1 February, 2012

That Girl: Danielle Huthart of Whitespace

1 February, 2012
This week’s That Girl is the fantastic Danielle Huthart, founder of renowned design and branding consultancy Whitespace and a leading light of the creative scene here – Lane Crawford called her ‘a pioneer of creativity in Hong Kong’! We chat with Danielle about finding inspiration, what makes Hong Kong unique and why no one recognises her on the street!

Are you and your family originally from Hong Kong? Tell us a bit more about your background.
My background is mixed. My father is English and my mother is Chinese. I was born in Hong Kong, and grew up with diverse influences as my stepfather was French, and I attended an American school. My sister Michele and I travelled a lot growing up and we were fortunate to see and experience a lot at a young age. My father instilled in us a sense of adventure, curiosity and wonder for the natural world, and our mother gave us a sense of courage, independence and freedom to pursue our dreams. That’s how I ended up an artist and an entrepreneur.

Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live in Sheung Wan, close to Whitespace as I like walking to work. It’s a walk-up, like many other apartments I’ve lived in. Hong Kong has always been home for me but in order to make it “my own”, I chose to live in a new neighbourhood, one that I was not familiar with or had known before. It turns out to be an area that is now filled with creative studios, coffee shops and little shops, which is perfect.

I’ve made my home my own by filling it up with all these wonderful things I’ve collected — as well as photographs, prints and posters I’ve framed and hung up on the wall. As I grew up in Hong Kong, my flat here has a number of objects I’ve owned since I was young, so my apartment now feels more cosy than ever.

How would you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
I try and keep things simple and comfortable. The only thing that’s really evolved lately has been my hair! I’ve had 4 styles in 6 months and people don’t seem to recognize me!

I dress for the city I live in — and because Hong Kong streets are so treacherous, I wear flats a lot and carry a bag that holds everything I need! I also frequently wear a leather jacket and scarves that go well with anything. I tend to keep jewellery to a minimum, and often wear my own jewellery pieces that I’ve designed. I have also inherited some great accessories from my mother, who had her own boutique and had amassed a unique collection of bags and shoes. Overall, I try and keep things simple and comfortable — street smart and a little sassy.

Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
I don’t have much time to shop in Hong Kong, but if I have time I’ll go to Vein. They are one of our clients, and the store is over on St Francis Yard. I also just bought a colourful Lemlem scarf from Konzepp. I’m also a fan of American Vintage, and they are stocked at Rue Madame.

What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
My must-have products are Aesop body balm, Kiehl’s No.1, Chanel “Coco” lipstick, Byredo’s “Pulp” fragrance, Bumble & Bumble hair products, Tweezerman, and Avène SPF15 moisturizer. For nails, I’ll hit FastBeauty, as it’s close to work and whom we did the brand identity for. For hair, I’ll follow my hairdresser wherever he goes — he’s now over at Le Salon on Duddell Street. If I want to treat myself, the spa at Four Seasons has the best manicure!

What is your favourite thing to do at the weekend?
I try to avoid the crowds as much as possible! I love to catch up on my sleep, or do yoga on Sunday before the week starts again.

What is your favourite restaurant in Hong Kong?
My tastes change all the time. A long-time favourite however is Mak’s Noodles — it’s what I crave after a day of running around going to meetings. The Globe makes a good fish & chips with mushy peas, and 001 makes the best cocktails and grilled cheese.

What inspired you to start Whitespace? How important is branding?
Whitespace was inspired by a combination of having an opportunity to start a business in Hong Kong, and a passion for design. A friend of mine, another Parsons graduate, and I found a studio space in Lan Kwai Fong, and shared it as a space to work. When she returned back to the US, the studio had a few clients and I went forward with Whitespace.

Branding is the combination of aesthetics and business. It’s not simply the visual identity or a logo, but the entire thinking of what the business stands for — its purpose, vision and differentiation. Clients often mistake a logo for a brand, but it’s only one component of it. Branding requires a group of people to make it happen — business leaders, designers, strategists, marketing and sales that work together and share ideas and devise a solution. Our role as designers is to bring focus to these ideas, and communicate them in a unique way that people can understand it.  We want to reach people on an emotional level — as a brand is a person’s feeling about a company, so it’s important for branding to shape this experience, and guide their attitudes and thoughts. It can really make or break a company.

Prior to returning to Hong Kong, you spent a decade in New York – how do the two cities compare? Is there anything you miss particularly about NY and vice versa, about HK when you lived there? What made you come back?
To be honest, the two cities don’t compare! Hong Kong is Hong Kong, and New York is New York. They each have their own magic and mystery, frustrations and faults, culture and chaos. I moved back in 2003 and spent two years wishing Hong Kong was more like New York. It’s like being in a relationship with someone, and wishing you were with someone else. It doesn’t work. You have to love the one you’re with, and really embrace the place you’re in.

Fortunately I go back to New York often enough but what I miss most about that city are the people. I also miss Rosario’s pizza, Central Park, The Strand, The Met, the music scene, and the 24-hour bodegas.

When I’m away from Hong Kong, I miss the neon, the junk trips, the drive to Stanley, Shek O beach barbeques, The Bank of China building at night and the convenience of getting around town. What pulled me back to Hong Kong was curiosity. But I ultimately made it my home again because of the freedom and opportunities I have here as a creative person.

Being born in Hong Kong, you must have seen a lot of change here over the years – is there anything you miss that’s no longer here?
I miss Kai Tak Airport. Flying over the rooftops and landing in Hong Kong was so memorable. I also miss the Star Ferry pier when it was in front of City Hall. There also used to be an awesome roller skating rink in Taikoo Shing. What ever happened to that?

What are your top recommendations for places to go in Hong Kong for art and culture lovers?
SIN SIN, Blindspot Gallery and Saamlung Gallery regularly hold great exhibitions. I’m a big fan of The Hong Kong Arts Festival, as there is so much to see during those few months it’s on; the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has a cool fashion exhibition going on at the moment too. We’re also looking forward to the development of Central Police Station, Police Married Living Quarters, and West Kowloon Cultural District for its museums, galleries and cultural spaces.

How do you keep your creative juices flowing? Are there any particular places you go or things you do to get ideas and seek inspiration?
Ideas can come from anywhere. It’s not as much a particular place or activity as it’s about uncovering the extraordinary in the ordinary. The important thing is to go out and see as much as you can, and remain open to new experiences; in a hectic city, sometimes it’s as simple as switching off your phone, and sitting quietly in a coffee shop with a sketchbook and an iPod.

What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on and why?
One of the most recent memorable projects is our collaboration with AOC1961 [a shop/gallery with a mix of vintage and contemporary eyewear and art]. We met the owner Martin a few years ago while walking past his shop on Aberdeen Street. We struck up a conversation, found out we had mutual friends, and then worked on a website for his brand. We have a deep respect for each other’s businesses and dreams.

We collaborated with him last year to develop a series of posters to celebrate the brand’s 50th Anniversary. The result was the “Eye Wear, Therefore I Am” poster, which is now available for sale [you can see it behind Danielle in some of the photos!]. The fact that we get to do what we love and work with our friends makes us really happy.

You conceived and developed the Creative City insider guide to HK, the city’s first design and culture-focused – what inspired that? What do you think makes HK unique?
Creative City was inspired by a love for Hong Kong — and wanted to show a side to the city that is often overlooked and under-represented, and that there is ultimately more to the surface than the usual landmarks and tourist spots. There is a thriving creative community that we are a part of, and we would like to share where we go, what we do, and who are we.

Hong Kong is unique for many reasons, but there is wonderful architecture, strong heritage and living culture that draws people here, and makes us want to stay and make it home. Creative City attempts to connect, communicate and capture the creative heart of Hong Kong and show an inside track to what is often overshadowed by the powerful finance and business aspects of the city.

Do you have any advice for any other budding entrepreneurs out there?
Do what you love, find others who feel the same, and connect the dots.

All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely-talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at [email protected].

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