — 67 F-bombs were dropped in 30 minutes — he loves vodka soda, he was born on a coast in Perth, Australia, and if he could have it his way, he’d be designing boats for a living. He’s unapologetically nonchalant and will have you know that designing bars was never his choice in the first place.
“I don’t even like it,” he claims.
Feel free to call his bluff. Falling into bar design was an accident, but it definitely was no mistake. Because beneath that couldn’t-care-less facade, his projects say otherwise.
Sutton, a school dropout at 14, is a self-taught interior designer responsible for some of the sickest watering holes around. They are extravagant and mesmerising, forged out of fantasies.
The Iron Fairies in Tokyo (Bangkok and Hong Kong, too), stocked with his own small-batch gin, Iron Balls, is lined with bottles of fairy dust and preserved butterflies. Ophelia, based around a story about an old bird seller captivated by an elusive peacock, is an orientalist dream of cheongsam-clad dancers and lounges designed to look like beds in an opium den. And J.Boroski — named after his mixologist pal, Joseph Boroski — is an invitation-only bespoke cocktail bar in Hong Kong that’s neatly decorated with numerous steel scarab beetles.
His mind is perpetually on the go, turning peculiar imaginations into reality. His ideas are excessive and usually stunning. He didn’t even study design and his disdain for the job is palpable, but as Albert Einstein famously said, imagination is more important than knowledge. Sutton is the perfect illustration of that.
Read on to see what he has to say about design, life and how he gives a f***.
So what got you started?
I previously worked in mining and sketched fairies as a hobby. Those sketches ended up as a children’s book named The Iron Fairies, about a group of grumpy miners living deep underground who cast fairies out of iron. They have to overcome their fear of darkness to set those fairies free.
That led to a factory space in Bangkok to make the merchandise. I wanted to design a good working space based on the books so we could all live in the story and get creative, so I created a “fairy factory”. People loved the space and would come in and watch us making the fairies. We then added a bar and kitchen, and eventually, people were intrigued by the space. Landlords started coming to me to create spaces for them, too.
Before Maggie Choo’s and all that, Bangkok’s nightlife was non-existent. There were elephants on the road and there was no such thing as a cocktail.
My career started that way. Sometimes, life just happens, and what you make of it is what matters. Every opportunity reminds me of a past experience where I can focus on design details, light and sound to make the whole space come to life. People can feel like they escaped into a different world.
What is good design to you?
Good design for me is practicality. As in, good bar heights, comfortable seating and lighting, and ambient temperatures. It’s also easy to f*** up acoustics. It’s poor fabric in those sh*t holes you see around, know what I mean? You can’t even hear your mate talking next to you.
What’s your design process like?
Oh, I don’t know. Vodka, zero sleep and complete boredom. I can’t read a book and I can’t follow the movies. It is all from my mind. It never stops wandering. My style is imaginative, free-spirited and non-conformist. Also, I am drawn to strong and earthy materials meant to last.
Whenever I work on a new site, I request to be alone for seven hours. I look at how high the ceilings are and I think about the location and history of the place. By the time I walk out, I will know the smell of the place, the clientele and what goes with the dining experience.
What is your source of inspiration for your work?
I do a lot of research on myths, legends, and fairytales. I combine them with imagination, and very often, I can see it when I close my eyes before even sketching.
Joyce Wang’s work is f***ing amazing too. She’s this designer in Hong Kong who did Mott32. You should be talking to her, not me.
Is there anything you’re working on right now?
A few projects on the go. A few f***ing nightmares, yeah. I’m working on Iron Fairies in Kuala Lumpur, the Dragonfly in Hong Kong, as well as the Intercontinental in Phu Quoc, Vietnam.
Which is the most underrated of all of your design projects?
Yeah, there is one. It’s the Dreadnought in Bangkok. It’s one of my best designs and it’s f***ing off the hook. But it’s never been opened. The owner’s a billionaire and I think he just uses it for his private parties. It’s real sad that the public has not been allowed to see it.
Are you ever afraid that you’ll run out of ideas?
That’s impossible. My mind is a nightmare, mate.
Is bar designing your happy place?
Not a chance. I don’t even like it. I’d rather be designing boats or submarines.
Will you ever move on to designing boats, then?
No one is going to waste two or three million dollars on me, because I’ve never done one, have I? The one way I can do so is to do it myself, but I don’t have the money. I’d also want to do a boutique hotel or resort, because I think they are pretty f***ing boring. All people do is go to Asia and stay in some resort on some beach, get put in a room with a number on it and get shuffled around like sheep.
Did I catch you on a bad day?
No, no. All good. I’m like this every minute of the day.
What is your biggest design mistake so far?
I think my biggest mistake would have been to listen to people’s advice. But then again, that could come with good at times. This is a hard question. I think with every design I’ve done, after it’s finished, I look at it and I think, that’s f***ed, that’s f***ed and that’s f***ed.
I’d wish I could add more or fix something to it. That’s why it sh*ts me when I go places. I always see screw ups. Things can always be done better, but no, it’s always laziness.
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Yes, 100 per cent. It’s a nightmare, an absolutely nightmare to be a perfectionist, but I am. I’m also a nightmare to go out to dinner with. I’m always complaining. I complain about everything.
Do you ever wish you could take things a little easier?
Oh yeah, sure, definitely. Definitely. I’ll be a lot easier to get along with.
Isn’t it ironic? One would have imagined you to be pretty chill, given the fact you grew up by the sea.
Yeah, I know. It must be some genetic f*** up in my family. Yeah, mental illness. Maybe that’s where it comes from.
Do you lead a spiritual life at all?
No f***ing way. No way. If you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it.
Do you have any regrets?
I’d have liked to stay in New York, and I would have liked to have done a bar there. But back then, I didn’t know what a f***ing bar was. I didn’t start drinking until I was 30.
Well, you can still do it.
No, I’m done with it. It’s too tiring. I’m not going to move to another country all over again.
What will you do with your money before you die?
Uhm, I’ll spend it on diesel for my boat. Then I’ll buy another bigger boat.
If you could live life over, what would it be?
I’d live on another planet. I’d probably live in a spaceship, just continually travelling through space alone and with a heap of alcohol.