written by:
photos by:
illustrated by:
January 16, 2009
Originally published in Renovate! Reuse! Recycle!
In Los Angeles, California, a family of four inhabits a polychrome fantasia in the heart of Chinatown. Formerly a restaurant, punk rock night club, and furniture warehouse, the Berniers’ loft is anything but boring.
Sunlight streams through formerly boarded-up windows in the living area that was once Madame Wong’s stage. “When we took off the drywall, we realized there were windows in there. So we had more made to match these four,” says Dan. The new windows open up

Sunlight streams through formerly boarded-up windows in the living area that was once Madame Wong’s stage. “When we took off the drywall, we realized there were windows in there. So we had more made to match these four,” says Dan. The new windows open up the east side of the building to views of the courtyard below and the San Gabriel mountains in the distance. The apartment is furnished with an eclectic mix of furniture, including an Eero Saarinen womb chair.

Photo by 
1 / 10
Unlike the ornate exterior, there wasn’t much interior detail left to reuse—but the Berniers did their best. Dan says, “There was a wall that had octagonal shapes in it that we took out, and when we rebuilt it, we kept the shapes,”.

Unlike the ornate exterior, there wasn’t much interior detail left to reuse—but the Berniers did their best. Dan says, “There was a wall that had octagonal shapes in it that we took out, and when we rebuilt it, we kept the shapes,”.

Photo by 
2 / 10
Thrift-store lamps and an illuminated snowman lend the loft a warm glow at night.

Thrift-store lamps and an illuminated snowman lend the loft a warm glow at night.

Photo by 
3 / 10
Moe and Lewis play in their shared bedroom, the former Madame Wong’s kitchen. “It’s just so fun for them to live in a funny place like this,” says Amy. “Their friends love to come over and play.”

Moe and Lewis play in their shared bedroom, the former Madame Wong’s kitchen. “It’s just so fun for them to live in a funny place like this,” says Amy. “Their friends love to come over and play.”

Photo by 
4 / 10
Vintage kettles and a wide-ranging assortment of pots and pans sit above kitchen cabinets from IKEA.

Vintage kettles and a wide-ranging assortment of pots and pans sit above kitchen cabinets from IKEA.

Photo by 
5 / 10
Moe stands in front of the circular opening between the living area and the sleeping/bath quarters.

Moe stands in front of the circular opening between the living area and the sleeping/bath quarters.

Photo by 
6 / 10
Amy was the sole architect on the project, when she wasn’t working a full-time job. (Her cardboard model of the living/dining area included a red Lego as the dining table.) “It’s surprising how great it is,” she says of the redesign. “It just works really

Amy was the sole architect on the project, when she wasn’t working a full-time job. (Her cardboard model of the living/dining area included a red Lego as the dining table.) “It’s surprising how great it is,” she says of the redesign. “It just works really well—if I do say so myself.”

Photo by 
7 / 10
In the tiled master bathroom, the boys get their own sink.

In the tiled master bathroom, the boys get their own sink.

Photo by 
8 / 10
Lewis descends a metal-tube set of stairs fabricated by a maker of ship’s ladders. A banister from the original restaurant stairway serves as a railing for the sleeping loft.

Lewis descends a metal-tube set of stairs fabricated by a maker of ship’s ladders. A banister from the original restaurant stairway serves as a railing for the sleeping loft.

Photo by 
9 / 10
The exterior paint scheme is a riff on a vintage sign hanging downstairs, which may reflect the building’s original colors. “Hundreds of people a week photograph our building,” says Dan.

The exterior paint scheme is a riff on a vintage sign hanging downstairs, which may reflect the building’s original colors. “Hundreds of people a week photograph our building,” says Dan.

Photo by 
10 / 10
Sunlight streams through formerly boarded-up windows in the living area that was once Madame Wong’s stage. “When we took off the drywall, we realized there were windows in there. So we had more made to match these four,” says Dan. The new windows open up

Sunlight streams through formerly boarded-up windows in the living area that was once Madame Wong’s stage. “When we took off the drywall, we realized there were windows in there. So we had more made to match these four,” says Dan. The new windows open up the east side of the building to views of the courtyard below and the San Gabriel mountains in the distance. The apartment is furnished with an eclectic mix of furniture, including an Eero Saarinen womb chair.

Project 
Bernier Residence
Architect 

Adaptive reuse of historic buildings in Los Angeles, both officially sanctioned and ad hoc, often results in odd juxtapositions, with none odder than the nutty provenance of Dan Bernier and Amy Finn Bernier’s loft in Chinatown. In 1939, their building was born as the Rice Bowl restaurant, a politically incorrect “palace in the sky” that served a stiff Mai Tai and was home to the only Asian cabaret in town. Later, it became Madame Wong’s—which, to any cool kid raised in the post-punk 1980s, occupies a place as seminal as CBGB but as obscure as Machu Picchu: Once, the Berniers’ 1,200-square-foot living/dining room held a stage graced by then-junior-varsity bands like Blondie, the Go-Go’s, Oingo Boingo, and the Police. Dan Bernier tells his favorite story about “Madame” Esther Wong (1917–2005), who was nothing if not adaptable: A failing restaurateur who got into music for the beer sales, she roamed the club’s audience to sniff out marijuana smokers. In her most infamous Chinese-grandma moment, “Madame Wong stopped the Ramones in the middle of their set, because someone had written graffiti in the girls’ bathroom, and she made them go clean it up,” Dan says with a laugh, sprawling on a sun-drenched couch in the former West Coast temple of New Wave.

From the mid-1980s until the Berniers bought it in 2003, the building on Sun Mun Way was a 4,000-square-foot furniture warehouse upstairs and a series of low-rent merchants downstairs, all moldering in concert with the declining fortunes of the master-planned, tourist-friendly shopping village north of downtown once known as New Chinatown. (Old Chinatown had been bulldozed and redeveloped several times over by the 1930s.) Today, just-plain-Chinatown is experiencing a renaissance, with bars and art galleries occupying formerly empty storefronts, new housing and light-rail nearby, and a multicultural 24-hour street scene that exists nowhere else in urban Los Angeles. Some call it gentrification, but there may not be a word for the repopulation of a fake place with real residents. For the Berniers, it’s like raising a family in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg. Weird, but fun.

By the time the Berniers got the property, the only remnants of its fascinating past were a disused kitchen in the back—now a bedroom for their sons Maurice (Moe), five, and Lewis, eight—and a distinctive circular opening between the show lounge and dining room, now an open living/kitchen area and lofted sleeping/bath quarters. The “big circle” still serves to separate the front of the house from the back: “We wanted this big public area where people could be eating, cooking, talking—a shared space,” says Dan, “and on the other side of the circle is  really ‘our’ space. It exists as another realm.” A couple of swings for the boys are bolted into a beam just beyond the circle, and while homework, playtime, and bedtime occur in the back rooms, the whole house is a free-fire scooter zone.

Kid-friendly touches pop up throughout the space. In the bathroom, a sink for shorties is placed next to one for adults; the bathtub is ensconced below the overhang of the sleeping loft to keep it warm and cozy, while the tooth-brushing area opens up all the way to the skylights. Moe and Lewis’s bedroom looks out on the not-so-scenic rear of the Hop Louie restaurant next door, but it also has a great view of Dodger Stadium; in the summer, the boys can watch July 4 fireworks from their beds.

In addition to the big circle, the most prominent design elements are the 14-foot-tall ceilings painted bold green, red, orange, and blue, and the golden southern light that flows through the double-hung windows, some of them new, some of them originals buried under decades of stucco and drywall. “It was a club, so they didn’t want any natural light, and when it was a furniture warehouse, they were afraid of people breaking in,” says Dan. French doors open up onto an original balcony that runs the length of the eastern edge of the building, allowing parents to keep an eye on kids scooting around the concrete plaza below. An IKEA kitchen features red plastic panels that riff on the faux-Chinese lacquer seen in Chinatowns everywhere, and a bargain-priced green granite countertop that Dan considers retail waterloo (but in a good way).

The entire place is lit by a cacophony of floor lamps, including a plastic snowman. There’s also a reupholstered Saarinen Womb chair, given to Amy by a formerly homeless client when she worked for a nonprofit that builds housing for people with AIDS. And all the other furniture? “Everything else is from the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store,” Amy says with a laugh. Fine art is everywhere, much of it by 1990s L.A. art stars like Martin Kersels and Steve Hurd. This is not just a quirk of taste: After running a cutting-edge art gallery in Los Angeles during the ’90s, Dan retired from the economically mercurial art world at age 40 to go back to school and earn a degree in real estate. Before working in housing and finance, Amy was an architect. She designed the entire renovation of the Chinatown building, with Dan acting as project manager. Sort of.

“I think we were very naive,” says Dan of the undertaking. They’d bought and sold a few houses before, living in some, rehabbing others for a profit. But all had been small-scale projects; the Chinatown building was a wholly different animal. A job that was supposed to take a few months stretched into a year and a half. “I would often buy the wrong toilets,” Dan admits.) But in the interim, they had time to think. The decision to actually live in the upstairs space, rather than convert it into multiple rental units as they had first planned, was a slow dawning.

First came the intergenerational, and financial, appeal: At the same time the Berniers were considering buying the loft, Amy’s parents were looking for a condo in Los Angeles to be near their grandchildren. Stymied by high prices, they helped make the Chinatown purchase, and in return, Amy designed them a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the western side of the building.

And the more time they spent in Chinatown, the more Dan and Amy realized it was a great place to raise their boys. “We can walk to a restaurant without having to cross a street, and they can ride their bikes without the fear of cars,” Dan says, pointing to the courtyard of Central Plaza below, where Chow Yun-Fat’s shoeprints and a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen mark the traditional gateway to Chinatown. (Not to mention 25-cent kiddie rides and firecrackers available at every corner store.) Amy notes other comforting elements, like a 24-hour bicycle security patrol, and the late-night foot traffic, perhaps the greatest urban crime-stopper of all. “We actually let the kids out of our sight,” she adds happily, words few suburban Los Angeles moms would ever dare to utter.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
131
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016
through living room
A second-story addition and a new indoor-outdoor focus revive a nondescript house in L.A.
April 25, 2016
Modern living room with Flexform sofa and Jens Fager candelabra
An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.
April 25, 2016
hillside haven  1
This backyard is its own modern retreat in the Berkeley Hills.
April 25, 2016
Two studios flanks a central volume at this home in Mexico
Art and life meet in the middle at a family retreat in Central Mexico.
April 24, 2016
natural instinct swedish family home kitchen table unfold pendants muuto lilla aland chairs stolab
With Alvar Aalto in mind, a renowned Swedish architect crafts a serene home on a long-held family plot.
April 24, 2016
clearing the table coffee tables boxinbox philippe starck glas italia storage
A half-century later, furniture designers are catching up to painter Yves Klein’s visionary Table Bleue.
April 23, 2016
A deck looks out onto the beach in Australia
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 23, 2016
against the grain sustainable hudson new york home black walnut flooring furniture
An architect-turned-falconer considers animals and nature when designing his own home.
April 23, 2016
Aerial view of Copenhagen
@littlemycph finds symmetry in buildings and streets.
April 22, 2016
Josué Azor retuned to his family’s plot to build a new home, designed to resist future quakes and decorated with custom artwork and furniture.
In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake, a young Haitian photographer builds anew.
April 22, 2016
backyard with outdoor shower concrete pavers and wood fence
A hillside Virginia home located on a notch between two ridges is fun for the whole family.
April 22, 2016
Twin houses in Canada
Twin cabins rise together on charming Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick.
April 22, 2016
toy story industrial kitchen los angeles renovation toy lofts brass shelves steel wall hayneedle pot rack verona range
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 22, 2016