AvroKO not only designs stunning venues around the world; its hospitality arm also operates a collection of restaurants and bars. William Harris, one of its founding partners, shares more about the studio's foray into the dining scene

It started from an off-the-cuff remark from one sibling to another. “Build me a restaurant I'll come back to New York,” said chef Brad Farmerie to his architect brother Adam, one of the four founding partners of design firm AvroKO. “We were blissfully ignorant about how difficult it really would be,” quipped William Harris, one of the co-founders who currently helms the firm’s Bangkok office. “But fortunately we had the energy, we had the passion and fortunately we had the skills and learnt the ones we didn't have quickly to make Public [their first restaurant in New York] happen.” 

Although Public no longer exists, it set the groundwork for the design studio’s foray into the dining scene. “Public was our first restaurant that we owned and operated. For us, that was a true expression of all the different holistic talents and desires that we merge into one project. It’s an integration of all the things that we love—the food, the drinks, the service, the experience; that has dovetailed into Saxon + Parole and Ghost Donkey and all our other brands that we have now,” says Harris, who is also one of the jury members of the Tatler Design Awards 2020

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Co-founded by Greg Bradshaw, Adam Farmerie, William Harris and Kristina O’Neal in New York in 2001, AvroKO has since expanded its footprint globally to include design studios in Bangkok, London and San Francisco. The international firm works on projects across the globe; restaurants that they have designed include Publico Ristorante at InterContinental Robertson Quay as well as a restaurant and bar complex at the top floors of Park Hyatt Bangkok. The firm has also launched a branding arm and a furniture and lighting design company while operating dining venues in five cities.

Here, Harris looks back at the studio’s early years and its milestones.

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Could you describe your design philosophy?
William Harris (WH)
Our approach has been to be truly hospitable: to really focus on the human elements and being sure that we can create a hospitable experience that helps people feel safe and cared for, but also delighted and surprised, to create concepts and make spaces that help people feel like they're a significant part of.

We love natural materials; we don't like to overly manipulate materials, there's an honesty and authenticity to pure and sometimes very humble materials. And that's been our philosophy from day one that we still employ, whether it's a dive bar to a six-star luxury experience. We love detail, there's a lot of layering. And lighting is what we're often known for and that people respond to; we love to sculpt [the space] with light.

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What are the most challenging aspects of designing and running your own restaurants?
WH The biggest challenge is merging ultimate function with aesthetics and the space to meet the functions that will ultimately contribute to the success and the bottom line of other projects. It even goes to the level of how the staff will feel and what their experiences like. We’ve fielded complaints from all over the years: from what changing rooms are like for the staff, what it’s like to be a server running through the space, the stairs and height changes.

It’s a really unique point of differentiation. We know what it’s like to be on both sides of that counter. We’ve had to spend our own money and we’ve had to make our own difficult decisions. We’ve had to prioritise and we’ve learned through that process—how to create impact that is the most effective, how to pull back in areas where it might not matter as much.

That experience and history have been really important to the growth of our firm and to the progression of our practice. And it’s been indispensable really, the lessons that we’ve learned. We’re constantly using our venues as labs to test new ways of service, to test different furniture layouts, to push the boundaries of artistic moments. Much of it is trial and error as well, not everything works out of the gate, so we were able to adjust and learn. I think we’ve been really effective in creating the right experience and to be able to pivot when necessary; so we’re very flexible and nimble that way.

...create impact that is the most effective, [and] pull back in areas where it might not matter as much.

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Among the venues that AvroKO owns and operates, which is your favourite bar right now?
One of my favourite venues right now is very humble and very approachable; it's a Mexican concept, a mezcal and tequila bar called Ghost Donkey. Why it's so special is because it has so much soul and personality to it. Ghost Donkey is an amazing story because it is also a really positive example of how we built the AvroKO Hospitality Group. 

The gentleman that's the beverage director now, his name’s Nacho Jimenez. He came from Mexico to the US to try to create a better life and was having an incredibly difficult time finding work. He was about to go back to Mexico until he met with us and we were able to hire him and bring him into the family. He's been with us for over a decade; he started at a very junior position and worked his way up all through the ranks and ultimately, we made a bar (Ghost Donkey) around his expression of true Mexican hospitality. 

I'm particularly proud of having that bar and to see the success that it has been having. That's the fun thing because it's so small and so humble and it's just a Mexican fiesta party with a bunch of red lights but it's been hitting the top bar award lists all over. It's something truly special so we're looking to continue to try to bring some of that Mexican hospitality to other regions as well. So the first one was in New York, there's one in Las Vegas at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which will just be turning a year old in September. And we're working on one right now in Denver, Colorado in the US, and also a Ghost Donkey in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Looking back, which are some of your most memorable design projects to date?
 We're particularly proud of Single Thread in Healdsburg, California, which opened a few years ago—it's a three Michelin-star experience, we created the branding, the interiors and continue to work with them. It was the attention to detail, the love that it was put into that project, from the husband-and-wife team to the chef and the farmers, is palpable. It was a really lovely experience working with them, to really bring into life and to express their passion in the kitchen and the farm into the built environment.

I’m excited about the Chinese restaurant Nan Bei in Rosewood Bangkok because it shows our ability to create something new and fresh but still very rooted in Chinese cuisine and culture. And I think that that's been a successful example of that. Then, we did the top three floors of the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, which is a whole progression of experiences from the classic Bull & Bear restaurant that was born in New York in the original Waldorf, and reinterpreting that for the Asian market and bring a bit of Thai sensibility to a Western brand. You go above into what we call The Loft and Champagne bar which is over two floors; they're all connected by a grand staircase.

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Tell us more about your other upcoming projects.
We’re working with some interesting Singapore-born brands—we’re working with Pontiac Land, and for Capella, a brand that they’re building called Patina Hotels And Resorts, two ski resort destinations in Chongli. We’re still incredibly inspired by Asia and aspire to be in Asia. We have a lot of great exciting projects happening and I’m looking forward to the Four Seasons Bangkok—[we designed] three venues that all open up into a breezy, beautiful courtyard

We’re still incredibly inspired by Asia and aspire to be in Asia.

We’re doing The Standard Hotel in Phuket, Thailand. It’s an interesting project because we’re bringing a very urban Western brand and contextualise it for an Eastern resort site. We’re working in Jakarta for The Langham, we’re bringing two concepts there—one is the Artesian bar in London, which is a world-famous bar, and this will be their first Asian outpost so we’re designing that experience for there. There will be a Morimoto restaurant as well.

In Auckland, New Zealand, we're doing four of our own venues in a mixed-use development. There's Saxon + Parole, Ghost Donkey and a concept called The Poni Room; our liberal interpretation of an American izakaya. And lastly, Genuine Liquorette, which is a fun, playful interactive bar concept. We've also been working a lot with developers, and a strategy perspective from our brand bureau company to really help them define a branding strategy for mixed-use developments.

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Read more in the February 2020 issue of Singapore Tatler Homes