As a former fashion designer, Alex Zabotto-Bentley is used to channelling his energy into many a stylish endeavour. He’s now channelling this artistic flair into interior design as the founder of AZBcreative. AZBcreative has masterminded some of Australia’s biggest media and social events, including the March into Merivale, CLEO Bachelor of Year and Harper’s Bazaar Luxury Awards. Among the company’s high-end clientele is Palazzo Versace, Waterford Crystal and The Sydney Theatre Company and singer Lady Gaga. Alex chats to me about how he made his mark in interior design and even lets me in on a few of his best styling secrets below.
What is a day in the life of you?
Apart from grappling with the eternal crisis of what to throw into my green juice, I am a very early riser. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been working late on a project or have just arrived on a redeye flight from Europe, I always wake up around 5am. Seize the day!
My philosophy is that to maximise your energy and productivity, you need to greet the sun every day. Get up before sunrise, head to your favourite vantage point – near the sea is always amazing – and watch it rise. And then (this is a bit spiritual), make your affirmations. It works, believe me. You start each day full of positive energy and resolve, ready to do your best work.
How did you get started in interior design?
To be honest, I spent so much of my childhood transfixed by houses – I used to mentally ‘rate’ them for architectural balance on the walk to school. And while everyone else at school was buying [surfing publication] Tracks mag, I was saving my pocket money for World of Interiors!
My big breakthrough came when the wonderful, late [hotelier] Ian Robertson gave me carte blanche to design a massive, 4,000 square metre bar on the top of Melbourne’s GPO.
Even while working as a fashion director for magazines and designing my own label Fashion Assassin, I was leading a “double life”, doing interior projects for friends on the side.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
With respect to interiors I have been able to really create magical spaces, which are like no other. It’s important to me to create a site-specific space, so we always try to custom make over 70 per cent of every interior. From designing our own range of tiles to creating our own pigment colours to working with local craftspeople to use their brilliant and sometimes under-appreciated skills.
Kittyhawk [restaurant in Sydney] is a good example of this approach. We created original fittings with a sense of place and history, that perfectly fit that space and tell a story. From the hand-dyed leather for the banquettes to the antique French oak doors, the 12-metre long, hand crafted American Oak bar to the custom-made brass-trimmed shelving and tesserae tile design which I drew freehand, there will never be anything else quite like it.
What is your favourite room in your own house?
Definitely my sitting room. It has a wonderful sense of space and light, with high 1920s ceilings and beautiful architectural details. The space is filled with hand selected furniture and decorative pieces that I have collected over time. Every piece tells a story and recalls a memory of a great trip or a weekend combing through flea markets or the thrill of discovering a new artist. It’s so much more than just a space. I love collecting art, so it’s like a private gallery with all the works I’ve collected, from original Keith Haring prints to beautiful, wild landscapes by Aaron Kinnane to modernist sculptures and abstract 1940s Italian art. But it’s not fixed; it’s an ever-evolving space, reflecting my travels and discoveries.
What made you move into events?
It’s all connected. Working on styling projects every day, I was invited to a lot of events and launches; you know how Sydney loves a party! But I felt that from the guest’s point of view, the event design industry was lacking inspiring, immersive experiences, a high taste level and beautiful, memorable moments. Too many events were basically a bar, some wait staff, a media wall and a DJ. Boring! They were forgettable and added nothing to the brands being promoted. So I decided to tackle this very closed, competitive industry head-on, developing a reputation for custom-designed elements and experiences specific to each client. People really connected with these branded environments. I think we ruffled a few feathers at first, but the clients loved it.
What is your number one styling tip for a special event?
If you do one thing, always use incredible flowers. In fact, always double the flower budget, and do something totally unique. I’m not talking about staid arrangements; go big and amaze people. Make an impact with colour and sheer mass. We have dipped phalaenopsis orchids in jet black paint, to emphasize their amazing sculptural properties, and people went crazy.
I also think it’s essential to make sure every single staff member looks impeccable and dressed to suit the brand, whether it’s crisp denim shirts for a whiskey tasting or impeccable black and white for a formal dinner. Make sure that the cocktails are totally desirable and unique and the catering is completely other-worldly…details, details make the event.
What are the biggest mistakes people tend to make when it comes to styling an event?
When creating events, people often think that is just about getting the celebrities and current “cool” people to attend…but a lot of celebrities only stay for a brief time before sweeping off to the next thing, leaving a void. Without those glittering people, the room feels cold. To create an exciting and engaging event, you have to mix and layer the guest list with interesting people, from unique fashionistas to vibrant, animated people with something to say. Mix young and old, established names and up-and-comers: chance encounters create energy. The magic is in the mix.
What have been your top three favourite projects so far?
Only three? Ok, one would be working with the wonderful [PR company] Max Media Lab to conjure a magical Swarovski dinner at the Sydney Opera House with Miranda Kerr. We created modern, shimmering spaces inside Bennelong, mixing white perspex, mirrors, metal and glass with acres of flowers and shimmering ornaments to embody Swarovski’s latest collection. From the entrance, flanked by giant beaten silver vases of cascading roses and orchids to the shimmering, crystal-strewn white carpet, to the show-stopping. monumental stainless steel, geometric sculpture by Gregor Kregar, we owned that space! Attention to detail is a signature of our work, so we cut custom tabletops from white Perspex and applied delicate mirrored gold designs, then topped the tables with cubist vases to hold lavish, eccentric floral arrangements. Miniature French busts, half dipped in gold, added to the decadence.
As far as interior projects, one of the most unusual was creating Seadeck for Scott Robertson [Seadeck’s managing partner] and his team. It’s an amazing floating venue on a gorgeous vintage ship: a 44 metre blank slate and a wonderful challenge. Inspired by the peak of luxury cruising, from the 1920s through 1940s we put a sophisticated twist on nautical design over three vast decks. Overall, it is a minimalist space in navy and white, with custom white lounges, Carrara marble table-tops, a bespoke brass-trimmed bar, curated nautical decorations and iconic four metre high palm trees.
Of course, working on a boat is a challenge in itself. Everything needs to be fixed to the deck, protected from the elements and the furniture needs to double as clever storage. We were essentially designing an interior which would be exposed to wind, rain and sun 365 days a year, yet had to remain luxurious and unforgettable.
Finally, we’ve had a long working relationship with Justin Hemmes and the Merivale Group. Producing and creative directing their March into Merivale event in 2015 was amazing. We welcomed about 100,000 people over five weeks, with 19 events across their venues, from The Ivy to Coogee Pavilion and everywhere between! Every venue and every event required a different approach and spoke to a different audience. We worked with chefs and sponsors to create custom experiences and environments, conceptualised and engaged entertainment, designed and crafted specific installations, stalls and furniture to express each venue and turned the whole Ivy laneway into a new dimension. Who needs sleep, anyway? The hard work paid off, though: we won a national design award for event activation.
How closely do you work with the brands when designing their spaces?
We work incredible closely with our clients. As specialists in branded environments, we need to understand their message and values thoroughly, to create spaces communicate the brand to their customers. The clients we have are very diverse, and each requires a specific solution, whether it be an international beauty brand like Avon to a boutique winery like [the one created for wine brand] Cloudy Bay, to creating branded environments for Westfield to super sized festivals at Coogee Pavilion. We spend a lot of time at the briefing stage to understand the client’s real needs
What has been the best piece of advice you have ever received?
To create change. What I mean is, don’t just talk about it, do it. And do it differently. Never stop learning and innovating. Design isn’t a static business. Technology changes, society changes…you can’t afford to stand still or rest on your laurels.
What’s coming up in 2017?
We were honoured to be awarded several international Design Awards last year which really raised our profile, and we’re working on hotel projects, villa interiors and immersive experiences in Europe, Bali, Flores and Sydney…and we have some restaurant and bar projects that will change the way Sydney-siders approach dining and going out. I can’t say too much, but watch this space – there are some amazing things coming!
You can check out more of Alex’s work on Instagram at @azbcreative