The brains behind Rosewood Hotel Bangkok’s Nan Bei and Lennon’s, design firm AvroKO has stayed at the top for over a decade. Co-founder William Harris shares his views on success, sensibility, and achieving “hospitable design”.
Whether you’re an interior aficionado, or a regular passer-by on your way to dinner, everyone recognises that moment you enter a space and think: wow, this is pretty cool. Design and concept firm AvroKO prides itself for creating such spaces. Co-founded by four friends William Harris, Kristina O’Neal, Greg Bradshaw, and Adam Farmerie back in 2001, AvroKO has since risen to become a globally-renowned purveyor of high-touch design, with an eye-catching portfolio of world-class bars, restaurants, and hotels under its shiny belt of accomplishments.
With offices in New York City, San Francisco, London, and Bangkok, the group are the masterminds behind highly-acclaimed projects, including the InterContinental Robertson Quay, as well as the top floors of our very own Park Hyatt Bangkok, and Nan Bei Restaurant, and Lennon’s Bar at the recently-opened Rosewood Bangkok. Of course, that’s just scratching the surface of what’s to come, as the team’s upcoming projects include The Standard Hotel in Phuket, along with the new Six Senses London, meaning exciting feats are just around the corner. We sat down with one of the co-founders, William Harris, to hear his views on sensibility, creating the perfect ambiance, and his so-called “hospitable design”.
Why “AvroKO”? How did you guys get started?
“The seeds were planted back in university — we just naturally gravitated towards each other. We were friends first, and then we would help critique each other’s work. Then later, we naturally collaborated outside of classes, and as life went on, we sort of went our own ways. Kristina and I created a company called KO media studios, which was doing branding and strategy, and Adam and Greg and created an architecture firm called Avro design. Then one day, there was this project that came through, from a fashion services company — they wanted to recreate their brand, redo their space, the whole thing. We thought about working on it together, and it was just so enjoyable and fun, we figured we needed to do this all the time. So we merged, and literally mashed our names together for AvroKO, and it’s been a really great partnership ever since.”
What would you say is the main reason behind your success?
“It’s honestly been a great ride. We’ve known each other for so long, so the team really feels like a family at this point, and I think it’s the result of our collective passion and excitement, to see other parts of the globe and get inspired — you know, to really bring our sensibilities to other regions. I think we’ve found a little bit of a niche in the hospitality world, because we’re owners and operators ourselves. We come from both sides of it, so to speak, so I think developers and clients feel an affinity when talking to us. We’ve raised our own money, we’ve made the hard decisions — as the developer, on some levels, and also as designers. We’ve had to be very sensitive to all those different issues.”
Do you think art and business go hand in hand?
“I think the business has got to be strong for you to do the things you want to do. It has to be successful financially. At AvroKO we all come from humble backgrounds, and don’t have infinite wells of money, so business is important. For our case, we all bring in certain elements, and then we feed off of and learn from each other, which is great. It’s our whole little ecosystem of fully-integrated work that helps grow the business, and helps make our projects stronger at the same time.”
How does local context influence your designs?
“Geographic specificity is super important. I think one of the ways we really get inspired by, and engage with a different city, is to be mindful of local materials, and also the strength of local craftsmen and artisans. Thailand, for instance, is so well-known for woodwork and ceramics, so one thing we really love is implementing these aspects and supporting local artists, and our projects tend to be great platforms to do that. A good example is this wooden sculpture we have in The Champagne Bar, at the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok. It started as a weird thing we dreamed up, and then we asked a local artist to create these brass mushrooms and structure, and what you get is a prime example of how working with local craftsmen can bring a lot of great sensibility, and personal touch. There’s something bespoke and one-of-a-kind in the results you get, something that’s kind of magical and just so lovable.”
Is there a rule to good design?
“Well, for us, we go by a rule, which we’ve actually trademarked at AvroKO. We use the term “hospitable thinking” — so essentially, we try to really put importance on behavioural psychology, to find ways to make people feel more engaged in a space through hospitality. This is something a lot of clients are coming to us for in adjacent sectors as well — it doesn’t have to be a restaurant, or a bar or a hotel. You could be in retail, or building an office space. For example, we’re working with Dropbox and Google to create hospitable experiences in their offices to make life better for their teams, so in a way our designs are about caring for the people who use them.
That’s interesting. Do you think a space can affect someone’s day, or life?
“I don’t know if it will change people’s lives, but I think spaces have the potential to affect your day in a lot of ways, both good and bad. For us, we avoid the bad things, and we put emphasis on certain categories, like safety and predictability — basically, it’s like removing confusion, or making things flow. Even in modern times now, if you feel confused or a little unsafe, it literally feels like a primal threat. Psychological studies show that the response is the same, so it’s important to be really mindful that you’re not unintentionally upsetting people with your space, and that you give them certain strategies for feeling protected. Then you have the opposite side of that, where too much safety becomes boring — it’s predictable, and it’s not fun. So it’s an art to then bring a bit of unpredictability into your design, and a bit of surprise to get that dopamine rush. We’re also trying to foster community and a sense of significance, like the visitor is a part of the experience. I think these small things, in a subconscious way, can definitely improve someone’s day. It’s very gratifying when I see someone come into one of our spaces for the first time, and their eyes light up and you get that little ‘wow’. I love that.”
Personally, do you have a favourite space? Which project do you love most?
“I mean, it’s like picking a favourite child right. But if I really had to, I’d say I’m very excited about Nan Bei, the Chinese restaurant in Rosewood Hotel Bangkok. Nan Bei to me is magical, it’s a kind of escapism, and I was very happy that the clients were willing to let us be more innovative and experimental with the Chinese concept. The design was based on the Chinese fable of the cow herder and the weaver girl — the story is about a forbidden love, where two lovers can only meet once a year on a bridge of magpies, so it’s very mystical and magical, and kind of lovely. For us, the story was a great muse, so when you enter the space there’s this open atrium we couldn’t really occupy or do anything with, but made for a very good spot to place a modern art feature. There we created this structure with I think around 800 hand folded bird forms in brass metal mesh, and they’re suspended. You can’t see this from the front, but when you look at it from the side, you see a slight bridge form, so that’s the bridge of magpies — but then, we also added all these beautiful LED lights, and that’s how you have this magical night sky that’s dreamy and otherworldly. I also really loved using non-traditional colours as well. You see a lot of blue lacquer, which is rich and beautiful, but even though it draws from the lacquer tradition, it’s not overtly stereotypical Chinese, so for us it just felt like a very fresh interpretation.”
As a designer, do you believe in trends?
“That’s tricky. I like to use the word ‘evolution’ instead of ‘trends’, because I think design and hospitality are always in a state of evolution. For example, obviously sustainability is becoming more important, but I don’t think it’s a trend — it’s an evolution, and it’s become more visible, more important, and is being taken more seriously. I think another change we’re seeing quite clearly is the melding of different pragmatic concerns. For example, you have spaces where co-working meets co-living, hotel and food. An example I reference often is the Eaton Hotel in Hong Kong. It’s a new brand where we created the whole ecosystem, and I think it’s part of a future where hospitality is slowly headed. There you’ve got spaces that are co-working areas, and also a food hall, and the hotel has also got its own radio station and theatre screening. Then on top of that it’s got strong social activism, where its actively engaging the community and really trying to press change. I think the blurring of lines and the mashup of different services is ultimately where we’re headed.”
Having come this far, what would you tell your younger self?
“For one I’d say stop worrying so much. Don’t worry, it’ll somehow work out. If you’re looking for more practical advice, I would just say be really mindful of the teams that you put together, because once you’re looking for longevity and a real synergy, building a strong company culture and finding the right personalities and the appropriate talent is extremely important.”
To find out more about AvroKO and their projects, visit avroko.com.