To enter surroundings designed by Ashley Sutton is to be transported to another world; a world of butterflies and beetles, and of make-believe, without any cracks in the illusion created. Sutton is an Australian jack of all trades who worked in mining, publishing and other industries before he began designing and building bars and restaurants around the world. He has designed more than 40 bars, cafes and restaurants in Asia. On the way he has claimed a gold award for bar design at the Hong Kong Restaurant Interior Design Awards.
This year has seen three Sutton-designed bars open in Hong Kong. The first was Ophelia, an opulent, seductive peacock pen of a lounge that puts on dance performances. It is tucked away in the new, kitschy Lee Tung Avenue development in Wan Chai.
The premises failed to tickle Sutton’s fancy. “Ophelia’s location is horrible. It’s disgusting. It’s probably one of the worst locations that I had to work with.” Sutton says, “I had to work hard on that one to take people away to another world.” The hard work done, and a budget reported to be HK$15 million spent, Sutton is now happy with how the lounge turned out. “Overall, I think it’s good,” he says. “It’s a creative space, so the heart of Ophelia is its performances. I hope there’s more of an artistic flair in that, to represent the Far East culture and the romance of that.”
The second Sutton bar to open in Hong Kong this year was J. Boroski, a secretive place for bespoke cocktails. The bar is a collaborative effort with master mixologist Joseph Boroski. Sutton and Boroski have long been partners, with Boroski designing the drinks for Sutton’s bars in Bangkok. J. Boroski has the air of a speakeasy, hidden away up the steps of Pottinger Street. The interior looks like a set in The Matrix or an intergalactic space cantina, with a ceiling covered in painted beetles, a memorial to Boroski’s childhood dream of becoming an entomologist. The bar has no cocktail list and serves custom-made cocktails. The bartenders concoct original drinks based on the drinker’s preferences. “J. Boroski is very high-end,” Sutton says. “I, sort of, went a bit more high-end to cater for Hong Kong. I wouldn’t have done it so sophisticatedly in Bangkok.”
Hong Kong’s third new Sutton-designed bar is The Iron Fairies, an offshoot of Sutton’s first bar in Bangkok, which was inspired by a trilogy of children’s books that the designer wrote. The Hong Kong bar is sandwiched between Pottinger Street and Hollywood Road. It is nothing short of magical, with 10,000 butterflies fluttering above the heads of the drinkers and iron furnaces doing duty as tables. The bar is meant to resemble an enchanted ironsmith’s workshop. Grimy mining tools line the walls, while bottles labelled “fairy dust” hang from the ceiling.
The all-enveloping, otherworldly designs of Sutton’s interiors belie his complete lack of training in architecture or design before he created the first Iron Fairies bar in Bangkok.
“It all started when I wrote a children’s book and built a factory for The Iron Fairies merchandise,” he says. “I built a workshop factory to make it more magical. People would come in to watch us make these and obviously they wanted something to drink, so I had to stock up on drinks,” he says.
“Before that, I had never gone to a bar in my life to drink,” Sutton says. “I didn’t like it. I was 32 when I first started drinking. I created a bar before I even started drinking. I had to learn how to put a bar in and how to make the stupid drinks. I’d had half a beer since I was 14 and I never had a drink until I was 32, when I had a glass of red wine. Now I drink moderately.” Sutton has even created his own gin, Iron Balls, stocked by J. Boroski. He created it because it was convenient. “Thailand has a huge amount of botanicals,” he says. “There was no doubt you had to do a gin to take advantage of all the fresh botanicals.”
Although he is entrenched in the world of food and drink, Sutton is reluctant to call himself a bar designer. “I never wanted to design a bar in my life, and I still don’t want to do it but I’m getting paid for it. I’d much rather build a spaceship.” More mundanely, hotels are on Sutton’s horizon. Sutton is itching to design a place in New York or London, and would love to design a beach resort. “The standard ones are so boring and so typical,” Sutton says.
“I’d just need someone to give me a bit of freedom and I’d do that one day,” he says. “I feel like I’ve only touched what I can do because I’ve only been doing stupid bars. I really need to take people into another place in reality.”
Sutton is averse to his own place in his current reality. “For me, being called a bar designer is so cheap and tacky. I’ve got so much more to do than just a bar so, hopefully, that opportunity will come.” There is one thing he does enjoy about designing places to eat and drink. “Seeing people’s feelings and responses to the spaces. I like giving some magic to people,” he says. “That’s the favourite thing for me, if I can give people an experience that can open their minds up a bit more.” If Sutton’s ventures in a business in which he is a reluctant participant are any indication, we will all have a treat in store when he turns his hand to something for which he has a real passion.