In 1925, the French-born, Missouri-based architect E.J. Eckel designed a brick-and-steel building in downtown Los Angeles as the West Coast headquarters of the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). Like many other former Nabisco factories dotting the country, including the Chelsea Market building in New York City, the Kennedy Biscuit Lofts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the 1000 West Washington Lofts in Chicago, Eckel’s seven-story creation was later converted for another use. In 2006, Aleks Istanbullu Architects turned the L.A. cookie factory into a work-live complex known as the Biscuit Company Lofts.
For architect Amanda Gunawan, there could hardly be a more apt location for setting down permanent roots in a city she has called home since moving there to attend the Southern California Institute of Architecture eight years ago. An alumna of Morphosis Architects (Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne’s firm), Gunawan grew up in Singapore and cofounded OWIU studio in 2018 with Joel Wong, a former high-school classmate. OWIU stands for “The Only Way Is Up,” a phrase that cheekily encapsulates Gunawan and Wong’s detailed approach and focus on quality, longevity, and future adaptability. Gunawan had always admired the Biscuit Company Lofts from afar for those qualities and what she calls their “OG” authenticity; when a street-level corner unit became available in 2019, she jumped at the chance to live in a building with such time-tested infrastructure.
The 1,620-square-foot open-plan apartment was previously the residence of a sound producer who had tricked it out like a 1960s space-age portal. Gunawan stripped it down into an understated space that embraces its factory roots while appealing to her preferred Japanese and Scandinavian aesthetic. She refinished the whitewashed brick walls and installed Baltic Birch flooring and built-in storage. Most crucially, she tore down a preexisting functional but pedestrian staircase that connected the kitchen to an upstairs main bedroom and bathroom. Instead, Gunawan created a large mezzanine for a home office and library and designed a sculptural stairwell, in the same Baltic Birch.
“From the flooring all the way up, the staircase looks like one extended fold,” she explains of her origami-like design. She added hidden storage to the stairs’ base and left the mezzanine’s timber beams exposed. “It has an industrial grittiness.”
Two Isamu Noguchi lanterns hang from those beams, dangling above the dining area’s travertine table and vintage Marcel Breuer chairs. To the right is the living room, grounded by a white CB2 sofa, an Eames lounge chair and ottoman, and a Flos light fixture whose sloping wires hang like a canopy. The kitchen has a custom quartz island and pendant lights by Muuto.
Since moving into the apartment last May, she has been staying in this guest area while she retools the main bedroom upstairs. She would like to cast a custom bed frame out of concrete and cover the back wall behind the staircase in floor-to-ceiling shelving for her ever-expanding array of books. True to OWIU’s mission, Gunawan views the loft as a long-term work in progress, built on the backbone of history and lasting craftsmanship. “It’s a necessary approach,” she says. “You are constantly changing and your needs are constantly changing. You have to build things that can change with you.”