Every city has more than one story to tell and one face to show. Regardless of the artistic background, each place is full of inspiring individuals making its own culture and story. In Plus’s online initiative, ‘City Talks,’ we feature 10 creatives representing the designated city per season, asking contributors to share personal relatedness and building an engaging community that gives a sense of belonging. 

The second season takes place in Los Angeles, and this week, we discuss with Amanda Gunawan. Gunawan is the founding principal of OWIU design, an architecture and design firm focused on thoughtful design. In 2020, she co-founded Inflexion Builds, a full-service construction company, that works together with OWIU design, to be able to complete projects from design to build. 

What is the first thing you do when you wake up? 

I like to start every morning with a one-hour meditation. It really helps me to set the tone and mood right for the day. 


Where is your favorite (go-to) restaurant in LA? Why? 

I love Otafuku even though it’s in Torrance and a little far from Los Angeles/ where I live. The food is very authentic Japanese and there’s so much heart to it. It’s run by really down-to-earth and warm Japanese people and it always makes me feel like I’m in Japan. That especially helped me during covid when traveling was out of the question. Not a restaurant but I visit Maru Coffee every day. So much such that I go there and ask for “my usual” 🙂


What are your ways of recharging/ taking breaks? 

I go running whenever I need to actively meditate or clear my head. When I need inspiration, I would either drive to a new place and spend time with my camera taking pictures or stay indoors in my “library” to read. 


What song(s) are you into these days? 

I am a progressive rock girl. Dream Theater, Pink Floyd, and Metallica. 


You established your design office, OWIU (The Only Way Up) back in 2018, and can you share about the origins and the company’s philosophy? 

The brand’s philosophy is very much embodied in our name, the only way is up. We focus on thoughtful and progressive design. People think that progressive and thoughtful are two antagonistic things but there is an intersection between these two. We think of thoughtful as intentional, that we take our time to carefully construct every design- that it is driven by something more than just the surface aesthetics. We also construct spaces that are not only designed to last but designed to evolve- this is where progressive thinking comes into play, our design is future-oriented. We are already thinking about how this space is going to grow with its new owner. All of this is made possible with careful craftsmanship, making sure that everything is built well. Because of this we expanded into construction and started our own construction team in-house, inflection builds. People think we are just an Architecture company or just a construction company but what we’re trying to create is a brand that embodies the same philosophy through and through.


Your foundation has always been about approaching a space in the most sustainable way and curious to know how the ‘sustainability’ is embedded in your craftsmanship? 

For us, sustainability is so much more than using eco-friendly materials, installing solar panels, and *inserts generic green things that companies do in order to hit the sustainability check mark*. What is sustainability, really? I have had to ask myself that question a lot before I am able to create a company that is sustainable. Sustainability is about ensuring that there are enough resources for the future. To us at OWIU, sustainability in design is precisely about thoughtful design. The building/ construction industry accounts for 90% of the waste materials in this world. Would adding a few solar panels in a house make that big a difference? It has to start from the root. The building industry is such a profit-making industry that time becomes of the essence. People are always rushing to increase their efficiencies thus there’s less planning. Companies would order way more materials than they need to ensure there’s enough for them/ no delays occur and end up wasting everything at the end of it all. These are all practices that we make sure we don’t partake in and can be heavily minimized through thoughtful design. 

We also do this thing I like to call “sustainable development”. We take houses and evolve their design into something new by doing a blend of both preservation and reinvention to create an evolved version of the house. Most developers just look at an old house and tear it down because it’s a much faster process. That is extremely unsustainable. 

So those are the foundations on which we build our sustainable practice and then from there, we also try as much as possible to incorporate sustainable materials and practices but that to me, is secondary stuff. 


It’s been four years since you started OWIU, and wonder what it means to be a leader and how has your responsibility changed throughout the years? 

In the early stages of OWIU, I was heavily involved in the design process. I would sit on the computer together with my partner and we’d take on projects head-on taking on the full process from start to finish. I’m talking about both design and construction. That’s where both of us learned the actual process of construction. We would be doing all of the “dirty work” like sanding and sealing the wood, fixing plumbing fixtures, etc. As we started growing, we had to learn how to delegate and train our staff effectively- teach them all the tricks that we learned and learn how to oversee and trust them. Over the last 2 years, I got a little burnt out because I was only involved in the decision-making part of the design process because I was so occupied with people management and growth strategies. This year, however, I told myself that that had to change and as much as I had to do the things I have to do for the company, I still need to make sure to make time to do all the “dirty work” with the team from time to time to maintain that intimacy with the company. That really is my favorite part about OWIU so I should make time for that. 

I’ve always emphasized running the firm like a family- that if you join the team, you need to really believe in our OWIU philosophy. Success and money are simply by-products of pursuing this passion with conviction. I also incorporate practices into the firm to make sure to keep everyone actively creative in other aspects. We have family dinners every so often where we cook together every Friday and enjoy a meal together after because I want us to bond outside of Architecture. I convinced a Japanese wood maker friend of mine to conduct a shoji making workshop so all of us could better our skills and do something hands-on while bonding and most recently, 6 months ago, I got a ceramics membership for the whole office and everyone got so good at it we started selling it and offering it as a service. It’s just unbelievable the results that can come out of doing things out of passion/ the love of doing it. 


What would be your dream project/ space? 

I would love to be able to design a meditation space or a contemplative/ experiential space. 


How would you describe the creative industry in Los Angeles? 

Very inspiring! I am surrounded by so many talented people who are so good at what they do, always willing to teach, and super supportive! We would be nothing without the support of our community at OWIU and we only hope to give back in the same way. 


What changes would you like to see in the creative industry at large? 

I would like to see a higher emphasis on mental and physical health. We need to get rid of the stigma that “grinding” is representative of productivity. There is also working smart. 

I would also like to see the industry gaining more respect from people on the outside. We had to get a certain level of experience in order to be able to demand fees for our time because people find a hard time understanding that design/architecture is not that subjective an industry and is therefore quantifiable in terms of time spent. No one ever goes to a dentist or a doctor, gets a consultation, and refuses to pay for that but somehow this process is not as streamlined in Architecture. We also hold a very specialized/professional degree. We took 5 years to graduate from college, and had to complete 1860 hours and multiple tests to get our certification- it’s not simply a job anyone with a taste for design can do. 


Which three qualities in yourself are you most thankful for? 

My drive, my endurance, and my analytical skills. 


Listen to all the favorite songs picked by our City Talks contributors HERE.

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