As Founder and CEO of luxury architectural practice DH Liberty and a busy mother to a 4-year-old, Dara Huang is spinning a lot of plates right now, but you’d never know it. Not only is she in the throes of multiple high-end projects around the world (she’s based in London and has a satellite office in Hong Kong), she’s also coordinating the launch of a new furniture collection, all the while remaining infectiously cheerful.
Read on as we chat about how she got started, what her interiors always feature and what her design motto is.
Tell us a little about the beginnings of DH Liberty.
So I got my B.A. in architecture—I went to University of Florida for my B.A.—and then I got my masters degree from Harvard. And, while I was there, [Swiss architecture firm] Herzog & de Meuron—who are in my opinion the best architects in the world—they were teaching thesis there. So I met them there and I got a job [with them] and I worked on some amazing things like the Beijing Olympic Stadium, the Tate Modern, Miami Pérez Art Museum, 56 Leonard Street… I transferred to London—I was still working on the Tate Modern—and I got a job with Foster and Partners. Then I kind of dabbled around in smaller practices.
So what happened was I was at a small shop and I had made a few deals and then one came in where this guy was like, “Hey, if you want to do my house, I'll pay you”, like, literally peanuts, but I didn't know. I thought, “Wow, that's a third of my salary” (which was nothing by the way!) so I said, “OK, I'll leave my job and I'll go to your house”, which was great because I didn't have kids then so it was kind of low risk. And it was really great. I had no business plan and no cash and I said, “I'm going to go start a company!” 2013 is when I started and before I knew it, I had all these people that wanted me to do these jobs and then those jobs started getting bigger.
What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?
So year one we were actually cash positive and then I made a strategic decision to switch my clients from these one man bands “Fix My Living Room” to basically institutional only—funds and developers. [London-based luxury property developer] CIT was the first institutional project we did and that was two £20 million penthouses and then straight after that Starwood Capital for 169 new building units. And that was only my second year in business. So we went from me above a hardware shop to a £70 million development with a £30 million budget for the FF&E and a twenty five person team. We just won Fulham Stadium too.
How would you describe your studio’s aesthetic and what draws you to that look?
Our work is always very sculptural. It's always thinking about not just the finishes, but going all the way back down to the form of the actual space so we think about things an interior designer wouldn't think about, like the procession in which you enter a building, which direction the light comes from, the way we sculpt things and it's all like user experience driven. But then it was funny because slowly, slowly, I started to really appreciate getting a lot more cosy and in touch with my inner interior designer.
But one thing's for sure and one thing I really genuinely am obsessed with is nature, materiality and the beauty of materials. I've literally gone to a quarry in Italy and picked up a piece of debris that fell on the floor and there's a part where it splits and it reveals this gorgeous black stone underneath. And I'm like, “That's my table. I want that. Do not touch that. I want you to cut all of the other edges, totally straight and I want this piece just completely broken off naturally.” And so I think you'll always see that in our work. But our style is ever evolving—we're seven years old so we have plenty of time to grow.
What would you say are some of the most common elements of your spaces?
You’ll always see a pairing of rough and smooth. I absolutely hate everything that's smooth, smooth, smooth. I'll give you an example—polished marble, next to perfect wood, next to perfect wallpaper, next to perfect glass, Swarovski crystal next to purple light. There's nothing in my mind that scares me more than that! For me, I think I need something more real. I need something where you can tell that either Mother Nature or a craftsman had interacted with it. It's the juxtaposition.
And I'm really into very natural elements. I like Mother Nature to show through—I don't like to over process things. I remember when I worked for Herzog in Switzerland, they always had operable windows that went out to terraces. There were always a lot of plants and I think that that's really important, that there's some element of green somewhere. It just needs some element of wellness in there, you know?
Where do your inspirations come from?
It's really funny because the reason I'm into such sculptural things is because working at Herzog de Meuron was hugely influential. They're Pritzker Prize winning. They’re really interesting. They only do the world's most amazing buildings, like theatres and museums and whatnot so a lot of my influences came from my experiences in life.
Also a lot of travel. Going to different countries, you see people appreciating materials that you wouldn't get in the U.K. I feel lucky that I've been able to travel and go into different cultures. I'm not saying you have to go stay at 5-star hotels. You could go to the Himalayas and go stay in a cave and look at the weaving of some like cottage dresses.
I just think that luxury is really global these days and it's important to keep your eyes open. There's always like an inspiration behind everything and there's always some element that makes you think about how it was made or where it was from.
If you could change anything about the design world, what would it be?
One thing that I wish that we could do more of and one thing that I even wish I could do more of is understanding our roles in the world and that the built form is one of the greater CO2 emitters of the world and this is where architects really differ from interior designers. Architects take on a social responsibility. I'm not going to get into that whole spiel because we can only do what we can do, right? But I think that given the pandemic, we've seen how access to fresh air is a game changer. We're now eating outside more. I hope that designers can just be more thoughtful about how people want to live and work and try to influence our clients to kind of see the light.
What are three things that can improve any home?
That’s easy. On Instagram, during COVID, I did this thing that was “How to improve your house without leaving the house”. Number one is the tint of your bulbs. I need a place to have a certain amount of brightness and I want them all to be around the warmth of 2700, which is a warm residential light.
Another thing is just reorganising what you have. There's a certain way to design a bookshelf with your stuff. You can lay them sideways and have some stack; you need negative space in which you can place certain objects and then you can mix it with frames and plants and books and then voila! And then you move it around until it feels good.
And then third, if you want to spend some money, you can just buy beautiful statement objects and layer them up. And have them be eclectic. The last thing you might want to do when you go to Ibiza, for example, is to go by that amazing driftwood pot but do it! Buy it and then put it together and tell a story. Tell a story with your house.
What is your design motto?
I always had a motto that was, “if we're not excited about it, nobody else will be.” Design is like a feeling. We can look at a thousand things we do and until it hits me right here I'm like, “I hate it. Do it again.” We need to be excited about our work—we can't just do it.