Cementing the Deal
Oyler Wu Collaborative's husband-wife principals sell their brand of design by showing off their Los Angeles live-work loft
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Today, Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu are living large. That wasn't quite the case back when they were working as associates at Toshiko Mori Architect and Gluckman Mayner Architects, respectively, and renting a tiny New York apartment, only 250 square feet. During that time, the couple established Oyler Wu Collaborative and began to heed the lure of Los Angeles. Wu is a native. Plus, says Oyler, "It has more variety."
They first explored Venice Beach and its bungalows after making the move—and marrying—two years ago. "But we still liked living in an apartment, New York–style," Wu recalls. A visit to craigslist.org led the couple downtown to the American Cement Building, which had been converted into lofts.
One draw was the building's tenant list: Architects and photographers as well as the inevitable "industry" professionals provided an instant coterie of kindred spirits. Another attraction was the building itself. Built by DMJM in 1964, this unofficial Wilshire Boulevard landmark has a facade of interwoven concrete X's that are both stunning and structural. The configuration, Oyler explains, eliminates the need for columns inside the building. (Except in the garage.)
The 1,400-square-foot space that the couple rented presented an absolute tabula rasa. "All we had," Wu says, "was concrete everywhere." Bare-bones amenities were limited to a small bathroom and a kitchen with plastic-laminate cabinetry and a stainless-steel sink.
Faced with fashioning an all-inclusive live-work environment, the architects were adamant that nothing should diminish the openness or the experience of the building's intrinsic sculpture. In order to appreciate both to the fullest, the pair lived in the empty space for four months, taking the time to experiment with diverse schemes before deciding on one that they could construct themselves. The result would still have to look finished enough to show off to prospective clients, since Oyler Wu Collaborative was yet to have a body of built work.
Oyler and Wu worked entirely with shop-grade birch plywood at a cost-effective $40 per sheet. "And we had the table saw and drills to do it ourselves," Oyler says. The literal backbone of the design is a 7-foot-high partition that runs 24 feet from front to back, separating the public zone from the bedroom and anchoring just about everything. Slightly splayed in plan, starting at 12 inches wide and eventually angling out to 30, the wall also handles diverse storage requirements—for personal paraphernalia as well as computers, a printer, and a scanner.
To counterbalance the wall's industrial mass with a more ethereal quality, the architects left some panels as open frames, then stretched translucent white chiffon over them. The same holds true for the wall's two shojilike doors, which mark a subtle division between work and home. Oyler and Wu built the door frames from shaved-down two-by-fours. "We laid out the frames on the floor and lived around them for a month," Wu says. "They look simple, but there are many complex junctions."
Oyler and Wu's shared plywood desk, attached at one end to the wall, extends 16 feet into the public space. As for the desk's top, Wu says, "It was the last thing to do, and we were running out of money." Stone was clearly beyond their means. Stainless steel was, too. So the couple opted for cement-board, which they sanded and finished with three coats of polyurethane.
Spanning the 33-foot-long window wall in front of the desk is a triple-tiered low plywood shelving unit where the architects display their models, creating a miniature city against a backdrop of the real thing. Taller pine shelving, purchased this time, houses the couple's library and keeps Oyler's collection of stringed instruments within reach. In breaks from work, he reaches for a guitar, mandolin, bass, or German 19th-century violin. Wu, for her part, keeps up with flute and piano. Talk about multitasking and multitalent.
Additional furnishings are few. The live-work area is outfitted with Paola Lenti's braided rope-yarn chaise longue and rug, Piero Lissoni's stainless-steel mesh chairs, and Oyler's own cantilevered cocktail table in plywood, pine, and cement-board—the base weighted down with pennies. The bedroom holds simple rectilinear pieces that Oyler made while living in New York: a cherrywood bed, a maple armchair, and a pine desk with drawers made of wine crates.
So far, the minimal scheme is working. "We can't take prospective clients to, say, the big courthouse we've just built. So we bring them here, where we can show our attention to detail and ability to pull it together," Wu says. Just ask developer Sven Altmetz, who was on the hunt for architects to design a ground-up loft building in Venice. He came. He saw. He commissioned.