Dara Huang has made a lot happen. Echoing her father’s path to prosperity, she moved to a country where she knew no one to gain an education, and independence. A scholarship to Harvard was followed by a career in architecture, which saw her involved with iconic builds such as the Tribeca Skyscraper, 56 Leonard Street in New York City, and the Tate Modern II in London.
Moving into interiors, Dara created Design Haus Liberty in 2013 – an international architecture and design practice based in London, with a satellite office in Hong Kong. Freedom sits at the heart of the practice’s ethos, with unshackled imaginations encouraged to push every project to its pinnacle. We visited Dara in her London home to chat a bit more about her career, the interior design of her own flat and what inspires her creatively.
I have a Masters Degree in Architecture and I grew up doing art as a child – a child ‘artist’ you could say. However, my parents encouraged me to pick a professional degree. So, I picked a professional degree, and that was it. I grew up in a pretty modest family, so we couldn’t afford an out-of-state school. I got a scholarship for an in-state school – University of Florida – for undergrad. Then, when I went for my masters, I got a scholarship to Harvard.
My Dad grew up in a time of war and was very poor, so he felt his way to freedom was through education. He got a full scholarship to a university in the United States. My Dad met my Mom in Taiwan and brought her to the US. So, I was born in the US. He taught me how hard work and education was the key to your freedom and your independence, particularly as a women. His goal was never to marry me off but to make sure I could take care of myself.
I was taught from a very young age to study, to work hard, and not rely on anybody else. Life is pretty unpredictable and I’ve found my Dad’s words really ring true. And, I think all women should think about that, whether you’re married or single – have your own fall back, as you just don’t know what’s going to happen and you want to feel like you have control of your own life.
My home right now is a rental – I’ve rented in London a lot. And, I always look for the same things… Volume is incredibly important, especially because rent is always largely based on square footage. It has to have a high ceiling. And, I really love that we’re in an historical fabric; I love Victorian or Georgian features that homes have, such as cornicing or bay windows, as they bring so much character to the space. My current London flat is part of a former mansion house that’s been turned into flats, so it has those features.
I do this with every rental I have: I have my contractor come in, who is great for rentals because he doesn’t build joinery off site, in a workshop, he builds it all on site. For example, in my last flat I had shelves built in either side of the fireplace, and had a kitchen island made. And, in my new flat, I built a giant toy closet in the living room.
When you find a home, energy is so important, and that’s not tangible. So, volume’s important as it correlates to how much light it receives. Then, I think about practical matters, like my son. So, I find opportunities for storage on the wall space, in the living room or his bedroom. Walls are so often overlooked for storage space – yet using them gives identity to places and allows you to feel surrounded by your things.
It’s all about how to make the most of what you have. A couple of tricks I do include mirrors, as they create so much light, space and depth, which adds to the energy. And, another trick is adding dado rails – they’re a simple, cheap edging detail that you can strip glue on and paint over, and it gives a chic French/Parisian vibe.
Then, another trick is to change your door knobs – make sure the base of the knob has the same dimension as existing knobs, so you don’t have to paint everything. And, if you can, change the light fittings – you can take lights with you if you move. You could even add art lights to the wall, as it makes a place look more luxurious, even if they’re not wired in.
Just the space. For me, when you’ve done a space well, you walk in and you automatically feel the ambience. It’s not one thing – like my bathtub or my bed (although, I love my bed, don’t get me wrong) but I just miss the space. It’s the energy.
This is so embarrassing but it’s actually a pillow that I got gifted via Instagram. I get approached a lot by random companies to do Instagram marketing for them but I’m really limited about it, and only work with brands that I really believe in and think are really amazing, and relevant.
So, I got approached by this pillow company who offered to pay me to put a post up about their product but I didn’t feel it was quite right for me… They sent me the pillow to try. And, I have to say, it’s the most amazing pillow I’ve ever slept on. That pillow has been to Athens, Paris, Bologne, Istanbul… So, I’ve agreed to post on this pillow because I’m so in love with it. It’s actually that good.
I liked a neutral style before it became quite a trend. I started as an architect, so I really liked white and grey. Then, when I got into interiors, white and grey sort of turned into ivory and beige, as I was more about ‘warm and cosy’. I tend to be drawn to nature and the natural; if you look at shearling/sheepskin or un-dyed cotton and fibres, they’ve got this nuanced natural tone to them that are so beautiful. So, the colour palette grew out of nature, which is what I consider a new definition of luxury – the natural, the real. I love earth tones and earth hues because I like natural materials.
With rentals, I always change all the light bulbs so that they match – a calm, warm light. And, I make sure all my light isn’t just from the ceiling, as you can create cosiness through table and floor lamps. You have to have a really great rug too. The rug in my living room is so cosy – it’s a from The Rug Company, as we’re doing a design with them right now. People would actually rather sit on the floor than the furniture. It makes the whole space feel really cosy, along with throws and cushions.
I think it would be the painting that my son painted. He’s been painting with me since he was three years old, and it’s a piece I did with him. I’ve always loved painting and always found it very therapeutic. Over lockdown, I put canvases in my home and I gave him a paintbrush and a piece of charcoal to see what he’d do, and he just went for it, with no fear. I loved that. Adults think so hard about what we’re going to do but kids just go at it, fearlessly, with their creativity. I just love that.
So, we started doing more artwork together and there’s a huge painting that’s two canvases on the main wall which I painted then he added to. Children change so fast, and I wanted to capture his braveness, his creativity, and his way of drawing at that time, which is so unique. I find it really touching to see that time captured in the canvas – I’m not going to see those lines again next year, as they’ll change as his mechanics change.
Of all the furniture, I absolutely love the dining table – it looks like an enormous egg. It’s made out of 50mm thick stone that’s bull-nose edged. Our marble tables come in at just under £3k, which is so reasonable – it’s affordable luxury, when usually a marble table comes in at around £15k. It’s a beautiful, stunning, showcase piece.
I used to cross the park opposite it to get to the office. I would ride my bike or walk through Cornwall Gardens to get to work, and a real sense of tranquility would wash over me as I entered the area. The air feels cooler, it smells different, I really felt I wanted to live there. So, when it came to finding a new place for me and my son, I was drawn to it. I like the idea of a communal garden for my son too. It feels like a place of positive energy that I feel good in. Especially since the pandemic, home feels more like a sanctuary.
I love being in town. Everybody talks about how we need to have a better balance in life. Usually, what that means is eating better, sleeping better, exercising and working too. But that balance is so hard to strike when you’re on a plane, and eating whatever airports or hotels have for you. You just can’t get a balance or a schedule…
So, for me, a typical weekend is to take time to myself and find that balance. I’m pretty low key but like to get beauty stuff done, like my nails and lashes. These are small beauty tricks you have to hack when you’re a really busy business person and I do them every few weeks. I’ll spend time with loved ones but I like to have no plans, and do nothing. It’s a respite from my normal calendar that’s back to back.
When I’m with my son our weekends are usually based around the park and the playground, play dates and Pizza Express – whatever he wants to do. We’re near the V&A, and went to Kew Gardens the other weekend.
I’m inspired by people. I was watching the Super Bowl Halftime Show with Jennifer Lopez, and I was inspired by it, as she works so hard. I’m inspired by people that work hard – self-made people who take risks and put it all out there, which I think stems back from what my parents did and taught me. I suppose I see myself in them; I came to country where I had no friends, and no family to support me, and I’ve made a lot happen. It hasn’t all been easy but it’s all worked out… And, I did it on my own. It’s exactly what my Dad said: Work hard, believe in yourself, and do something that you love. That the beauty of life; you put in your chips and life gives them right back to you.