Ones to Watch

The Only Way Is Up

Design Miami

LA studio OWIU creates serene spaces for the everyday

In early 2021, as people the world over found themselves yo-yoing between Covid lockdowns and guarded reopenings, Amanda Gunawan and Joel Wong—cofounders of LA-based design and architecture studio OWIU (an acronym for Only Way Is Up)—were finishing up work on a major residential renovation affectionately dubbed the Biscuit Loft.

Housed inside the former Nabisco Wheats West Coast bakery building, a factory built in 1925 in what is today known as the Biscuit Company Lofts in downtown LA’s Arts District, OWIU’s Biscuit Loft is a 500-square-meter, two-bedroom urban hideaway that merges Japanese design elements with a downtown LA industrial vibe. Marked by an airy yet homey feeling—not to mention gorgeous light—the loft is awash in natural materials and colors, full of creams, tans, and woody browns.

The Biscuit Loft by OWIU; Photos by Justin Chung

The loft was originally intended to become Gunawan’s private residence; however, prior to its completion, she began using the apartment as a temporary office, finding the residential energy created a sense of calm she craved in that moment—what Gunawan describes as “a sacred space.”

Over time, she began inviting her OWIU colleagues to work from the apartment as well. “Eventually,” Gunawan recalls, “we decided to leave our formal office completely and start working out of the loft. After the previous year spent working from home, the team found that returning to a ‘home’ wasn’t so daunting, and we were able to maintain the new—and preferred—work-from-home habits we all adopted over the pandemic.”

The Biscuit Loft; Photos by Justin Chung

It’s certainly an inviting place. Upon entering, one is struck by the size and height of the space, which is framed by hanging Noguchi Akari pendant lights that lead the eye to the open concept kitchen and living spaces. The custom staircase, featuring a dramatic, zigzagging wooden railing, adds visual interest as one heads towards the upper level, where OWIU extended the mezzanine to create additional usable space in a study and bedroom.

OWIU’s Biscuit Loft; Photos by Justin Chung

They’ve dotted the apartment with modernist classics—an Eames chaise longue, chairs by Alvar Aalto and Hans Wegner, and more. The first floor guest bedroom is a particular highlight, inspired by Japanese Ryokan, a traditional inn and guest experience established in the 17th century. As Gunawan explains, “The minimalist room is lined with tatami mats and has a Japanese futon for when guests stay over. Its secondary use is as a space for tea ceremonies and gatherings, as is typical in a Ryokan, as well as a serene atmosphere for reading, creative brainstorming, and resting.”

The loft’s first floor guest bedroom; Photos by Justin Chung

Gunawan says, “The warmth and comfort of the residential space fostered creativity. While still an open concept, The Biscuit Loft has defined spaces with clear functions and emotions: the living room is for thought-driven meetings, the kitchen table for tactical work, and the tea ceremony room for moments of calm.”

In addition to creating a peaceful environment for their team to reconnect, Gunawan and Wong believe the space encourages a mindful lifestyle—and opportunities for them to continue to grow together. As Gunawan tells us, “The new space has led to new traditions, such as ‘Family Dinner.’ Now, every Friday night, the team stops working at a certain time and cooks dinner together in the kitchen. This post-pandemic weekly ritual allows the team to put work aside and tackle a new challenge together: cooking. Friends are invited and the workweek ends on a personal, intimate note.”

Gunawan and Wong both grew up in Singapore, and first met as teenagers in highschool. They came to LA nine years ago to study at Southern California Institute of Architecture. They found a strong creative community and decided to stay in LA to launch OWIU. Their projects so far—which span architecture, interiors, and object design—are mostly set in California and Singapore.

Amanda Gunawan and Joel Wong; Photo courtesy of OWIU

The Biscuit Loft is a great example of OWIU’s approach. While the studio is quite young, OWIU has already carved out a strong point of view. They’ve demonstrated a penchant for creating peaceful, intimate hideaways in the middle of the city—both indoors and out—that draw on an Asian-inspired design ethos. They have a passion for working with pre-existing spaces. (“We love when a space comes with a past,” Wong says.) They prioritize craftsmanship, natural forms and colorways, and enjoy mixing reclaimed elements and vintage pieces—often Japanese and Scandinavian modern works, frequently sourced by friend and furniture collector Jullie Nguyen from Ban Ban Studio—with OWIU designed objects.

In particular, the studio aims for designs that can grow with their users. “Spaces should not simply be built to last,” Wong says, “but rather built to evolve. That, in short, explains the name OWIU, the only way is up. In our spaces, we always leave room for the space to grow together with its inhabitants. We are, after all, building for them.”

Henry Golding in his minimalist outdoor living area, designed by OWIU; Photo by Justin Chung

This approach is also apparent in the studio’s recent work for the family of actor Henry Golding (of Crazy Rich Asians fame), for whom OWIU created a minimalist, Japanese-inspired outdoor living space. The Venice Beach home’s secluded backyard feels at once open and intimate, defined by organic forms in wood and white stucco that encompass a large raised trex deck that connects multiple functional areas—dining, lounging, and even a Japanese onsen-inspired spa and jacuzzi area. A large slatted wooden structure designed to house the jacuzzi creates not only privacy but also offers shade, “casting shadows throughout the day and borrowing from the Japanese concept of komorebi, the sensation of the sun filtering through the trees,” Gunawan explains. “The terrace surrounding the jacuzzi is paved with stone, inviting guests to walk barefoot to the spa, thereby creating a ritualized transition into stillness and calm.”

Golding family backyard by OWIU; Photos by Justin Chung

OWIU also carefully considered the way the family’s baby would use the backyard through different stages of her childhood, “from baby toys scattered on the floor to a fort and then into a mini playground and everything in between,” and left space for a range of playful permutations.

 Henry Golding and his wife, Liv Lo, with their daughter Lyla at home; Photos by Justin Chung

In another recent project, a 1950s home renovation in the foothills of LA’s Mount Washington neighborhood, OWIU combined Scandinavian and Japanese influences with the house’s mid-century modern bones. The studio also found particular inspiration in the setting. “Every surface, inside and out, reflects the landscape, from the terracotta and beige color pallet to the Venetian-plaster-finished foyer that brings the delicate texture of the surrounding mountains into the home.”

  A recently restored midcentury modern LA home by OWIU; Photos by Justin Chung

OWIU reused elements from the original structure, including wood and glass blocks. They repurposed the blocks to create an elegant privacy wall as well as the base for the kitchen’s bean-shaped counter. The interior includes a 1980s six-piece modular sofa by Vladimir Kagan, three Isamu Noguchi lamps, George Nelson pendants, and a 1980s Bernard Vuarnesson Hexa coffee table, among other gems. But the deck and garden off the main bedroom—again, referencing a Japanese Ryokan—are perhaps the most delightful. “The custom elevated deck considers the natural curves of the plot’s topography,” Wong says, and features a step down to the garden. “The action [of the step] is so unassuming that one might forget this after the routine of living,” Gunawan adds, “but this is precisely the goal: a ritualized transition into calming spaces. We wanted the inhabitants of the primary bedroom to have a space they can escape to; one that promotes stillness and contemplation.”

 A recently restored midcentury modern LA home by OWIU; Photos by Justin Chung

Back at the Biscuit Loft, the team continues to take advantage of their environment too, conscious that embracing that peacefulness—an emotion that feels especially important given the outside world’s intensity in recent times—can leave them open to more possibilities moving forward.

As Wong explains, “We believe a home should be a retreat of calm that quiets the mind. If you go in strong with design, it energizes you quickly and then promptly dies out; it is not sustainable. When you design something that is serene and balanced, not overly populated with details and adornments, you leave room for the space”—and therefore the people who move within it—“to  evolve.”◆