Adrian Peter Tse
Jan 28, 2015

Authentic brand experience can’t be made on computers

Maxime Dautresme heads A Work of Substance, a Hong Kong agency that, as its name implies, builds brands through a deep devotion to craft, a sense of narrative and a belief that people appreciate skill and truth.

Maxime Dautresme
Maxime Dautresme

While the zeitgeist is computerisation and automation, Maxime Dautresme, founding partner and executive creative director at Substance, is looking for people that can “work with their hands.”

For example, the agency’s extensive project for Bibo, an unconventional French fine dining restaurant and bar in Hong Kong, demanded everything from the development of the core “experiential” idea through to branding and interior design. When Bibo, an artist, art collector, and owner of the namesake restaurant approached Substance, the idea was to blend street art and upscale dining into a unique creative vision.

Dautresme and his team at Substance received carte blanche to help create the F&B concept from the ground up. Like much of Substance's work, this started with developing a story rooted in heritage.  

The only catch was that they needed to incorporate a massive collection of artwork by some of the world’s most renowned contemporary artists: Banksy, Vhils, Invader, JonOne, Stohead, Kaws, JR, Ella & Pitr, Mist, MadC, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Daniel Arsham, Jeff Koons, King of Kowloon, Sheperd Fairey, Takashi Murakami, and Yayoi Kusama to name a few.

The entrance to Bibo

“When we create F&B concepts and restaurants, we start with a film script,” said Dautresme. “Because when people step inside the space, they’re part of a narrative, and each customer is a character in that setting. Instead of exchanging scripted dialogue, they’re creating memories and feelings in that place that can stay with them for a while even after they leave.”

While the Bibo concept pays homage to the Bohemian lifestyle of Paris in the 1930s through art, design, food and cocktails, the interiors are based on Art Deco French design overlaid with the eclectic art collections and installations.

The brand narrative that ties it all together is an old French tramway company, La Compagnie Générale Française de Tramway: The restaurant is said to occupy the company’s former headquarters, which was luxurious in the 1930s but was then abandoned and left to decay until artists moved in to use the venue as a studio for their creative visions.

Located in a heritage building on Hollywood Road among art galleries and antique shops, the story is the backbone of the entire concept that informs everything from the branding work to the interior design, down to the staff and menu. For restaurant patrons, this level of detail is hard to miss.

“As an agency, we don’t really advertise ourselves,” said Dautresme. “Restaurants can get a lot of traffic in Hong Kong and people go to the places we’ve designed and our phone starts ringing.”

Other F&B and hospitality-related brands that Substance has worked on include Madam Sixty Ate, Sal Curioso, The Krug Room, La Vache, Blacksheep, Chom Chom, Yonge Piggies, La Madeleine de Proust, and Grass Miami.

The agency has also worked with the Financial Times, Shanghai Tang, Reebok, Absolut Vodka, Gustav, Timothy Oulton, Cartier, Philips, MTV, and Eurostar among others.

The interior of Bibo
Looking through Substance’s work and its client list, you get a sense of what its priorities are as an agency. “If I had to sum up Substance, it’s ‘craftsmanship’,” said Dautresme. “We take the time to create detail and depth. Our clients are also people looking for these specific qualities.”  
When it comes to things like identity or package design, Substance opts for a handmade approach, with artwork that is drawn or shaped and then digitised. “With creative work that is purely computer-generated, it’s difficult to achieve a deeper dimension,” said Dautresme. “There’s no replacing subtle water colours and brush strokes when it comes to the final execution.”

Substance has an eclectic and diverse team of illustrators, sculptors, interior designers, brand strategists, advertising and digital specialists. “Many of our people have a fine arts background,” said Dautresme.

The founding team includes Dautresme, Florian Michaux, and Alexandre Reinert. Other key members are Mathias Pares, Krystal Cheng and Samatha Tse. Each person brings a speciality to the table. Substance has offices in Hong Kong, Paris and Stockholm.

Design work for Black Sheep
An eye for detail

As a company, reaching this point wasn’t easy. Dautresme established the Hong Kong office at a time when the creative industry was only just beginning to see the value of having a “multi-disciplined” set-up, albeit not to the point of listing ‘interior design’ as an offering. Likewise, designing “experiences” has only become sought-after in marketing and advertising in recent times.

Dautresme said it took “three hard years to pay off”. His expertise in “crafting atmospheres” and “creating contexts for imaginative ideas” wasn’t something that had always been appreciated—despite it being close to his heart. His combined background in architecture and advertising goes back 37 years to Brazil, where he was born. 

While Dautresme’s father is of French-Belgian descent, his mother is Brazilian. “My father has always been passionate about architecture and a fan of French designer Philippe Starck,” said Dautresme. “Dad was a banker and travelled the world for work, spending a few years at a time in different cities while my mother was more on the arts side,” he said. “So my parents have always had an eye for things.”

Dautresme was brought up in Brazil, Korea, Japan and France at different points of his childhood. “At that age, you’re like a sponge. Being in touch with all the cultures shaped my personality,” said Dautresme. “At the same time, I grew up surrounded by close family friends who were in the advertising industry.”  

Later, he studied architecture in Paris at Ecole d'Architecture de Paris-Val-de-Seine. Whilst completing his studies, he worked for a year and a half as an architectural assistant at Atelier de Portzamparc, an award winning French firm. Although Dautresme had the opportunity to work on LVMH’s New York office, he felt that architecture wasn’t what he wanted to pursue in the long term.

“It would have taken me forever to get my hands on creative projects,” said Dautresme. He was given “isolated design tasks” such as work on “staircases”. “It takes years to progress,” he said. “In France it’s also a bit slow unless you go in with a big academic background as well.”

However, the skills and exposure he gained in this period were invaluable. The “pace in Paris” deepened his appreciation of history and heritage and the role it plays in developing vision, design and stories.

Taking these ideas with him, Dautresme decided to venture into the world of branding and creative advertising. He landed his first role as junior creative director at TBWA, where he worked on clients such as Chivas Regal, Sony and fashion brands. “TBWA was good because they were always looking at their own brand, not just the client’s brand,” said Dautresme. “That’s the challenge for big agencies.”

Ultimately, Dautresme felt the work “was too seasonal and fast”, as campaigns would come and go. On the other hand, architecture was also “too slow”.

When an old friend approached Dautresme about an opportunity to design a restaurant for a hotel in Miami, he didn’t hesitate to go. Inspired by the “charisma” and “sense of humour” of Starck, Dautresme wanted to “create atmospheres” encompassing the “five senses”. The scope of the restaurant project involved everything from the identity and menu to the interior design.

Despite his eagerness, the project didn’t work out in the end. Dautresme took a job as a bartender in Miami instead of heading back to France. He did landscaping work on the side.

“Miami in 2000 was a shallow place, but you could feel the potential just beneath the surface,” said Dautresme. “And I was in my 20s, so I mean, come on.”

Soon he went to work with a German entrepreneur who wanted to build a hotel. In addition to the hotel, Dautresme designed the concept, identity, menus, web interface and interior decor for Grass, a restaurant in Miami’s art district.

Design for Grass, Miami

“People in the food and beverage business are very intuitive and fast,” said Dautresme. “They see a place or location that’s good and have an idea and they run with it. They’re not very data-driven people.”

Like watching some kind of time-lapse video, Dautresme saw Miami evolve from being a centre of physicality with muscle men covered in baby oil and people wearing pink roller skates to a mecca for artists.

“In those days you could find a nice and cheap place to rent that was close to really good restaurants,” said Dautresme. The period didn’t last as rental and property prices shot up. “Basically, all that led to the bubble and financial crisis.”

Dautresme went on to do real estate brand work in New York and South Florida. He was involved with projects such as Trump Soho, Trump Fort Lauderdale, and 10 Museum Park. As the financial crisis took its toll in 2007, Dautresme looked to re-enter the brand and advertising space. The game there had changed as well.

He received two offers. One was from Publicis New York and the other was The Brand Union in Shanghai. “The Publicis job would have involved refining the whole Jaguar brand experience,” said Dautresme. “They had these amazing luxury vehicles and they’d put them in a showroom with fluorescent lights and a dying pot plant.”

Dautresme was more attracted to the “energy and growth” in China and wanted to get his hands on both the “business and culture”. In 2007 he joined The Brand Union in Shanghai as design director.

“Shanghai is like a mix between the middle ages and Blade Runner,” said Dautresme. “The difference on the subway in Shanghai is interesting too—you’re basically getting shoved. In Tokyo, it feels more like you’re getting massaged.”

As ECD he worked on the brand strategy, brand identity, packaging and brand experience of clients such as Pernod-Ricard, American Standard, Bosideng, Mattel, Fubon Bank and Suntech in the Greater China area. Understanding the “evolving demography” and the differences between “first and second tier cities” combined with the “rapid changes” taking place in the economy and the impact on consumer behaviours was both challenging and rewarding.

“People were going from ‘Check me out, I’m Gucci or Louis Vuitton’ to ‘Hey, I’m elegant’,” said Dautresme. These had deeper implications on the client side too. “Bosideng was an interesting client – they had something like 8000 point-of-sale systems.  The owner is one of the richest men in China and was a farmer five years ago. Now he’s driving a Ferrari to the factory every day.”

As Dautresme worked to “profile demographics” and create “brand experience makeovers”, he felt the difficulty in “selling creativity in China”. “You’d walk into a store and there’d be three of the company’s logos designed differently,” said Dautresme. At the same time brands weren’t inclined to take risks on the creative front. “Productivity comes first, then politics, and then manufacturing and the idea is ‘more and faster’. Creativity is last on the list.”

In 2009 Dautresme went to Hong Kong and joined DDB as design director. The agency was seeking someone “multi-disciplined”, and Dautresme was given the opportunity to “strengthen brands across Asia”.

“The mountain view and the sea in Hong Kong reminded me of Rio,” said Dautresme. “I really appreciate Hong Kong’s heritage and its history built on trade.”  

Work for DDB Hong Kong
It all comes together

At this point, he began to see the synergy between all the “elements of design” he had previously undertaken. “Looking back, I would keep my experience in advertising because it allows you to think the most creatively among architects and product designers,” said Dautresme. “When you’ve seen brands compete in different industries and markets, it makes you think about things and the role of advertising.”

Combining these qualities with architecture, where “you look at the behaviour and circulation of people, how they work together and nurture each other within a space”, Dautresme had the idea of starting his own firm. He started freelancing to build up the business.

A Work of Substance was founded in 2011 with five friends from different industries ranging from digital to finance. “We decided to not do commercials or work for mainstream corporate companies,” said Dautresme. “The challenge was to start with this blank canvas and build up our reputation.”

Substance’s first client, Madam Sixty Ate, was a “dream come true” with no “restrictions on creativity”. The concept was to bring to life the chef’s journey through flavours and textures using detailed “drawings and poetry”. Work for the F&B brand won awards at Red Dot, One Show, HKDA and Spikes Asia.

“In many ways the chef’s journey was similar to my own but explored through the language of food,” said Dautresme. The seminal project set Substance in the right direction. “All our clients show food or fashion,” he said. “The design work takes time and it’s about craftsmanship. You can’t use computer vectors to transmit the feeling of a dish.”

“In the end, people want to see skills and truth,” he added.

Menu at Madam Sixty Ate
Subtance’s Hong Kong office is a ground-floor shop space on Tai On terrace in Sheung Wan, opposite Blake Gardens, the site of the infamous 1894 Bubonic plague outbreak, at which time the area was densely populated and had deplorable sanitary conditions. “There are funeral parlours not far from here too,” said Dautresme. “Bad Feng Shui used to keep the rent around here cheap. But now this area is taking off.”

He points at two blocks of low-rise buildings that were “refurbished by a Swedish banker’s wife”. The repainted colour scheme of the exterior wall boasts a simple black and white. Down the road is a stucco building and inside is a hip coffee shop and office space that has a “nice garden”. “This whole area has this Omotesandō vibe happening now,” he said.  

That observation illustrates how Dautresme is constantly taking in his environment. He savours the details. Between conceptualising brands, he’s paying attention to the finishing on walls, the refinement of corners and edges, the execution of door hinges and whether or not the right nails and screws have been used for a particular purpose. 

“I want to make Substance a full production firm and do everything in-house, combining craftsmanship and manufacturing,” said Dautresme. “There’s still a lot to do. We want to bring on writers, carpenters, sculptors, painters and people that can get hands-on.”

Dautresme believes this is feasible as Hong Kong is “close to factories and production” and timely due to the “changing values of the city” as well as the “opportunities in the rest of Asia and around the world”.

“It’s a city of trade and business with a strong sense of individuality,” said Dautresme. “But there’s a slowdown in people just wanting to make money and a greater focus on philanthropy.”

“Deals can be made in just minutes in Hong Kong. A lot of people have made money fast through trading in one way or another,” he said. “But designers always come in at the end to help people dream.”

Substance is also keen to expand into the West Coast of the United States where “the vibe and pace is looking good.”

“You should always ask ‘what’s the worst case scenario?’” said Dautresme. “But to put yourself in interesting places you have to be fearless and curious all the time.”

A Work of Substance office in Hong Kong


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