We talk creativity, design, and future plans to build a rocket ship with Ashley Sutton, the force behind The Iron Fairies concept.
Growing up in Fremantle, Western Australia, Ashley Sutton didn’t have it easy. After dropping out of school at 14, he worked in the mines until he started a steel business at 21. Today, he is the mastermind behind some of Asia’s most famous bar designs including The Iron Fairies – a dazzling escape just a 5 minute walk away from The Hive Central. Inspired by the children’s stories he wrote, Ashley discusses how his design career began by chance, tasting his first alcoholic drink at 31 and why he would rather build a submarine.
Inspired by Ashley’s trilogy of children’s books about iron fairies, sales of his books picked up in the States which lead to the launch of iron figurines. Ashley explains, “I built a factory in Bangkok to keep up with the demand for the figurines. People loved visiting the factory to watch my staff make the fairies so eventually I added a bar and kitchen and that’s where it all began.”
Having crafted intricate interiors of over 28 bars and restaurants on his résumé spread across Asia, Ashley is back in Hong Kong to oversee progress on 3 further collaborations with the restaurant group – Dining Concepts. Surprisingly, Ashley is unpredictable – his personality is reflected in each and every one of his much-anticipated bar designs. Over a glass of wine, Ashley discusses his fascinating career path which has lead to him become, amongst other things, an acclaimed author and award-winning concept designer.
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Can you tell us about your early childhood and early career?
I’m from Fremantle, a small town in Western Australia. Growing up, I wanted to build boats but I couldn’t because I didn’t have a Mathematics qualification. I also had problems at school so I left at 14 without any qualifications. I didn’t care though; it was the best decision of my life.
However, I’ve always been good with my hands as I spent a lot of time building stuff when I was younger like treehouses and secret hideaways. I spent time working in the mines and then at 21, I started a steel business because I loved making things. The business was a success, so I invested the money I made into property.
How did the idea for the Iron Fairies brand come along?
The Iron Fairies brand is based on stories I wrote around the time I had my steel business. They were just scribbles and drawings and I never intended to be an author. However, my factory manager had a good eye for business and got them published. The books sold well, particularly in the US and we launched a range of iron figurines to accompany the stories.
I built a factory in Bangkok to keep up with the demand for the figurines. I wanted the factory to be beautiful so that it would inspire my staff and get them passionate about the brand because they didn’t understand English – so they couldn’t read my stories.
People loved visiting the factory to watch my staff make the fairies so eventually I added a bar and kitchen. The landlords asked me to do something similar with their spaces and from that, I developed a portfolio of around 30 restaurants and bars in Bangkok.
Now I hold the intellectual property rights for Iron Fairies and franchise it in a few countries. We also have a gin brand called Iron Balls which we brew in Thailand and distribute all over Europe.
Where did your inspiration for Iron Fairies come from?
The concept came from my depression and a need to escape from this world. I like to find places where my mind can be alone – that’s why I love the idea of outer space, if you go there alone you can be by yourself. I established the bars in Asia because when I walk down the streets of busy cities – particularly in Asia, I get the feeling that people need to escape. The streets are busy, dirty and stressful and I want The Iron Fairies spaces to be a place for people to escape.
How has your journey shaped who you have become today?
I grew up in a poor family so I have done everything for myself- in that sense, I have done well financially. When I was younger, I wasn’t interested in alcohol or drugs, and I hated parties – I had my first drink at the age of 31. For this reason, I’ve never been distracted – I’ve just worked my whole life.
Do you feel as though you view the world slightly differently to other people?
Absolutely! I’m aware of everything around me all of the time and this makes me incredibly fussy, I’m not happy with anything because I feel there must be something better. Whenever I go into a place, I pick up on every little detail- it’s like a subconscious awareness. For this reason, when I design a space, it is essential to make it comfortable.
You have managed to create a hugely successful design studio despite not having a formal background in design, where do you get the confidence to do something like this?
I have always known what I wanted to do – I have a picture in my mind and I never doubt myself. Money doesn’t bother me either, I just spend it and it never comes into any decision I make.
Do you ever feel stuck for inspiration?
My problem is that I have too many ideas so I have trouble deciding what I should do. My best creativity comes late at night, I’m a light sleeper and if I wake up, I can’t get back to sleep. I usually wake up at around 3.30 am and I think about everything- from work to current designs to the fairy’s wing pattern.
Do you have any tips for inspiration?
Never look at your phone, or the TV, particularly at night – it’s the worse thing and kills creativity. Alcohol is another thing that inhibits creativity, it is good and bad because it enables me to relax but at the same time it dulls my mind which stops me thinking.
Do you ever get tired?
I am always tired because the only time my mind relaxes is when I sleep, but I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid and still to this day, I dread going to sleep every night.
What is your favourite part of the design process?
My favourite time are the last few days – once the construction workers have left, I observe the space and I feel everything coming together. However, I have to make compromises which means that the customer experience is not exactly how I would like. My biggest compromise is the music – I hate all music unless it’s piano. These places insist on playing music – DJ’s are a waste of time in my opinion.
What are your favourite bar designs?
I like a place in Bangkok called Smalls, it is pretty cool and really laid back. I respect the work of Joyce Wang, she designed Mott 32 and Ammo in Hong Kong. Of my own designs, my favourite is a bar called Dreadnought – but you’ll never see it because I designed it for a billionaire who uses it as his private meeting room in Bangkok
What’s your favourite drink to order at the bar?
Vodka soda – no lime.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
In terms of design, I’ve got 3 more projects under construction with Dining Concepts in Hong Kong and I’m opening an Iron Fairies in Kuala Lumpur. I’m also designing a couple of hotels – the Intercontinental in Phu Quoc and a Holiday Inn in Hua Hin in Thailand.
I have a television series with Discovery channel that is coming out soon – we travel along the coast of Western Australia in my boat, and each episode is based on different sharks. I’ve also written a short film which is going into production soon – it’s about an old hard hat diver who spends his life alone at sea. He forms a friendship with an 8-year-old stowaway but when he drowns the little boy has to toughen up to survive.
What is your ultimate goal?
Ultimately I would like to build a spaceship – or a submarine so that I could leave this place forever and be on my own. I finished designing and building my first submarine a few months ago, but it’s not safe so I need to do it again. I think that going up into space is the most creative thing that you can do but if you can’t do that then going underwater is a close second.
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