8 Things
AvroKo’s Anglo-Asian Influences

For the designers behind AvroKo, the New York firm known for its high-concept restaurant interiors, the most personal projects often start out as group obsessions. Lately, apropos of nothing, they’ve been compiling a collection of silent video clips featuring modern furniture or architecture, snipped from movies or pulled from obscure design archives. So far it’s just a game — “a meme floating around the office,” as partner Kristina O’Neal puts it — but the first time the team was so possessed, they began with a bank of photographs and ended up opening a restaurant. After securing several projects in Asia a few years back, they began carefully documenting the bizarre cultural mash-ups they found while on trips out East, from mangled English translations to neon-lit religious altars; in 2008 they opened Double Crown in New York’s East Village as an homage to their Anglo-Asian fascination, with food evoking the 19th-century British occupation of India, China, and Singapore. With a new AvroKo office in Hong Kong fielding projects like the recently opened New York–style eatery Lily in Bloom, their anthropological depository keeps growing.

The approach is unsurprising, considering O’Neal and her cohorts — William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, and Adam Farmerie — commit to concepts so fully and so meticulously in their design practice. They are some of the industry’s greatest storytellers, rigging elaborate interior sets that change with the seasons or modeling midtown steakhouses after old-school Lower East Side butcher shops, complete with slick white tiles, endgrain flooring, and jars of curing liquids lined up over the bar. For Richard Sandoval’s new D.C. Latin-Asian fusion restaurant Zengo, they researched palaces built by dictators in both cultures, subtly weaving recurring tropes from power architecture into the design. One example: “We did a central piece with huge wood beams marching down the space in procession,” O’Neal says. “We created a myth around the idea by using real references.” For the most part, though, their research process is less scientific and more observational and curiosity driven, and the results are not about authenticity but vision.

A glimpse of that process can be seen here. The images in this slideshow, pulled from AvroKo’s collection and mostly culled during their travels, represent O’Neal’s eight favorite realms of Anglo-Asian culture clash.

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Neon: One of the main themes the AvroKo team noticed while they were in Asia was the unlikely use of neon lights to highlight sacred objects and spaces, like this altar inside a palace in India. "I love that you have this incredible architecture, and beautiful hand-carved stone, and then it’s blinged out with a neon altar," says O'Neal.

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Neon: “The big challenge we put to ourselves with Double Crown was: Can we decontextualize neon? Because the typical application is, like, Bennigan’s," she says. One one side of the restaurant's dining room, which is lined with Catholic confessional screens, the AvroKo team made their own altar featuring an array of objects gifted to them during their travels. "The idea is not to take it too seriously."

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Neon: "William took this photo of a mini-altar in Shenzhen, China, with a lot of food offerings. We saw a hodgepodge of things on altars in Asia — plastic flowers, irrelevant little sculptures that only had meaning to the people who put them there.”

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Religious iconography: An even more literal East-West mash-up: The Madonna and Child, Chinese-style. "It's fascinating how this image has been painted and sculpted in every form you can imagine," says O'Neal. At Double Crown, in addition to the Asian altar, the designers deployed religious candles and a teak coffered ceiling like one they'd seen in a Singapore church.

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Toys: This random found image from AvroKo's Anglo-Asian archive depicts a woman in Asian dress holding a baby doll in Western clothing, a genre the designers became interested in after seeing examples at Pollock's Toy Museum in London. "We didn't take photos there, but in our research we found a lot of quirky, even political and military toys in China that were Western-dressed," says O'Neal.

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Ceramics: "For centuries, British porcelain makers were fascinated with Asian-style ceramics, so it's interesting to see people applying this old idea in new ways," says O'Neal. The artist Brendan Lee Tang, for example, sculpts playful, Manga– and pop-art-inspired armatures around what appear to be traditional Chinese Ming Dynasty vases.

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Ceramics: Similar are Chinese artist Xue Lei's ceramic faux beer cans.

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Woodblock prints: This Japanese illustration featuring a Sherlock Holmes-ian character is actually an early kind of pictorial newspaper. “In order to talk about the events of they day, they’d make a bunch of these prints you could buy for a teeny bit of money," says O'Neal.

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Woodblock prints: "They’d illustrate what was happening militarily or politically, including interpretations of Westerners and their infiltration of Japan. You’d also see social diaries depicting Japanese in Western dress on the promenade.”

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Portraits: “I love how each culture looks to the other culture’s fashion of the day as the most exotic to wear," she adds, as with this seated portrait of a Chinese couple where the man — eager to look his best — has donned a Western-style suit.

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Signage: The AvroKo designers took hundreds of snapshots of signs all across Asia — initially to document their humorous English translations and modifications of borrowed American brand names, and then more for formal inspiration, as with the neon-laced crown shown here.

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Signage: But O'Neal's favorite examples were these century-old kanban signs, which depict distinguished-looking Western men in top hats and mustaches in the service of selling incongruous things like diarrhea medicine and cough syrup.

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Tony Duquette: Though he's not necessarily related to AvroKo's eastward excursions, O'Neal couldn't help but tip her hat to Tony Duquette as the ultimate master of the East-West remix — the interior designer was known for incorporating elements of Chinoiserie into his rooms. His own 150-acre Malibu home, pictured here, was a veritable Shangri-La. “He blended European and Asian forms to create his own myth, a kind of through-the-looking-glass version that’s totally inauthentic, which is exactly what makes it work,” she says. “That’s what we’re doing too — our designs are our interpretations. They’re not meant to be exactly what they are. It's about the designer's vision.”