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The task of a designer is never an easy one: to condense a client’s preferences, practicalities, and personality into one home (and be mindful of their budget, too). Designers such as Amanda Gunawan, founder of Only Way Is Up (OWIU), a Los Angeles–based design and architecture studio, stretches the boundaries of those demands even further as she often attempts to inject elements of her clients’ AAPI heritage into their spaces. “Around 90 percent [of my clients] right now are AAPI,” says Gunawan, who is of Indonesian descent and spent her childhood in Singapore. “They don’t want straight-up modern. They always have this desire to infuse some type of Asian element into it.”
During a recent Brentwood project, the homeowners, a couple with two children, tasked Gunawan with combining tenets of practical Japanese design with a contemporary California feel—but the home, as it was, leaned decidedly Western. At the center was a builder-grade kitchen that begged for more personality. Rather than jump into a gut reno, Gunawan saved as much of the original design as possible. “Our clients are attracted to the sensibility in which we approach things,” she says. “We try to merge the middle ground between renovation and preservation.” Here’s how the compromise unfolded.
Break Down the (Island) Barriers
Clever design choices were a necessity because of the kitchen’s unusual not-quite-galley-not-quite-open floor plan. The most obvious example? A trapezoidal island that has become a practical yet eye-catching focal point. In-house fabrication by OWIU brought the geometric centerpiece to life—it was constructed from a single piece of marble. Shelving under the counter creates covert cookbook storage while maintaining a minimalist appeal. The tailored shape also maximizes the surrounding space and creates an organic flow from the kitchen to the living room.
Make Tradition Seamlessly Modern
Of all the improvements, the new high-flame burner—made for wok cooking—is one of the most envy-inspiring results. The grandparents live with the family to help with babysitting, and Grandma usually takes command of the kitchen. “The familiarity of the wok burner and small considerations for an Asian household create an immediate sense of home beyond place,” Gunawan says.
Design a Nook for Dining and Decompressing
Hard bench seating isn’t exactly ideal during morning coffee or a leisurely breakfast, but typical fabric cushions quickly show stains and wear. Gunawan’s solution? Traditional Japanese tatami mats, usually fashioned from rice straw with a border of cotton or hemp. This sleek variation on the timeless dining nook was designed to double as a space for rest and retreat. The benches were measured precisely to accommodate the width of a person for napping, and while the space is relatively exposed, it’s recessed just enough to become a quiet corner for reading or meditation. Gunawan adds that besides being comfortable and attractive, the tatami mats are easy to clean—an especially useful feature when you have little diners running around. Compromise can be pretty appealing when it comes in the form of seamlessly blending comfort, aesthetics, and practicality.