You may not know his name, but chances are that you’ve had a drink in one of his bars. Australian Ashley Sutton is the industrial designer behind some of the city’s most stunning venues, including Ophelia, Iron Fairies, J. Boroski, and Yojimbo. And now he has added to this formidable roll call with the opening of Dear Lilly on the roof of IFC, his latest collaboration with food and beverage group Dining Concepts.
From the Far East fantasyland of Ophelia to the iron-ore inspiration behind Iron Fairies, each of his interiors is rich, layered and storied – and vastly different. Dear Lilly is the latest venue and it’s a tribute to love and romance – whimsical and feminine, and a far cry from the look and feel of his other Hong Kong nightspots.
Speaking on a recent visit to HK for the bar’s launch, Ashley, who has not formally studied design, says the creation of Dear Lilly began with a visit to the IFC roof where he spent an hour getting a feel for the venue.
“I looked at the customers walking around and noticed a lot of them were girls,” he says. “The space also had a lot of glass and I liked the trees and the outdoor aspect, so I felt it could be a cute little cocktail place. I wanted to create a florist shop first and foremost with the F&B sideline to it.
A key motif underpinning the design was based on little heart-shaped jewellery boxes, inspired by his memories of growing up with his female cousins. “That whole thing of keeping secrets in them – I grew up with cousins who were girls and they always had secret boxes of stuff,” he says.
The final product is a restaurant and lounge bar filled with antique ornaments, jewellery boxes and other trinkets, and floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with vintage perfume bottles brimming with flowers. Dried floral bouquets and old love letters hang from a kinetic ceiling above the bar, rhythmically ascending and descending.
Heart-shaped marble inlays are set into the floor, engraved with extracts from wartime love letters, which also provided the inspiration for the bar’s name. The “secret box” motif extends to the booths, which are steel structures made to look like giant jewellery boxes (also heart-shaped). Walking into the venue you are enveloped by sights, sounds and scents. “Dear Lilly is unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” says Ashley. “I want people to step inside and feel like they’re in a fairy-tale.”
From boats to bars
Fairies have factored in a surprising way throughout Ashley’s career. So, how did a boy from Western Australia who wanted to construct boats become the brains behind some of Asia’s coolest bars without any formal training? It was a circuitous route to say the least.
“I wanted to be a boat builder when I left school when I was 14 but I couldn’t get into graphic arts,” he recalls. Instead, he started working in mining and sketching fairies as a hobby. These sketches became a three-volume book, The Iron Fairies, which led to a factory in Bangkok to make the merchandise. A buzz soon developed around the fit-out of the factory, and Ashley’s first bar, Iron Fairies, was born in the Thai capital.
“My staff couldn’t read English much and they couldn’t understand my books so I really wanted them to get inspired by the books and the fairies, and that’s why I developed a cool space for them to work so they could live in the story and get creative,” Ashley explains. “The factory became popular because of the decoration in it, so we incorporated a bar in that and a restaurant and that’s how the F&B sort of merged. Then I got hired for heaps of places to develop into bars and restaurants.”
Ashley Sutton Design has now created a series of more than 40 venues across Asia – venues that have won numerous accolades and awards. Ophelia, for example, was named Best Bar or Restaurant in the 2016 FX Interior Design Awards, and took out the Hospitality category at the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Best of Asia Pacific Design Awards.
Ashley concedes his career has happened by accident, but that’s not to suggest he is blasé about what he does. Quite the opposite. He frets about the lighting and sound levels in his bars, and whether people get good service. But most of all, he wants visitors to his venues to feel a sense of escape.
“I hope they can feel like they are in a different place and they can relax and be taken away from the busy streets of the city.”
Dear Lilly is at Shop 4010, Podium Level 4, IFC Mall, 8 Finance Street, Central
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This article first appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.