Alex Zabotto-Bentley of AZBcreative – the team behind Sydney’s Kittyhawk – shares with us the importance of having a narrative behind any form of design and how creatives can avoid what he calls “The Design Apocalypse”.
Since launching in July this year, Kittyhawk, a restaurant in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, has been recognised by international admirers and has received outstanding reviews from interior design publications, international blogs and the industry alike.
The space is a full design performance which pays homage to old-world Europe; understated details thought through by the team at AZBcreative, led by Alex Zabotto-Bentley. From the custom-designed 40,000-piece mosaic floor to 13 metre hand carved French oak bar, Zabotto-Bentley and his team left no stone unturned.
The space has layers of theatrical genius and was awarded the Gold Medal at this year’s London Design Awards. Another feather in the cap for Zabotto-Bentley, who has made his mark visible in Australian design, hospitality, media and fashion industries, even serving as men’s fashion director at Vogue Australia at the tender age of 25.
Having worked within the fashion and design industry for many years and recognising that there was an absolute need for a company that designs curated interiors, brand alignment and live experiences, Zabotto-Bentley started AZBcreative.
The team at AZBcreative is multi-disciplinary, kept “deliberately small”, and no one is boxed into a strict job title. The team works on live activations and immersive experiences as well as permanent, beautiful interior spaces.
desktop caught up with Zabotto-Bentley to learn more about Kittyhawk, his journey into fashion and interiors, what inspires him and what he hopes for Australian design.
Give us a backstory. How and when did you get into design and styling?
In some ways, I was a typical Melbourne kid growing up in the suburbs, playing soccer, drawing, inventing new colours by mixing up pigment, chalk and old paints from Dad’s garage. I actually started on a different path, studying classics and psychology. But I always had an interest in design.
On my way to university, I used to mentally score the local houses: factoring for colour, the quality and lushness of their gardens and overall appearance. I could have guessed by the magazines I started reading. Alongside Psychology Today, other titles crept in, like World of Interiors, The Face, Interview and Per Lui.
Growing up at that time, we were surrounded by future design gurus and tastemakers. There were so many independent films, underground clubs, art happenings, so many possibilities.
It was the time of Warhol and Basquiat and Haring and the early years of hip hop and electronica; the air crackled with creativity! The people I hung out with at clubs like Subterrain and Inflation, are now internationally renowned photographers, designers, musicians, film makers… but at that time we just wanted to create something. We started playing around, taking shots with clothes I found at the markets and customised. I was then asked to do some work as a stylist for music promos and videos and I found myself styling up-and-comers like Kylie and Danii Minogue, Kate Ceberano and all the new boy bands, while trying to finish my degree. I still had it in my mind to become an art curator or antique dealer specialising in sculpture and art, but fashion kind of took over for a while.
You were men’s fashion director at just 25! What were some of your lessons from that experience?
It was an amazing opportunity! I had my own sense of style; a combination of classic Italian mixed with that Cary Grand old Hollywood elegance and I found myself working on campaigns from David Jones, and Calibre to Hugo Boss and Banana Republic.
Men’s styling was still coming into its own in Australia back then, so in a way I had a lot of freedom to put my own stamp on things. I had the good fortune to be guided by Deborah Thomas at Elle to create a men’s portfolio, then Nancy Pilcher gave me the opportunity to elevate men’s fashion for Vogue Australia. I never took those opportunities for granted. Being somewhat instinctual and self-taught, working in the commercial world helped me to grow up quickly.
I learned to edit, to advocate for my own ideas and to work really hard. Working in magazines, you have to tell a visual story: the palette you choose has a subtext, adding another layer of meaning. I also had a voracious appetite for classic and new wave European films so storytelling is an essential skill that has helped me connect with audiences through my work, ever since. Also, it’s one thing to dress a pop star, but suddenly I was learning about global markets, staying ahead of the trends, how to build relationships with advertisers without compromising my vision, and how to assemble a great team.
When did this journey turn onto the path of interiors? How did you apply the lessons from the fashion industry into the interiors space?
A love of art and history had fostered a passion for interiors. I had developed an interest in architectural details while watching old Fellini and Visconti movies at home with my parents, but while they were mesmerised by the actors, I was obsessing over the colour palettes and the faded grandeur of the sets!
I trawled antique shops for vintage interior tomes, rolls of hand-blocked wallpaper, textiles and anything with a link to a different interior design world. But once I started traveling, my fate was sealed. I began to fall in love with crumbling palazzi in Rome, cool 1940s art spaces in Paris and faded Victorian facades.
During my fashion trips, my background in classics led me to interesting finds. I found I had an eye for the best elements at flea markets and thrift stores, and people started asking me to help them source pieces, and I moved on to antique shops and auctions. I documented everything I saw, either with my camera or my memory; from antique markets in Buenos Aires to early Roman floor tiles in Trastevere, from swimming pools gouged out the stone cliffs on the Amalfi Coast to the Brutalist architecture in Rio de Janeiro. Subconsciously, I was absorbing lessons on form and scale. In fact the fundamentals of architecture – the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci sequence – hold true for all design disciplines. I really don’t think you need to separate fashion and interior and visual design – they are all branches of the same family.
Before I knew it, I was becoming a professional hunter and gatherer of things! Wasn’t it Malcolm Gladwell who said “10,000 hours at something makes you a professional”? I did my hours! But it was also clear that this fun side gig was going somewhere. I was consulting for friends’ interiors, doing summer set design courses and paint and finish classes, while working as an art director and production designer on commercials and short films. It was quite organic and it comes back to the art of the storyteller. My styling and fashion design work was about creating a powerful narrative. That’s something I have carried through my design career.
Take us through your design process, when you first get the brief to completion of project, using Kittyhawk as an example. Share with us your challenges and lessons.
I harp on about the story, but really, every design begins with a story, and for Kittyhawk, the story really is its strength.
This is where communication is so important. In order to create a great design, you need to know the client’s story. And so we have this wonderful moment at the end of WWII: the liberation of Paris.
The clients wanted us to capture that sense of elation; there’s the Belle Epoque elegance of a classic Parisian bistro, the bravado and swagger of the American GIs and that moment when everyone took to the streets to celebrate and carouse. So through the design, you need to tell that story to the public, without words. As the famous writer’s rule goes, “Show, don’t tell”.
We researched the era, we scoured the world for original paraphernalia, we looked at the blueprints of the original Kittyhawk fighter plane, we immersed ourselves in the atmosphere, the motifs and the textures. But we weren’t creating a film set. This wasn’t Casablanca. The bar is in Sydney, in the financial district; it’s an area that is both modern and grounded in history. We had to make the space inviting and relevant to our time and our environment. One of the challenges in any space is space; maximising the sense of space without losing intimacy, dealing with traffic flow through that space and making it easy for the staff to do their job.
It’s not just what you see, but everything behind the scenes that makes a great design. We worked with custom makers to create bespoke pieces and sourced authentic antiques to add to the ambience. The result is layered. You can visit many times and discover new things.
You say that social media has severely affected our ability to concentrate and to appreciate design. And you mentioned a term: “The Design Apocalypse”. What do you mean by that?
It’s the opposite of the layered approach of storytelling. It’s “Bam! Here it is!”
Throw every trend at the wall and see what sticks. I know I’ve been harsh on social media like Instagram and Pinterest, but it’s so dispiriting to see this lazy, “me too” approach. What you see in a picture on the web is flat. There’s nothing wrong with sharing ideas, but people are just copying the surface of what they see: 10 bare Edison bulbs hanging in a row, a fluoro chevron on the wall, a faux industrial wall and a rustic wooden bench. You can walk into a hotel lobby or a cafe in Carlton or Copenhagen and have no idea where you are; it’s all the same.
So how do designers then survive this “apocalypse”?
We have to stop catering to the short attention span. Design is not about clicks and likes and instant gratification. You see how fickle people are, how many “cool” restaurants close down within a year of opening. Create something challenging, intelligent and lasting. You will win loyalty. There’s no magic formula. What lazy, cookie-cutter design says to the customer is “we think you’re stupid.” It’s a cynical approach which always backfires.
And so what is “good design” to you?
Good design is very subjective, but I always approach a project from the user’s perspective and from an understanding of history. History and research are very important when creating a lasting solution. There’s nothing worse than an interior that’s “trendy”. While recognising what is going on in the world, you need to address the unique challenges of the design brief and create something that is refreshing, but also authentic, to stand the test of time.
Let’s go back to running AZBcreative. What are the key things one would need to run a successful design business?
Of course, good ideas are key, but I think the most important thing is to be a good listener. Having worked as a stylist with real people (and having studied psychology), I quickly learned to really listen to what the client wanted. Even if they say one thing, they often mean something deeper. An actress who says “I won’t wear that dress” might really be saying “I don’t feel confident”. So that’s what you have to work on. It’s essential that you define the brief. And of course, having amazing people around you! You don’t work in a vacuum. You need the creative energy, bouncing ideas around together, to come up with an even better solution.
In your opinion, how has the landscape of Australian design evolved over the years? How will this continue to evolve?
Australia has always been at the forefront of innovation – world class food and coffee, product designers like Marc Newson and magazines like Vogue Entertaining that set the standard worldwide many years ago.
But we tend to downplay it.
I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, to represent the best of Australian design and that innate authenticity that we sometimes take for granted. We’ve shown that Australia stands with the best in the world with local producers and designers that really make an impact.
Our recent projects from Seadeck, which fuses a European Lido-resort sophistication with Sydney’s natural harbourside glamour; Goodbar, a world-class music venue; the relaxed atelier style of Brick Lane with its hand-finished details and Melbourne’s newest favourite: Greenfields, along with Kittyhawk, prove that we can create something ‘of the world’ without losing our Australian identity.
We were thrilled to receive another international design award in London last month, for our work on Kittyhawk. It shows that the world is taking notice of us. My next step is to take this vision and approach to the world. We’ve already designed some fantastic spaces overseas including the award-winning Saigon Street in Bali. I’m now starting on some larger residential projects, villas and more restaurants abroad and I’d love to work on some hotels – everyone should have a chance to experience the Aussie lifestyle!
What Australia has is a unique quality of light that informs our design choices, a lifestyle that values experiences over material things and a lightness and ease of approach that shocks our counterparts in Europe and America. We make it look easy. But we also work bloody hard!
Learn more about AZBcreative.