March 10, 2021
Only Way Is Up Transforms a 1920s Los Angeles Loft
Amanda Gunawan and Joel Wong of Only Way Is Up developed their contracting skills and launched a design-build arm of their firm along the way.
“We’re always scanning good real estate,” says Amanda Gunawan. She and Joel Wong, her cofounder of the firm Only Way Is Up (OWIU), gave one unit within the Biscuit Company Lofts building a new lease on life and in the process, expanded the ambition and reach of their own business. A facility in Los Angeles for the National Biscuit Company—AKA Nabisco—was originally constructed in 1925. Nearly 80 years later the building would be adapted into the Biscuit Company Lofts and become one of the early signature projects in the evolution of the downtown Arts District.
To turn the 1,620-square-foot, double-height loft into a showcase and laboratory of sorts for their quiet aesthetic and to make it Gunawan’s own home, the pair took a very hands-on approach. “We loved the challenge of doing it start to finish and really understanding the technicalities of construction, from carpentry to plumbing,” Wong explains. “It’s one thing to know these things theoretically, but it’s another to actually do it practically,” Gunawan adds. The duo, both graduates of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (also located in the Arts District), who founded OWIU in 2018, functioned essentially as their own general contractor. “Part of being an architect is learning these systems and learning how to make them your own,” she says.
They had a clear sense of how to integrate their style with the original character and context, given that the corner location and “the bones were really good,” Gunawan recalls. The goal was to make what had been a creative workspace into a functional home with two bedrooms while expanding a small preexisting mezzanine. OWIU had to figure how to find harmony within the existing canvas, with remnants of its industrial past. Exposed brick and heavy concrete elements would have to meld with their sensibility that’s influenced by traditions from Japan and Scandinavia, along with Gunawan’s personal furnishings and collections.
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“You don’t think that would work with a Japanese-Scandinavian look, it almost seems like they’re antagonistic,” she says of the raw loft vibe. Instead, the juxtaposition adds texture and depth. The three months they spent on site helped Gunawan and Wong precisely execute their vision.
“Something that was very important to us was to have these elements be harmonious,” Gunawan notes. Minimally treated birch and modest plywoods work towards this objective, keeping the natural look of the material in place to complement a neutral color palette. One feature does, however, stand out as a statement: the mezzanine and its staircase. Gunawan and Wong took advantage of the adaptive reuse building code, which was initially created to encourage adaptive reuse projects in downtown L.A., to expand the triangular-shaped elevated area upstairs by 130 feet. Wong points out that because it’s a ground floor unit, the footings helped guide the engineering and column placement. The deftly angled double plywood components of the stair and loft provide a barrier for privacy without feeling imposing and add “a different dynamic to the entire flow,” Wong says. Gunawan also notes how they choreographed the apartment’s appearance. “You get the flat view from the dining room side, but from the entrance or living room as you look up, it’s more sculptural.”
OWIU has folded this experience into its newest project. Earlier this year, Gunawan and Wong, in partnership with contractor Ernesto Garcia, launched Inflexion Builds as the design-build arm of their firm. At all stages of the process, their streamlined systems better service clients and the principals involved continue to learn from each other and develop a shorthand. This arrangement helps manage expectations with clients from the start, too.
“The misconception that people tend to have that good design comes with a hefty price. That really is not true,” Gunawan says. “We’re all about very thoughtful design. We’ll do it well and we’ll do it once, and it keeps evolving with you.”
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