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AvroKO’s William Harris on the new language of luxury

AvroKO’s William Harris on the new language of luxury

By Aditi Gaitonde Fernandes

New York collective AvroKO has been endlessly voted as one of the most innovative design and concept firms in the world – and rightly so. Since 2001, partners William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O’Neal and Adam Farmerie have envisioned some of the most revolutionary hospitality spaces around the world. Their signature style blends throwbacks and flash-forwards to create engaging and memorable spaces that redefine luxury design. Maybe it’s those peculiar Magic Papers (more on this later), maybe it’s their collective personalities, maybe it’s their refreshing multi-layered design process… or maybe it’s all that and then some.

Days after their big win at Gold Key 2019, where AvroKO was voted Designer of the Year, we caught up with William Harris, founding partner (one-quarter of The Dream Team), halfway across the world in Singapore.

Image of the four founding partners of AvroKo William Harris, Kristina O'Neal, Adam Farmerie and Greg Bradshaw
Left to Right: Founding partners of AvroKO William Harris, Kristina O’Neal, Adam Farmerie and Greg Bradshaw

What’s AvroKO’s origin story?

We met at University and naturally gravitated towards each other. First, socially and then creatively. We’d visit each other’s studios, critique each other’s work and share ideas. We went our separate ways for a while. Kristina and I started a strategy, brand and interiors company called KO Studios, while Adam and Greg created an architecture practice called Avro Design.

After we moved back to New York from Seattle, a project came up with Adam and Greg. A creative services company in the fashion industry wanted a complete overhaul and it necessitated all our diverse interests and skillsets. We collaborated and it was so enjoyable that we never stopped. We just squished the two names together and that was the genesis of AvroKO. That was back in 2001.

Eclectically curious and delightfully obsessive… that would characterise our collective personality.

William Harris, founding partner, AvroKO

Storytelling seems to be at the core of AvroKO’s design process. Where do find the fodder?

There are many different sources. We’re history buffs so it’s always fun to research historical precedence. Local context and the geography that we are in can be the beginning too. Apart from mining history, we also weave in other creative muses like art and fashion into our approach.

Typically, we have a three-pillared system. We look at architecture or space references that are non-traditional. Anything that defines space, even something as simple as a wardrobe or jewellery box or something large like a warehouse.

Then we look at different time periods. One can find a lot of inspiration by mashing up different time periods to create a new magical expression. There are some universal themes in design, art and creation, and by throwing them into a blender with a vision of the future, we can create something unique.

Lastly, we look at a curveball, left of centre creative muse that might be a person. Maybe an artist, an obscure musician or a fictitious character. Then there’s the artful process of choosing and editing… it’s one of the hardest things because there’s so much out there. How do you define that story! That’s where our skill and artistry really come in.

We hear something called Magic Papers have also helped pave the way…

Ah, magic papers. That’s something Kristina dreamed up. She’s a great strategist and an amateur psychologist. She’s also skilled at asking the right questions and getting to the truth of the matter. The Magic Papers set of interviews was to help the four of us open up and share what’s important to us, how we wanted to live, how we saw our days in the near and far future. Those series of questions and answers continue to help us make business and life decisions.

We revisit them a couple of times a year to stay current. We lock ourselves in a room or find a unique destination (the last one was in Koh Samui, Thailand) for a week and talked about big-picture thinking – hopes, dreams, where do want the company to go. It helps keep the compass pointed in the right direction.

Do trends ever play a part in this process?

I like to think AvroKO helps push the conversation forward, especially in the hospitality world. I’d rather be ahead and look at what’s needed next than be working on what’s trending or identifiable right now. As a designer, if you’re looking at trends now, you’re already behind.

We don’t like to respond to trends necessarily but we do respond to shifting environments. Of how cultures shift and evolve. Right now, I think people are looking for deeper comfort that’s desirable in an age that is getting increasingly angsty and uncertain.

Interiors of Nan Bei restaurant at the Rosewood Bangkok designed by AvroKO
Nan Bei restaurant at the Rosewood Bangkok

Comfort like from nostalgia?

We’ve always looked back to the past to help redefine the future. Nostalgia on some level is a projection of something that one is lacking in the present. People are looking for more meaning, comfort and connection in an ever disconnected and chaotic world.

Rubber banding back to be more analogue time when simpler things can bring a sense of solidity, weight and dependency. There’s a lot of uncertainty about our future so going back to something you’ve grown up with, a sensation or an object… there’s reliability and trust in that.

Do you see a change in the language when it comes to luxury?

Luxury is beginning to shift. Traditionally, luxury has been defined as one dimensional. A more cultured, well-travelled, exposed young generation is looking for authenticity and for unique experiences. Luxury is redefining and leaning towards being more soulful. We’re seeing that manifest in aesthetic ways as well. It’s more meaningful and idiosyncratic in comparison to before when there were recognisable cues of luxury. Now, it’s more distinct.

Interior design by AvroKO at The Loft at Waldorf Astoria, Bangkok.
The Loft at Waldorf Astoria, Bangkok

Like when we were talking to the Waldorf brand owners for the top three floors of Waldorf Astoria Bangkok. The brief was to create a really distinct destination within the larger hotel, so we could take more risks. We were encouraged to push the boundaries of the layeredness and the richness of the venues we did there: Bull & Bear, The Loft and The Champagne Bar.

So when it comes to home decor, how does one design for the long haul?

Residential design is in service of the client. It’s about getting to the soul of the person with desires, needs and preferences. They want an expression of their values. Sure those things might change subtly… but not really. They are adults who know themselves. They might bring in some new objects once in a while but no-one renovates every three years just because something’s off-trend.

Tell us about your sourcing trips…

Even as a hobby, the hunt is always fun. When I travel for work or fun, it’s always exciting to go to local markets and source things in back alleys. It might be an object or even an interesting composition that’s a natural fabric of the city and its growth. Typically, we are inspired by things that are non-traditional as far as design is concerned. We don’t like to reference other design for design. We look for the unnoticed, things that occur naturally and weren’t intended to be ‘design’.

Interiors by AvroKO at Lennon's at Rosewood Bangkok.
Lennon’s at Rosewood Bangkok

We’re always trying to find the unique and slightly left of centre things. I love any big city market from Central London to Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. In Asia, I especially love Chiang Mai – the big factories, ceramic works and wood crafts are just amazing. Bali and Indonesia, in general, is great. I also love India… Chor Bazaar (literally translated to Thieves Market) in Mumbai is a big favourite.

And how does Singapore inspire?

We find inspiration in the humble. We love hawker centres – as foodies, we can eat our way through it too. It’s the one place where we can get graphic inspiration and see several unique juxtapositions that can only happen in chaotic environments. If we can identify a specific colour or texture combination that can help connect the dots.

Interiors by AvroKo at Publico, InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay
Publico, InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay

Apart from restaurants like Publico and Marcello, is it safe to say we’ll be seeing more AvroKO interiors in Singapore soon?

I can’t talk about it yet. But we’ll keep you posted. What I can tell you is that we’re working on a couple of Singapore-born concepts outside the city for the Capella brand. We’re doing all the interiors for a new Capella ski-resort in Chongli, China. We’re also working with Capella’s new brand Patina that’s next door to it. So that’s two projects for Pontiac Land Group that’s based right here in Singapore.

Elsewhere in Asia, we’re doing The Standard Hotel in Phuket, Thailand. Being a New Yorker, it’s a brand I know so well. And to be bringing it to an Eastern, resort-style location is rather exciting. We’re also doing three venues at the Four Seasons in Bangkok on the river too.

Where to now?

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