Friday, 18 November 2011

An ore inspiring fairy tale

New piece in Time magazine. See the published version here:,31542,2099511,00.html

Photo: Cedric Arnold 
Ashley Sutton is built like an Australian Rules footballer, covered in tattoos, swears like a sailor and was once an iron-ore miner. He also believes in fairies.

It has been a long journey from his native Fremantle, near Perth, Western Australia, via New York to Bangkok, where he is now the darling of uber-chic Thonglor district thanks to The Iron Fairies Wine Bar and Restaurant (395 Thong Lor), part workshop, part wonderland, born of imagination and happy accident.

Walking into the bar in full swing is quite a trip. The titular Iron Fairies are everywhere, cast in China but buffed and finished in vices that jut from bar tops. A New Orleans jazz band voodoos around a wrought iron spiral staircase to nowhere. Hand-tooled leather books recount arcane fairy legends.  In the bathroom, an exquisite beaten copper and wrought iron bathtub that reputedly belonged to one of Marilyn Monroe’s lovers bobs with candles. Patrons dine on the kind of hamburgers you find in classic Australian milk bars and sip Absinthe.

Sutton, 37, first went away with the fairies during his peripatetic youth working in the iron ore mines of Western Australia, unforgiving places with deceptively poetic names like Marble Bar. “You’d be underground for so long you’d just about lose your mind,” he recalls. “I started thinking about fairies, and then I started doing some sketches.’’ Then he lost part of his left hand in an accident (not his drawing hand).

He put the sketches aside, moved into the glass business, and then to China, where he ventured into steel, selling up everything to fund a wheeze to sell steel and iron balustrade grids as yuppie doormats. They sold like hot cakes and made him rich.

When his sales manager saw his fairy sketches, he urged Sutton to turn them into a book. Some months later, the first Iron Fairies volume was born (now a three-volume set which has sold over 200,000 copies in four languages. Part journal, part poetry and part mystery, it is about some unlucky miners who strike iron ore instead of gold and set about making fairies. Mischief and mayhem ensues).

First from a store in Perth, then New York, and now Bangkok, in tandem with his foundry in Dalian, Sutton says he has made and sold millions of his iron fairies. They are beguiling things, at once coarse and delicate, heavy yet looking like they could take wing at any moment.

“This was my workshop,’’ he says, gesturing around the bar. “Friends would come in to watch me work, and I’d get some wine, and then I put a little kitchen in so I could make some food. That was four years ago. Now I’m making money 24 hours a day. The place is always packed, and when the customers go home we make fairies.’’

On the back of The Iron Fairies’ success, Sutton has opened two more Thong Lor hotspots: Fat Gutz (1/F, Grass Thonglor, 264 Thong Lor 120), billed as a ‘fish and chips saloon for sexy people’ and Clouds (SeenSpace, Thong Lor Soi 13), a minimalist bar of glass and steel built around a venerable Banyan Tree. He has been partly bought out by Novotel and plans to work on F&B concepts for the hotel chain, and is also in the throes of creating a black magic themed bar in Thonglor. Not bad for a bloke who has spend most of his life away with the fairies. 

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