Living a dream of substance

Nestled among the hidden pedestrianised backstreets of Poho is where I find Maxime Dautresme and his staff of 25 quietly working away in their office. Surrounded by lush green foliage, natural light filtering in through glass front walls and a symphony of birdsong coming from the trees overhead, their ground floor workspace is unlike most others in this city of modern high rises. 

Maxime Dautresme is also not your regular designer. His family’s story is one of fine art, travel and passion with links to Pablo Picasso, the world of private banking and Chinese antiquities. As we sit in the window-side conference room Dautresme explains his own personal journey to me. It too involves travel, passion, and China, and has led him to start up the award-winning creative brand and design agency A Work of Substance. “I basically think this is heaven,” he tells me with a smile, “there’s no place afterwards!”

maxime dautresme

Brazilian-French by birth, Dautresme’s father’s job in private banking took him, his brother and his artist mother (god-daughter of Pablo Picasso) to the likes of Brazil, Panama, Japan, Korea, Monaco and Paris. “I remember Seoul with only dirt roads,” he smiles, recalling his stint there in the 80’s, “but I went back [with a project years later] I was like ‘Wow!’… Seoul [now] is Tokyo on steroids basically.” After a childhood of travel, he studied architecture in Paris and worked with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc from whom his major lesson was not simply to become an architect. “Christian de Portzamparc, obviously being a starchitect was happy with his career, but at that time he was in his early 50’s and only then did he start to find a bit of comfort in his life, having struggled before.” That was not the pace of life that Dautresme wanted for himself. 

So, after a brief flirtation with the idea of opening a restaurant in Miami, he moved to the U.S. and began what he describes as his ‘mini American dream’. “I met the right people at the right time, opened a business, started doing design work, went into advertising as a freelancer for Crispin Porter and Bogusky—a big advertising company in Miami—and did some work for TBWA in Paris.” From architecture to advertising, his pace of life sped up dramatically. Arming himself with professional training as an Artistic Director he was drawn to branding and then presented with an opportunity to work in Shanghai, which he took. “I was craving a bit of Asia,” he tells me. That was 11 years ago and he’s still here. 

the fleming

Working in China opened the door to the world of brand experience and also opened his eyes to the demography of the country while doing shop audits for American Standard. “I saw sales staff sleeping in a bathtub!” he explains, noting that the population in general were good at making things happen fast, although key skills that involve education take time. “I have tremendous respect for [the Chinese people],” Dautresme adds. His uncle on his father’s side loved the country so much that he spent 50 years travelling around it, during which time he collected personal possessions that sweetened the lives of people who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He took his huge collection back to France and opened a museum. 

Dautresme then found himself lured to Hong Kong by the advertising agency DDB, to work with industry titans such as Cirque du Soleil, the Financial Times and Chow Tai Fook among others, establishing and strengthening their brands in Asia. When this came to an end, he found himself freelancing and thanks to the interest and financial support from a friend, he founded A Work of Substance. 

the fleming restaurant

Eight years on, the business has a presence in Paris and Stockholm although each branch operates mostly independently. Dautresme oversees some 25 people, a number with which he is happy so he can maintain creative control and be a part of all the projects.These projects which have seen them win awards such as Cannes, D&AD, Spikes Asia and Red Dot. Their expertise runs the gamut of strategy, identity and packaging to digital, advertising, social and interiors. They are also branching out with their own bath-related product line and lighting line. When I joke if there’s anything he won’t do he replies, “you can’t stop [creating]! There’s no limit.”

Substance has no doubt been fueled by Dautresme’s passion and at eight years old they are only just starting to make a profit. “We were kind of outsiders here,” he says, “there are not many competitors; if we had done this in New York or London it would have been much harder.” From the beginning, they worked with strong clients such as Madam Sixty Ate and gained visibility working with Black Sheep. Today they are working with the daughter of the head of the Hong Kong property heavyweight, The Nan Fung Group on a one-of-a-kind venture, The Mills, that celebrates Hong Kong’s history in textiles and Nan Fung’s part in heirtage. 

burger circus

Dautresme doesn’t have a favourite project per se but he does admit, “it’s obviously more rewarding when a client gives you space to work”. For this reason, he loved working on The Fleming hotel, because it was “a blank canvas”. They used all their expertise on the project from branding to interiors, conjuring up a genuine sense of nostaligia for Hong Kong with their Star Ferry inspired nautical theme which is evident throughout the building and its details. 

A Work of Substance appears to be a direct reflection of a man whose life has intersected with art, architecture, advertising, history and travel, and has given him the ability to adapt, all of which he applies to projects. “I think design is finding an answer to a problem. It’s like solving an equation in a way.” He explains, “The ability to craft or the ability to add comes with a certain level of experience.”