Amanda Gunawan on progressive architecture and designing products with sentimental value

Amanda Gunawan, founder and principal of design-build firm The Only Way is Up (OWIU), put in a bid to renovate Palmero House in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful mid century modern home and the competition was steep. They had investor funds, but they were not the highest bid. Ultimately they were chosen for the project because unlike the other developers they didn’t see the project as a plot of land with a view, an old house to tear down, as so many developers tend to. 

inside Palmer house designed by Amanda Gunawan
Inside Palmer House | Photos by Justin Chung

Her firm’s sweet spot is right where preservation meets renovation.They seek to honor the past and build for the evolution of the current inhabitants. They landscaped Palmero House and updated the home with a creative new floor plan that gave the home a circular flow and connected the indoors with the zen garden outside. 

This week, DNN Editor in Chief Courtney Porter sat down with Amanda Gunawan to discuss how growing up in Asia influences her work, winning project bids, and designing products with sentimental value. Click play on the video to watch the discussion:

What is progressive architecture?

Gunawan defines herself as a progressive architect. When people hear the term progressive architect they get intimidated. In her experience, people assume it means something technical and lofty, but she stands by the term. To her, it means always improving, turning failures into opportunities. In practice that means building upon what already exists, honoring a home’s history. This is the philosophy behind the name of her architecture design and build firm, The Only Way is Up.  

How growing up in Asia and working in Los Angeles influences her design work

Gunawan was born in Indonesia and grew up predominantly in Singapore before eventually settling in Los Angeles where she founded her firm. Unlike LA, the weather is less pleasant year round where she grew up, but there was an emphasis on indoor-outdoor living nonetheless. “Where I’m from nothing good is going to come from fighting against nature,” she says. That is something she carried with her, along with the culture, rigor and discipline of her upbringing. 

In Los Angeles, she found her design community and the freedom to experiment and develop her own aesthetic style and way of doing things. In the states, there was more room to pause and make mistakes. There was a point when her firm grew too fast too soon. “It’s easy to do,” she says, “and luckily for us that was during the construction boom. But we had to scale back.” Lesson learned. They’re now in another phase of expansion after accidentally developing a product line… 

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Amanda Gunawan on designing products with sentimental value

During the pandemic was the construction boom she speaks of. Everyone was overworked and anxious. As a way of helping her employees’ mental health, she gifted everyone memberships to a local pottery studio. Soon, their creations started piling up on her work station. Like a frustrated parent cleaning house after accumulating one too many kid-crafts, she took to Instagram, ‘who wants this stuff? It has to go!’ The requests started pouring in and people insisted on paying her. What resulted was a separate ceramics company and in its formation, she gave part of the company to the original artisans. 

Underlining every aspect of Amanda Gunawan’s work is integrity and philosophy. She thinks of design as omakase. The trust is implicit with omakase – you trust the chef to give you the best and put their spin on it. The chef may take some amendments, as Gunawan and their artists do with their bespoke ceramics orders, but the clients trust them to do their own thing. The abstract briefs they receive sound like “I want it to remind me of my grandmother pouring tea in the morning,” or like a “sunset in Utah,” for example. What the OWIU artisans do with those abstract briefs, she says, is how they develop their signature style and through their integration, they create products with sentimentality.

Visit OWIU online and keep up with Amanda Gunawan on Instagram here.

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