City & Country: Architect Huang finds a winning combination

GROWING up in a supportive environment and with an interest in art, Dara Huang has become a full-fledged architect with a passion for both architecture and interior design. Her company, Design Haus Liberty Ltd, established in November last year in London, marries these two passions.

Her parents, originally from Taiwan, immigrated to the US, where her father was a Nasa scientist. As a result, her upbringing had a mix of East and West.

“My family came from a modest background,” says Huang. “My parents moved to the US for education and work opportunities and were always big believers in higher education. They fostered the perfect supportive and loving environment for me to grow up in. My Asian background helps with the strong work ethics, stamina and family unit.”

I knew early on that I wanted to have my own practice, so after learning from higher institutional settings, the only way to understand the inner workings of running an office was to go and be in one — Dara

During her formative years, Huang’s love for architecture grew from her innate interest in art and her father’s interest in big houses.

“I was always drawn to art and design, but not necessarily in the architectural sense,” she says. “My father used to love looking at big houses when we couldn’t afford them. I remember being fascinated with houses as they became representative of my father’s dream for a better life. My taste has evolved and become more international, so obviously I don’t think the size of the home has anything to do with the level of design any more. You could have a tiny flat in Tokyo and have it be absolutely amazing as seen in many design magazines today.”

Prior to starting her own practice, Huang had won numerous awards such as the Clifford Wong Prize, the Young Architects Award and first place in the AIAS National Design Review Competition.

She also had the opportunity to work with top architectural firms from around the world such as Herzog de Meuron in Basel, Switzerland, and Foster + Partners in London. Additionally, Huang had the opportunity to contribute to the Tribeca skyscraper in New York, the New Tate Modern Museum in London and Manolo Blahnik stores worldwide.

However, Huang has not allowed the many accolades and face-to-face meetings with experienced architects, to go to her head.

“I don’t feel like I have had true professional success yet, but I hope that one day I will get there,” she says in an email interview. “I don’t think staying grounded will be an issue as my father has instilled that into my personality. I am, after all, my own worst critic.”

Once she decided that architecture was what she wanted to do, she chose to get her Bachelor in Design from the University of Florida, graduating in 2004. She quickly followed that with a Master’s in Architecture from Harvard University in 2007. Then she worked in Basel and later London. All the while though, she had a clear objective.

“I knew early on that I wanted to have my own practice, so after learning from higher institutional settings, the only way to understand the inner workings of running an office was to go and be in one,” she says. “I wasn’t so concerned with building my CV as I was just gaining the right experience to learn how to bring in clients, write contracts and learn about interior design and small fit-outs, a necessary skill for small urban-based offices.

“The bigger offices taught me about architecture. I no longer feel intimidated in skyscraper design! It actually taught me that a firm can conquer big projects with small, creative and hardworking teams. The experiences taught me that the most important aspect of architecture is the concept of the design.”

After garnering enough experience and refining her craft, she set up shop last year and now has projects in the UK, the US and Switzerland. Her practice helps clients both with architectural and interior design needs.

“In London, there isn’t much opportunity for new-build properties with all of the conservation and renovation going on. It’s only natural that you have to answer to market demand,” she says. “Therefore, moving to a smaller office, where the majority of your clients are ‘real’ people and not international super-clients with unlimited budgets, was a natural progression for me. Now that I do both, I have no idea how they could ever be separated. It’s like asking another artist to finish your painting for you. I think the flow of ideas and designs has definitely made me a better, rounded designer.”

Huang’s team was involved in the design of the ZigZag House in Boston in the US ... well as the interior of a flat in Marylebone Maison, a developer’s project in London

Adding to her design perspective were Huang’s years as a professional model. She says the experience in high fashion has influenced her craft. “Design is everywhere, whether or not we label it as ‘design’. For instance, if you look at the structure of leaves under a microscope, you can find perfect geometry. it is like how the molecules of water structure influenced the façade of the Beijing Olympic swimming pool and a ball of string influenced the bird’s nest stadium design. It is all about how you see things. The best type of design is one that has a strong concept behind it. Fashion trends are included.”

Being a young and successful businesswoman, she had her doubts about being taken seriously as an architect.

“I think there is a natural fear that you wouldn’t be respected in your field, especially a male-dominated one,” says Huang. “For example, I remember the first big project I did with my company: I was in a meeting room filled with the clients, engineers, lawyers and consultants — all above the age of 40 and all men! I had to lead the meeting, and surprisingly, found people paid more attention.”

While it would seem Huang lives a charmed life, it is her self-awareness that has led her to where she is today. This is something she believes every young woman thinking of entering the field of architecture should have.

“Be aware of who you are and how to be wise in making your business moves. Above all, always be professional about everything,” she says. “What I am still learning, because I am not there yet, is not to be disillusioned by the idea that women can ‘have it all’ in terms of children, family and career. There will always be a compromise somewhere and you have to make a conscious decision of how to balance your life.”

From catwalks to skyscrapers to niche interior design projects, Huang is not one to rest on her laurels as she strives to be the best that she can be.


This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 16, 2013.

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