Routine can make a person curl up within himself and be mired in monotony, or it could prod him to take flight, in spirit, from the mundane. “I get bored very easily. So, I’m always searching for something that can excite my mind,” says Australian interior designer Ashley Sutton, owner of bar and merchandise franchise Iron Fairies that has made its way to Malaysia with the opening of the most expensive bar in Kuala Lumpur to date.
The Iron Fairies KL takes up 10,000 sq ft of space at the Hive Zone of TREC (Taste, Relish, Experience, Celebrate) in Jalan Tun Razak. It opened last September and has been welcoming guests to the city’s biggest entertainment hub, co-founded by entrepreneurs Cher Ng and Datuk Douglas Cheng.
While the metal in its name adds weight to the RM12 million investment, it is the 10,000 iron-cast mythical creatures perched around Iron Fairies that breathe magic into Sutton’s design concept. There are 14 types of fairies, each named — among them Alana, Brea, Brook, Erin, Savannah and Vita — and with distinct characteristics. They beckon patrons to burrow into leather-bound sofas with a signature drink — such as The Blue Fairy, Casting Room, 3rd Key, Nymph’s, Labyrinth and Trapping Tinkerbell — in hand and surrender to their surroundings.
The Fairy Dust Factory on the ground floor has cast-iron tables (the original ones on which Sutton’s fairies were cast), staircases and banisters, striking hand-hewn timber wall panels, luxurious seats and warm yellow lighting that whisk you from city chaos to an imagined underground iron ore factory. Look up and you will see countless vials, tied in bunches and filled with fairy dust, hanging from the ceiling. The glittery fairy dust gets blown down every few hours, adding whimsy to the whole set-up.
On the upper level is the Butterfly Room where 50,000 plastic butterflies flutter, each painstakingly strung to a mesh under the ceiling. They give the place an ethereal touch and invite guests to suspend disbelief and just soak everything in. The mezzanine level has space for a live band, which entertains every Wednesday to Saturday. Themed nights and deejays also keep patrons entertained. Work on The Rooftop is still going on; when ready, more surprises will complete the fairy tale.
Sutton’s Iron Fairies brand, which has branches in Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong, gets its name from three children’s books the 44-year-old began writing in his early twenties. He had found work in the iron-ore mines of Western Australia after leaving school at 14. To escape the tedium of being holed up in gloom, he created and sketched characters based on his fellow workers, “grumpy old men who had been underground for most of their lives”. These miners would forge iron fairies at night and drop them in the garden. The fairies have names and individual personalities and come to life when kissed by the morning sun. But they need a coating of fairy dust to protect them from rusting.
A production manager chanced upon his intricate sketches and encouraged him to get them published. The result was The Iron Fairies (Wildblue Holdings), launched in the US between 2006 and 2009.
The success of the series prompted Sutton, who by then had moved to New York, to produce fairy figurines and other merchandise for sale. He set up a factory in Bangkok, where customers coming off the road to watch the staff at work would ask for drinks and food. “It became so popular, people drinking and eating at my factory … that’s how the combination of alcohol, retail and fairy tale came about.”
Thus, the flagship Iron Fairies bar in Bangkok was born in 2010. The progression from mining to books to design is more serendipity than choice or planning, he reckons. “The only reason I started drinking at 31 was because of the factory.” To inspire the staff making the fairies — “They couldn’t read my books or understand the bar concept, but I wanted them to be passionate” — he put in place the myriad design elements there that have become his trademark.
Today, iconic projects that bear his imprint include the 1930s chinoiserie-themed Sing Sing Theater and Maggie Choo’s Bar, both in Bangkok, Mr Jones’ Orphanage Cake Shop in Tokyo and Bangkok, and J Boroski and Ophelia, both in Hong Kong.
Sutton has a nonchalance about his creations that is at odds with his strict attention to detail. Asked about the Iron Fairies trilogy, which is filled with meticulous drawings, minute scribbles and stanzas of verse, he says: “[Borders] had to sell magnifying glasses with these books! Don’t read them, just look at the pictures. I can’t write to save my life.”
Is there a story among the pages? “I think so, if you can try and understand it. This room [the Fairy Dust Factory] is here in the book. And the HK one is the casting room over there,” he adds, pointing them out.
The series has been sold to two movie companies over the last decade, so there is the possibility of a motion picture. “But they buy book rights and hang on to them.” Then he adds: “It’s a pretty original story and Hollywood does like that. There is a Hollywood ending in Vol III, which has the best pictures and is sold out.”
He is uncomfortable talking about his elaborate bars and restaurant designs, which have won awards and are held up as works of art. But press on and you hear a bashful bloke rather than brusque artist.
“It does stress me a bit trying to explain my mind vocally, how I come up with a concept, why I do [ certain] things. I do best by sketching it out. I was just bored with the concrete jungles out there. I wanted to take myself away to another world rather than the horrible nightclub. Somewhere nice to sit, relax. People like it. They love having a drink at a place that’s beautiful and magical, that looks good and is comfortable.”
Space speaks to him. Iron Fairies KL’s high ceilings, which he loves, inspired him to create an interior where customers can turn their gaze upwards. “I really want to make it something that looks amazing. So, it has to become a destination for the whole TREC area. It’s mainly about an experience — people come in and explore and feel like they are in a fairy factory.”
Sutton, who also owns gin brand Iron Balls Gin, has input in the bar’s operations and menu designs. He likes working with steel and leather, materials that only get better with age and will definitely last.
“When I do a design, I think of how it can be made. I’d think of this crazy table or chair. Then I’d draw it so the builder can actually make it, and give it the right specifications. You have to be practical.”
He is also a perfectionist who gets worked up “if something is not done right, which can be done right if you’re not lazy. It’s a nightmare for me. I can never be laidback”.
Sutton had no formal design training but did a building apprenticeship and has drawn all his life, starting with Perth’s famed wild flowers. History and architecture interest him too. When not travelling the world on projects, he divides his time between his office in Hong Kong and Fremantle in Australia, where he lives on a boat and has a beautiful old warehouse right in the ocean, next to little real-life creatures.
“I like to build something then move on. A lot of people describe my venues as having soul. I have to say they do — [they are] a bit deeper than the average bar. But at the end of the day, when you open the doors, the customer will have the final say on what works and what doesn’t. I never can guess that … I only build the dream in my head.”
There is always another dream and another project but not enough time to do them all, he says. Next to living on a boat and exploring the amazing oceans, Sutton, who comes from a family of fishermen and sailors, imagines building a space, blasting off in it and never returning to Earth. “That would be the ultimate adventure.”
The Iron Fairies, Hive, TREC, 438 Jalan Tun Razak, Royal Selangor Golf Club, KL. 016 221 3612; 017 247 5711. See here for more.