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Rising Stars of Design: meet the founder of OWIU Design, Amanda Gunawan

Effect Magazine presents Rising Stars of Design – the emerging talents who are shaking up the interior design scene. This week: Los Angeles-based designer, Amanda Gunawan

“I knew I wanted to be an architect since I was very young,” Amanda Gunawan tells Effect. Co-founder of the Los Angeles-based firm OWIU Design, which she launched with her partner Joel Wong just over six years ago with a showroom in the burgeoning Arts District, the Indonesian-born Southern California Institute of Architecture alumnus is hugely inspired by her upbringing in Singapore, which is where she developed a sense of urgency specifically for sustainable design.

“Against the backdrop of one of the most quickly developing metropolises, the constantly changing architecture around me in Singapore inspired a sense of preservation,” she says. “This absolutely influenced my approach to design, as well as all of our self-developed properties at OWIU Design. Having our own design-build team, we can design a constant dialogue between fantasy and reality, idealism and pragmatism, and by pragmatism, we are referring to things we can preserve.”

Defining career moment

“It would have to be when Joel and I were both working for an LA architecture firm after graduation and had designed a chair for a conceptual design competition and actually won,” she explains. Following this, the pair received an email from Paris Design Week asking if they wanted to exhibit the chair at Maison et Objet. “We couldn’t really pursue this opportunity while staying in our current jobs, so we made the decision to take a huge leap of faith, leaving our new jobs in order to go for it. Subsequently, this is the birth story of our company.”

Signature design aesthetic

LA’s Biscuit Lofts designed by Amanda Gunawan and Joel Wong of OWIU Design
One of Amanda Gunawan favourite projects is LA’s Biscuit Lofts (Photo: Justin Chung)

“I would say my design is very balanced, overall,” says Gunawan, who embraces her heritage at OWIU by infusing LA’s landscape with a signature Japanese-inspired design ethos. “One of my favourite projects to date was LA’s historic Biscuit Lofts, which we transformed into a serene, Japanese-inspired space. You will see zen elements, as well as Japandi across all our designs.”

Notable projects

“Palmero House was our first official ‘big’ project,” says Gunawan. A mid-century home set in the foothills of LA’s Mount Washington neighbourhood, perched on Palmero Drive and originally built in 1955, the newly reimagined 8,400-square-foot home unfolds against a backdrop of the iconic Los Angeles skyline. “By building in harmony with the surrounding landscape, we transformed the once-neglected house into a refuge of calm for the clients. Much of our design leans toward the ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – enabling us to achieve a visceral effect, which you can see clearly in this project.”

Amanda Gunawan and Joel Wong of OWIU Design

Now operating globally, with successful projects from LA to New York to Singapore, other highlights include being featured in a Samsung/Kinfolk collaboration, and iconic projects such as the aforementioned Biscuit Lofts. “I’d say it was most influential to our firm’s trajectory as it was our very first actual design and build project,” adds Gunawan. “We truly got our hands dirty. Joel and I were cutting wood, sanding them down, going underneath the bathtub, learning about pipes, going into the nitty gritty parts of construction. It made us much better designers.”

Breaking out of the box…

In 2023 OWIU, which stands for Only Way Is Up, expanded into product development with OWIU Goods – ceramics and home goods that reflect many of the same iconic elements of the studio’s projects. “Zen-like, embracing the textures and tones of the natural environment, as a third off-shoot of our brand,” explains Gunawan. “Currently, we have a design and construction team as well as a ceramics team of 20 people.”

OWIU created this outdoor living-room with natural materials designed to evolve over time (Photo: Justin Chung)

Her biggest inspirations

“I love the work of Kengo Kuma, Shinichiro Ogata, Carlo Scarpa, Peter Zumthor and Spacon and X,” she enthuses. “I love work that pays close attention to details, has a strong narrative and successfully evokes powerful sentiments.”

In the pipeline

Gunawan and her team are currently working on the studio’s largest project to date, a residential home in Los Angeles that is on a two-acre plot with over 5,000 square feet of living space. “Which is huge, especially for smaller LA plots,” she explains. “It is a Ray Kappe home, so when we started this project, we really wanted to take the time to study the existing DNA of this house and learn about how Kappe designed it, why he chose to make certain design decisions and the intention behind the existing structure. We then worked to add our footprint in, with the intention to improve its current state while rendering it still relevant to present times.”

Alongside this project, Gunawan is also currently redesigning Little Tokyo Towers, a nursing home in the heart of the city, plus three restaurants local to LA which are all slated to open this year, all while working on more development projects, preserving dilapidated Mid-century Modern homes that would otherwise be torn down, and renovating them by incorporating new and updated design and construction techniques to give new life to them. “We hope to archive these projects by publishing books that outline the whole process,” she explains.

“Lastly, we are also really excited to be launching our own furniture line in the coming months,” she continues. Watch this space.

Read more: Interiors | Interior Design | Rising Stars | Design | Los Angeles | OWIU Design