Design and Concept Firm AvroKO
Studying fine arts may seem like a one-way ticket to either academia or poverty, but two of the masterminds behind the design-and-concept firm AvroKO have bucked that stereotype. Of the founders, two come from arts backgrounds while the other two are architects. Together, the foursome brings a formidable array of talents to the drawing board.
One of those artists is William Harris, who founded the company in 2001 along with Adam Farmerie, Greg Bradshaw and Kristina O’Neal. With offices in New York, where the firm is anchored, and other offices in San Francisco, London and Bangkok, AvroKO has gone from strength to strength, working on innovative projects all over the globe.
Asked about the current trends in his field, William says, “We’ve been spearheading innovative hospitality strategy for a lot of typically non-traditional hospitality venues in adjacent fields like retail, office space and residential. I think the biggest trend is really the blurring of lines. You now see a bit of hospitality in everything.”
One such project that typifies this melding of boundary lines is boutique hotel The Opposite House in Beijing. Cast an eye over the emerald glass façade designed by the big-named Japanese architect Kengo Kuma Associates, the stainless steel swimming pool, the hotel’s sculpture collection and art installations curated by the hotel on a quarterly basis, or the Union Bar that incorporates the traditions and drinking customs of the Silk Road into a sleekly contemporary design, and the Michelin-starred restaurant Jing Yaa Tang, which serves regional specialties in a cosmopolitan ambience. The sum total is proof positive of William’s boundary-busting assertion.
What is the company’s design philosophy?
“We’re not necessarily over manipulating, being inauthentic or tricky with materials. There’s a polish and a richness but there’s also a sense of naturalism, honesty and purity. There’s a lot of layering, complexity and storytelling that tends to come out in our projects in the attention to detail and sense of journey,” William says.
As the company makes more inroads into Asia, working on projects in Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea, Bangkok has become its regional base. Since 2008, the office has been located in on Surawongse Road, not far from one of their very first projects in Thailand – The House on Sathorn, a fine dining restaurant set in a beautiful old colonial-style building, which once housed the Russian embassy.
Originally, William and his cohorts came to the kingdom to source furniture and other materials, but the people and the food, the antiques and rich culture won them over. As William explains, “The arts and design education is impressive; the designers really have a sense of detail and soulfulness that I sometimes don’t find in other regions, so I particularly enjoy that. Working with Thai craftsmen has also been really lovely. We try to maximize the skillsets that are here to bring woodworking, ceramics and artful crafts into projects whenever possible.”
With a staff of over 35 in the Bangkok office, mostly Thai designers and a few expats, AvroKO has worked on some challenging and rewarding projects here, like F&B outlets at the Waldorf Astoria and the Rosewood hotels.
In the former’s Bull & Bear restaurant, specializing in steak and seafood, it’s easy to see AvroKO’s signature style of blurring boundaries through traditional Thai motifs, hardwood floors, a ceiling that riffs on the shade of red used in Buddhist temples, along with an upscale Manhattan sense of aesthetics.
At the Rosewood, however, the company designed the speakeasy-style Lennon’s, which also has a huge number of vinyl records for guests to play, and a Chinese restaurant called Nan Bei, whose design is based on Chinese folklore that complements the traditional cuisine on offer. Both of the projects William describes as “really fun. Many have said, ‘You’re from New York, you can’t do a Thai restaurant, you can’t do a Chinese restaurant. So it was an enjoyable challenge to be able to explore these mediums. Fortunately, Nan Bei has been wildly popular, and quite well received from a design standpoint.”
As the company spreads its wings, it’s also taking on projects that are challenging the notions of what hospitality is. A strong case in point is a hotel that’s so much more than that in Hong Kong. “It’s a new brand called Eaton, by Katherine Lo, daughter of Dr Lowe, who created the Langham brand. She took an old hotel that they had in their portfolio and created a whole new ecosystem which we helped her define and design. It’s a hotel, it’s a platform for social activism, and it’s really about building a unique community,” says William.
When talking about their work he uses the word “soulful” a lot. In a digital world, run by high-tech machines and algorithms, AvroKO’s’s approach seems more analog and historic, bringing much-needed human touches to their designs.
What could be more hospitable than that?
AvroKO has established a new paradigm in the hospitality industry, encompassing a multitude of disciplines while creating thoughtful and engaging architecture, brands, products, and environments. Since its launch in 2001, AvroKO has earned a reputation as one of the most innovative design firms in the field, due in large part to the group’s integrated design process and focus on creating emotionally connected experiences. In the past decade, the firm has grown to four offices (New York City, Bangkok, San Francisco, and London) working on projects across 22 countries in 32 cities, launched over a dozen company owned-and-operated restaurants, created a furniture and lighting company (Goodshop), and developed a separate branding and strategy division dedicated to projects of scale (Brand Bureau).