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The Formula: Deniz Hotamisligil, BFA '08

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Portrait of Deniz Hotamisligil

As an only child growing up in Istanbul, Turkey Deniz Hotamisligil spent a lot of time carving and whittling in his family’s high-rise apartment. Both his parents were amateur woodworkers. “I grew up cutting my hands and getting stitches all the time as I learned to maneuver the tools,” he said from Los Angeles where he now lives. 

Although he nearly became a professional tennis player, art was a prominent part of his life. That passion pushed him to build a portfolio and apply to the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at SMFA. A scholarship made coming to Boston possible. 

Adjusting to the BFA program with its expansive structure was overwhelming at first—but turned out to be what Hotamisligil needed to thrive. He said, “At SMFA, you have the freedom to explore, but it comes with responsibilities. It pushes you to be independent and creative in a powerful way. At the end of the semester, you have to be able to talk about what you’ve accomplished in a room with faculty and your peers.” 

His peers were some of his best teachers. He and five SMFA friends formed a collective named “Casualiving.” They hosted monthly themed art shows held in their apartment. He remembers, “We treated it like an opening. We served wine and cheese. There was live music, installations, sculptures in the basement, and art hanging from the apartment walls. Slowly word spread to local gallery owners and arts journalists.” That experience of creating, questioning, problem-solving, and community building with others remains at the root of how Hotamisligil works today. 

As a recent graduate with a BFA in studio art and a minor in sociology, Hotamisligil took a chance and flew to Los Angeles, where his mentor Jim Dow, emeritus professor of the practice, advised he had the best shot at landing a job in graphic design. It was 2009, a challenging time to hunt for a first job and a visa as layoffs ran rampant.

Door after door closed in Hotamisligil’s face until he landed a junior art director role at a motion picture advertising company in Los Angeles. Although he didn’t have a portfolio in advertising, Hotamisligil delivered an impressive test assignment. “It was incredible learning the craft and working with the biggest studios, movies, and TV shows, and creating concepts that landed with large audiences,” he said. 

Soon, he was promoted to a producer role, steering teams building advertising campaigns, shooting photography for hit movie and TV series posters, and managing procurement. “I was wearing a bunch of different hats in that role and it was great to gain perspective into more than just one aspect of the industry,” Hotamisligil reflected. 

Some of the posters he worked on during that time are now part of the American pop culture canon—including Fargo, Girls, American Horror Story: Coven, and Avatar

An independent at heart, eventually he felt ready to strike out on his own and founded a branding agency, Hotalabs. In full-on startup mode, Hotamisligil leaned on his network to sign on the agency’s first clients. From the plant-filled loft he now shares with colleagues in Los Angeles, he said, “I made a list of everyone I knew—or barely knew—and messaged them to tell them what I was doing and ask if they could put me in touch with anyone who needed my services.” 

The audacious strategy paid off.

Today Hotalabs serves clients across industries from media to tech, construction, beauty, tourism, and consumer packaged goods. Hotamisligil doesn’t see any point in niching down. He said, “The list of companies I work with is diverse but my formula for helping them is the same.” That winning formula begins with questioning basic assumptions about how a product or campaign has to look and why—a skill Hotamisligil said comes straight from his experiences at SMFA crits where he learned to articulate and rationalize his thinking. 

He also believes that location is key. “Positioned in the center of Hollywood, tech, and innovation we help develop long-lasting brands, offer unexpected solutions and trailblazing campaigns that challenge conventions. “ HotaLabs is intentionally a boutique studio. The agency contracts or expands based on the project and he hand-picks the best talent for each unique team.

Outside of work, Hotamisligil wears several different creative hats. He shoots and exhibits art photography, makes exquisite chef knives under his new brand Den Knives, and hosts popup events called Turkish Breakfast Club with a friend. 

The project, which now has 3,000 members, spontaneously launched with the pair setting up a breakfast table for a group of total strangers at sunrise at Burning Man a few years ago. Hotamisligil explained, “Anyone who bumped into us was able to take part—from a billionaire and a Norwegian princess to a 75-year-old lady. They all came and shared their stories around our tables.” 

The honest conversations, charming traditional Turkish breakfast with passed dishes, and ultimately, the friendships that came out of the breakfast were so profound that the duo continued the concept back in Los Angeles. 

For Hotamisligil, electric curiosity and an innate joy for trying new things, are at the core of a constantly evolving creative process. His work and life are a total design experience.

Lead image courtesy of Deniz Hotamisligil.

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