Interview with Alice Mourou

Alice Mourou is the founder and creative director at .Oddity Studio, a branding and innovation design agency based in Hong Kong. She believes in simple ideas that build brands stories, from strategy to visual language and tech. Her designs are often described as distilled to the core essence where nothing can be added or removed. Her work has been appreciated by international design associations such as D&AD, One Show, Art Directors Club, Asia Pacific Awards and Hong Kong GDA.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Design Director with roots in tech and art. For the past 7 years I have led my own design studio .Oddity

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a few different places at different times.

I was born in Siberia, middle of Russia. Once it was a beautiful city, with an architectural mix of old traditional houses with windows decorated in wooden filigree and constructivist buildings from the 30th made of glass, concrete and metal. All this beauty was covered with puffy white snow for at least half of the year. It was a place where I learned to dream, and use my imagination.

My next maturation point was in a desert city — Dubai. I learned English from almost the ground up, to the extent that I was able to express myself. It was a great time of discoveries and experiences within the multicultural & multinational community. That’s where I grew into a good listener, and an appreciator of diversity.

And now I am maturing in Asia, on a humid Hong Kong island, with its unique landscape of countless steps, hills and contrasting layers. Contrast here is not just in nature but in people and their culture too.

Why and when did you move to Hong Kong?

It was a destination for my husband, first we visited Hong Kong for a short time for a trial and during our stay we just fell in love. Busy business city full of energy and opportunities with amazing nature in 30 min ride away from it. I never thought about Hong Kong before, it is not a “design” city, yet it was an alluring place to live for some time and gain quite a unique experience in life. In the summer of 2015 we moved in.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in design?

As long as I remember myself I always had a pencil in my hand, and was exposed to art from a very young age. At about 4 years old I decided to be an architect, probably influenced by my grandmother’s example who was an architect herself. I had a big dream to create timeless things that would inspire others and at that time architecture seemed to be the best medium to do so.

As a teenager I was sceptical about design. I had much higher appreciation of conceptual art for its ability to spark emotions and architecture because I appreciated the beauty of function above all. I perceived design as a second-tear of creativity, a meaningless decoration — something that I never wanted to do. It took quite some time before I saw good in design and understood its power. A book by Victor Papanek “Design for the Real World” was the first encounter that played a big role in changing my perception on the topic. His words contrasting timeless design with sales design resulting in stupid toilet carpets and solid gold phones took me by heart.

Gradually design became my key interest, and the challenge to make it meaningful occupied and deeply inspired me.

How would you describe your creative process?

My creative process always begins with absorption of information and scribbles on paper. First of all, a good conversation with the client plays a key role. It could be just a fifteen minutes call, same words like in the written brief could be said, yet intonations and rhythm in the dialogue translates energy and sparks ideas much better than a quiet PDF.

Another important part of the process is a permanent research and curiosity. I love how one discovery leads to another and goes way beyond a particular project and sparks ideas where they weren’t expected. I read a lot, and in addition to my ongoing interests, with every new project a few additional books appear on my desk. It could be connected to the theme directly or indirectly. For example for project about skin care for teens I began research with a book suggested by the client “The Gen Z Book”, I complimented it with autobiography by Ingmar Bergman “The Magic Lantern”, study of Inge Grognard body of work, and then old interviews with young David Bowie popped on my radar — as you can see, my selection can be random at times, yet it gives me great insides.

I need to mention that graphic design blogs and references are never a part of my creative process. I rather get oppressed by looking at a great work done by others than inspired.

Research goes hand in hand with taking notes and sketching. An immediate reaction to inspiration is crucial, I find just plain research without scribbles is pointless. Be it right, wrong, not perfect, inadequate to the brief, it does not matter — I give it a try first and judge later. It is easier to form constructive feedback and move closer in the right direction by looking at something tangible.

How much does the city and surroundings affect your creative output?

A lot. Personal experiences in daily life are always mirrored in creative output. They are a source of inspiration as well.

Do you think working in different cities has shaped your style and approach?

Yes, it quite had.

What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like Hong Kong?

First of all it is a language barrier. It feels like there is a decline of English and if you want to feel comfortable you need to speak at least some basic Cantonese, which I don't.

Secondly, despite all the years I am still an outsider to the local design community. I am being carefully watched and yet never engaged.

What are your city’s biggest challenges?

It is expensive — rent is insane

It is not a design driven city — overall quality and appreciation of design is low

Over past few years there is a big decline in creative minds — a year of protests in 2019 plus harsh 3 year COVID lockdown years brought big damage to Hong Kong

What are the solutions that your city needs to implement?

Hong Kong needs to support its creative people. Locals, foreigners, there should be no segregation.

The responsibility of the council in every city is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that evident in Hong Kong?

No, it is not.

Google would say there are about 50 museums in Hong Kong. As a citizen I would say in 2015 we had one art museum (HKMOA)and it was closed for many years. By 2023 we will have 3 art museums (HKMOA, M+, Tai Kwun). Which is an incredible growth (!) yet it feels like that’s it, we reached the pinnacle. If you check the other 47 museums listed on Google, they would either be closed facilities, or university space, or small heritage museums like tea ware, railway, education, medicine...

We don’t have enough theatres. We don’t have enough cultural facilities in general.

We have one art fair a year (Art basel), and it is a very commercial one.

For design? None.

Local art galleries are shops, not curated shows.

For example, the Cartier watch exhibition would be insanely popular, or the exhibition of works of Yayoi Kusuma. Yet if you are looking to celebrate local creatives — good luck to find them. Big luxury brands and instagrammable spots are above everything else.

Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their city?

Yes, and if creative people come together the change would be way more impactful. We could pitch it to the government, turn abandoned buildings into art residences, organise weekend creative markets, improve parks, make socially impactful posters, make simpler navigation systems and so on. Yet, it's either not happening in Hong Kong, or I am just not a part of that.

Some small actions are always available.

A very simple, almost essential example is our studio. It is on the ground floor of a tiny backstreet without car access, a passage for all neighbourhoods — we turned it into a small green corner, a little garden of plants, herbs and veggies. It is not just a lovely space to hang out, we’ve become a reference for a municipality to build another garden nearby. Our block is the best in town!

If we would have a bit more time, or some gov funding we for sure will channel our creative energy to improve quality of lives in the city on a much deeper level.

Oddity Studio. What's the story behind the name?

I was looking for the name from the very beginning, even before I got my first client and team member. I believe that an abstract name serves better purpose as it is not about me, but the team I am working with. I was looking for a name that would work like a manifest.

Being odd, strange, was around me all my life. Which I suffered from as a kid and got comfortable with it by only about 25. I wanted a strange studio, with strange projects! I am a contrarian: I never wanted a studio like someone else’s, like others are doing it. I want to reinvent the wheel.

The actual word “Oddity” came from the David Bowie song “Space Oddity”. I was at my all time-low, daydreaming of a studio that does not exist and just got the news of David Bowie death, and here it came — be odd to the end, viva Oddity! In a way this name got a secondary meaning, a tribute to a great artist, and an indirect reminder that we can be heroes. I can not give it up.

You have created your own perfume brand .Oddity Fragrance. Could you tell us more about it?

We always wanted to launch our own brand, for a design team who always create brand identities it is great to have such experience and understand the whole process that goes beyond design. During the pandemic we finally had time to do so.

We decided to choose perfumery as a very poetic and artistic medium. Smell is nebulous, never perceived the same way by different noses. It provokes associations and visuals. Interplay of visible and invisible is quite inspiring.

It was also a great chance to collaborate with artists from other industries, this is how we met with legendary perfumer Mark Buxton and his colleague Davie Chieze and experienced the amazing process of perfume creation. At first we formed three stories of what we want to create, written and supported with visuals. First is a sensual story of liberating life at home when no-one is watching, in many ways inspired by the pandemic. Second is a dark macabre fantasy, a dramatic, theatrical expression of creative energy. And third was a perfectionist dream of rhythm and space, a moment of clarity. As a result these visual stories were translated by Mark and David into stunning olfactory compositions.

As for the brand name we went back and forth for the options, and landed back at .Oddity. Although we knew it would cause confusion, it was just too powerful and It represented our vision, a strange beauty of imperfections. Raw corners, untouched nature, exposed structure, technical details, overdoses. Name played an important role for perfume formulations too, Mark and David drew a lot of inspiration from it.

Once we had first samples and discussed them with perfumers a second wave of visual work began, this was the time when materials for packaging were selected and actual names of perfumes were created. They became Naked Dance, Dead Air and Resonant.

As for packaging we were strategic, we knew that to successfully launch a new perfume brand we need to come up with an eye-catching detail which would attract attention on the internet and provoke people to look for it. It also helps perfumes to be perceived as work of art, a collectable item, and we could do something special as we are making small batches only. Raw materials and untouched nature led us to the idea to make handcrafted caps from natural materials mixed with epoxy. We wanted to expose imperfectly beautiful textures of wood, charcoal and metal. Luckily the background of our Digital Art Director is engineering and he is pretty awesome with materials and craftsmanship. As a result each perfume bottle cap is unique.

Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?

I am very excited with the ongoing launch of a new brand identity for Future Classics, it is a fashion brand for girls. We did mess around with simple timeless fashion and the possibility of a future that we are trying to predict. Brave, unpredictable, experimental, poetic — those truly are key words of an exciting project!

And right now we are working with a new Korean skin care brand for Gen-Z. It is going to be loud, rule breaking, colourful, charged with a high dose of positive energy and good habits. Can not wait to share more details about it!

If you could add or change something about Hong Kong, what would that be?

Three things:

Make rent affordable.

Open more art spaces, museums and theatres

Organise or bring international design and art related conferences

What would be your dream project?

Since I believe the most innovative projects are always created on the edge of disciplines, just a thought to mix concept driven design with technology gives me goosebumps. There must be a long term relationship with tech projects.

If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why?

I would limit myself with only living artists, so I could have a hope that one day it will happen. I pick these artists because I deeply appreciate their work and it inspires me. I can see in my head what could be done together with:

Perfume Genius, Yoko Ono, Fjura, Peter Zumthor, Zach Lieberman, Wim Wenders.

What do you do to switch off?

There are plenty of ways. To name a few: meditation, playing with my dog, a glass of champagne in our street garden, early morning coffee with a book, remote walks with camera, hiking, movie night, cooking a dinner, taking a nap. I am good at being present in the moment and switch off from everything beyond it.

What does home mean to you?

Curated comfortable space where I can enjoy time alone or with people dear to me.

Describe the perfect day for you in Hong Kong.

Wake up around 6am, exercise, have a coffee and read a book in a neighbourhood cafe in Sheung Wan, wake up my dog, grab a camera and go for a long walk together, visit another island, or go hiking, have dinner at fishermen village, get back home, open a bottle of champagne or make a pot of green tea and watch movies, go for a late night walk with my dog, get back and fall asleep.

Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the city they live in or the place they grew up, does Hong Kong evoke a personal smell to you?

Salt, dry fish, sweet flowers.

If you weren’t living in Hong Kong and could choose any city to live in where would that be, and why?

As of now it would be London. Because there are just too many connections, with too many people and too many times of “I wish I was there”.

Alice Mourou - Mixtape

Music sets the rhythm. To stimulate my process it should be uneven: with ups and downs.

hong kong by ALICE MOUROU

A selection of places in Hong Kong recommended by Creative Director Alice Mourou. See Alice's citylikeyou profile page here

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