Daydreamer Series: Trusting Your Gut Over Goals

Amanda Gunawan may take a systems approach to her architectural design projects, but when it comes to her dreams she prefers to go with the flow.
Daydreamer Series: Trusting Your Gut Over Goals

With her taste for Scandinavian and Japanese-inspired design, everything architect Amanda Gunawan touches carries an aura of calm and elegance—if you don’t count her three-month-old puppy, Kylo (yes, it’s a Star Wars reference). “He likes to be the center of attention…at all times,” Amanda sighs, laughing as she tries to keep hold of the wiggling mass of teeth and fur.

When she’s not training her newest addition, Amanda stays busy as the founding partner of the Los Angeles-based design and construction firm The Only Way Is Up. Alongside her partner, Joel Wong, Amanda has led projects including Goho, a former record shop she helped transform into a Japanese restaurant, and her own apartment-turned-studio in Biscuit Lofts (a nod to the building’s former life as a Nabisco factory) in downtown LA’s Arts District. To add to their impressive portfolio, the duo recently launched a line of handmade ceramic goods—an unexpected decision that Amanda says came from following her own best advice. 

As told to SeaVees. Photos by Johnie Gall


“My family and I fled Indonesia during a civil war. I was very young, but I can still remember details because it was pretty traumatic. I woke up on a Wednesday and was told I wouldn’t be going to school that day—of course, as a kid, I’m elated because I don’t have to go to class. But I could sense something was wrong. I could feel the panic in the air and see people rioting outside of our home. My parents made the abrupt decision to move us to Singapore and within days I was living in a new country. 

I was in elementary school when I stood up in front of my peers and said, ‘I want to be a real estate developer.’ Like, who knows that as a kid? I’m not sure I totally understood what that job was at the time, but whether it was with Lego blocks or computer games like The Sims, building was how I expressed emotions and processed the world around me. I’ve always been able to mind map things really easily, to take a complex problem and break it down into a system. 

“Whether it was with Legos or computer games like The Sims, building was how I expressed emotions.”

My parents didn’t move with us to Singapore, so I had a caretaker that whole time. I felt very safe under their watch but I was left craving the kind of freedom that would lead me to more out-of-the-box thinking, so when I started looking at architecture schools I was seeking a program that would push me in that way. I think that’s why I dipped halfway through orientation at University of Southern California [laughs]. It was too rigid and structured for me, so I had to go crawling back to Southern California Institute of Architecture and ask if they would still accept me after I turned them down. I was like, ‘I made a huge mistake, please take me back!’ My mom came to help move me into school and she’s expecting this beautiful American architecture school, and there she is looking up at a big ugly warehouse building in what used to be a pretty rough neighborhood. She was like, ‘Amanda, what is this place? Do you know what you’re doing?’ But it was the kind of school that inspired me to think differently. 

The moment I graduated school I landed my dream job with the firm Morphosis, working with this incredible ‘star-chitect.’ What I didn’t know at the time was that while I’m working this high-powered job, a chair design I had submitted into a random competition with my now-partner, Joel, while we were still in college had been gaining traction on social media. Milan Design Week eventually caught wind of it and reached out and asked if we wanted to exhibit. There was no way we could turn that down, but it would mean leaving our dream jobs and that put us both at a crossroad. 

Joel and I decided to start our own firm. I’ve never had as much energy as I did back in 2017 because I was still in ‘dreamer’ mode at that time. I would almost never turn down opportunities and had the stamina to keep getting back up if I did fail. I think that’s the best time to pursue your dreams, honestly, because you have nothing but momentum behind you.

“Branching out on my own was a decision that I made in my heart before anywhere else.”

There’s a joke that you’ll never see an architecture major because they’re always working in their studios, completely immersed in their own world and never going out to socialize. And having been in an architecture-only school, I can say that’s absolutely true [laughs]. But I was in Los Angeles! I didn’t want my life to only be late nights in the studio, so I made it a point to see the city and immerse myself in social settings, and I started getting a following on social media and doing some content for various brands, Through that, I met so many people who were outside my little architecture bubble and when I started my own firm, I had this super supportive network helping us kickstart things.

Branching out on my own was a decision that I made in my heart before anywhere else. It was one of those pivotal moments where I just knew if I didn’t go through with it, I would always think back on it with regret. I mean, I make mistakes like anyone else, but every one of my failures has been an opportunity to get better so I’m not afraid of them anymore. You can only get better at something. That’s why we named the firm The Only Way is Up.

I am the most proud of myself during moments when I have been able to make the people around me happy. During the construction boom, we had gotten so many jobs that I wanted to do something for my staff to help relieve their stress, so I got them each a membership to this ceramics studio in Chinatown. Everyone ended up getting super into it and more and more vases and bowls would show up on my kitchen counter every day. One time I came in and the counter was completely packed—I got kinda pissed because that’s where I work! I was like, ‘I can’t even fit my laptop on here, I’m selling this stuff, sorry.’ I posted some photos on Instagram and almost immediately had people offering to buy the different pieces. I started a Venmo party fund and we raked in enough money that Venmo was like, ‘Yo, you need to file as a business, this is illegal’ [laughs]. We now have our own kilns and an entire line of ceramics coming out as part of OWIU, and the best part is I was able to involve the people who were there with us from the beginning. 

“Sometimes I get it wrong, but when everything checks out with my heart and my head, then it tends to be the right decision.”

The biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur is that it will give you your time back—work becomes your entire life. So, I think my best advice is to know with absolute certainty that you know this dream is what you actually want. Fifty-percent of that knowing comes from analyzing and thinking things through very practically, but the other half has to come from your heart. It’s a split you’ll have to keep considering each and every day, whenever a new decision presents itself. Sometimes I get it wrong, but when everything checks out with my heart and my head, then it tends to be the right decision. 

Sometimes I can’t believe this entire trajectory. Like, I wasn’t even watching, you know what I mean? I was just in it for the ride. I started having that mentality when I picked up running because you very quickly learn that to achieve anything you have to pace yourself. If you want something to be permanent in your life, you can’t be constantly chasing records or keeping tabs because it’ll feel tortuous. I used to be very goal driven, but then I realized there’s no point in being so attached to goals if you want something to last forever. I’ve gotten to the point where the destination is null for me. 

“I used to be very goal driven, but then I realized there’s no point in being so attached to goals if you want something to last forever.”

My friends joke that I was Japanese in my past life because I’m so enamored by the country and connected to that culture. Everything is very meditative and present and thoughtful, which is how I want to live my own life. We recently held a pop-up in Japan, which was a moment I had been waiting for for so long. One thing led to another and we ended up signing a lease on a little office there. We’re slowly building out a team in Japan and selling products there and I’m just so excited to see where it goes. 

My dream for others is that they never live life in a way where things are stagnant or they stop evolving. The world has so many things for you to learn and with each push away from your comfort zone, you’ll discover this whole new level of your best life. I don’t think you ever really reach a dream because you’re always becoming a new version of yourself and unlocking new dreams. It’s hard to do, but my best advice is to continue finding out who you are.” 

Amanda wears the Melrose Lug Platform from the Elevate Collection.

Back to blog
1 of 6