AvroKO | Prestige Hong Kong (Oct 18)


William Harris and Kristina O’Neal of design practice AvroKo talk to Zaneta Cheng about the way tensions in art can bring a building together and how such tensions shaped their vision for the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Bangkok

At this point, it’s probably fair to say that in the world of design, the idea of East meets West is a pretty tired one, and the freshness of an East-meets-West rendering is akin to a first-year trying to produce yet another groundbreaking essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet

You can see it in the world, too. Political correctness, the desire for cultural exchange, acceptance – all have been met with backlash in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. But with ever more Westerners setting up shop in Asia and vice versa, cross-cultural and international fusion is a necessary brief – and in view of the current global climate you could say it’s more crucial than ever.

Most likely the owners of the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok weren’t thinking of any of this when they were deciding on the best people to design the crown jewel of their new property – three dining levels right at the top of the Thai capital’s newest hotel, on floors 56, 57 and 58, and all connected by a grand staircase.

Ask AvroKo why they were hired, and William Harris, who heads up the firm’s Bangkok outpost, puts it thus. “This was an example where fortunately our work was visible and they called us. They were interested in having a high-level design firm that also had a Western sensibility but that also really understood the Asian market and Asian sensibilities – Thai in specific– and there’s just no one else that had that, which made us very unique.

“As you so often hear – but we were trying to bring our special spin to it – they really wanted an East-meets-West approach, which is not uncommon,” Harris continues with a laugh. “They wanted to reference history, have a sense of respect and homage to Thai culture, but also a very forward-looking perspective into the future. They wanted it to be a very unique hospitality business. They wanted there to be diverse opportunities to experience the building in different ways and so that’s where we come in. They have three floors carved out for that, so it made sense for there to be a progression, to connect them all so people could mingle and move around the space.”

The firm tackled the project head on, starting with the Waldorf’s Bull & Bear restaurant. What would it mean to bring a signature New York City establishment and meld it into the sights, sounds, smells and texture of Bangkok?  It turns out that while cultures and countries each get their turn on the world stage at different points in history, at the heart of both the American and Thai experiences are stories that share the same human core – a constant struggle between opposite extremes.

Harris says, “For me, I guess the artistry is in connecting the dots, executing it artfully and maintaining its function. We started playing with the opposing forces of the bull and bear, the classic emblems of New York’s Financial District. Then we found Garuda and Naga, two mythical animals in constant conflict. One is attacking the other to protect the Buddha and this is right there in Thai culture – a beautiful expression of that mythical tension.”

This idea of tension – between history, myth and modernity, East and West – manifests itself in myriad ways throughout the three floors. AvroKo employed Thai craftsmen to create custom art elements that feature the bull and the bear, and used fabrics from northern Thailand that are sewn into the Western-style coffered ceilings. There are stunning chandeliers and hanging sculptures juxtaposed with an artist’s table, replete with paint and shlock marks to give the place texture.

In the Loft and Champagne Bar, right at the very top of the building, naturalism comes back in with a peacock-feather ceiling designed to stun. The seamless integration of ornate Thai craftsmanship with the sumptuous detail of art deco and art nouveau speaks to the design team’s willingness to embrace different cultures and find a way forward – so much so that the company recently opened a new outfit, on top of the existing Good Shop (product-design arm) and Brand Buro (brand-consulting arm), called Hospitable Lab.

Kristina O’Neal, one of the firm’s four partners, says, “We’re always trying to solve hospitality problems, so we’ve been thinking for a while a way to join together a series of artisans who think like that as well. It’s a space where all designers can collectively think of fundamental problems – from stackable chairs to making somebody feel secure in the dining scene. What should a seat feel like in weight? How should it be on the neck, so you feel the most security – or the significance of the chair’s position?

“It’s whittling it down for all aspects – to look at what the operator needs, what service needs, what the patron needs – and to create objects that are resolving those problems, that are also high design.”

Thinking up new ideas is AvroKo’s modus operandi. The founders, having known one another since they were teenagers, make it their business to ensure each of them achieves whatever hare-brained, blue-sky ideas they have, from setting up an office in London without any clients to writing a book, to fashion design. Their deep-seated passion for and knowledge of food and beverage comes from their own restaurant venture, Public, which they famously brought to fruition from scratch, a feat made possible by the team’s long friendship.

“We went to college together,” says Harris. “Kristina and I were visual artists doing a wide range of multimedia sculpture and environmental concept work. Adam and Greg were architects, but we all gravitate to messing things up.

“We’d work on one another’s projects. One would do a bit of work and come in and basically mess it up. And then think all right, I’ve got to fix that. And we got to layer it. It was just fun. After class, we’d all go and get coffees at, like, 10pm – stupid, go to studio and just mess around.”

“We all went abroad at the same time,” adds O’Neal. “Adam was in London, I was in Rome. I mean, we were all spread out and even then we travelled to each other and worked in each other’s studio, goofing around even at those distances.”

Much of the art AvroKo will hang in the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok hotel will be custom-made, created by the team and in the same spirit they’ve always approached one another’s work.

“Even the artwork we’re doing for the Waldorf, we have a studio in Tuxedo Park. We set up the whole studio and we come in and riff, basically” O’Neal explains. “I’m, like, loving the ink, I’m loving the drawing, cutting up the pieces. William’s making new ink pieces. I’m putting them on the wall. Adam comes in and he’s drawing, then he’s leaving. It’s crazy, this process because you have to have so much trust to be able to do that, to be all over each other’s pieces.”

Theirs is an almost utopian creative partnership that’s rooted in cooperation, regardless of style or aesthetic preference. It’s epitomised by their homes, which are all on the same street in Tuxedo Park, a town in upstate New York, “My cottage is more quirky and eclectic than these guys’ [houses]. I think William’s is kind of hybrid and Adam’s is super austere,” says O’Neal.

They hang out together when they’re there and they all share the same white paint. “It’s kooky,” says O’Neal, “but it comes from having incredible trust.”

Perhaps there’s more to the East-meets-West brief than meets the eye. Perhaps it’s a brief that’s more necessary than ever – one in which creativity, cultural exchange and open-mindedness can collide to produce thousands, if not millions, of different cross-sections.

Harris agrees. “Yeah,” he says, “we don’t have a healthy respect for rules and boxes. I think that art is energy coming together.”