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Changing of the Guard

The transformation of a historic Kaka‘ako building into a modern penthouse pied-à-terre marks new territory for Honolulu.

The living area can be curtained off or opened up.

The fully operational vault door inside the 2,400-square-foot penthouse at The Vanguard Lofts, which appropriated the historic National Cash Register building for its modern-loft apartments in Honolulu’s artsy Kaka‘ako district, not only nods to the unique past of its structural surrounds, but also serves as a dramatic point of entry for the world-class wine collection of its frequently itinerant homeowner.

“He is very much a citizen of the world,” explains designer and VIF Studio founder Lian Eoyang of the nomadic homeowner. His interests, which include a U.K.-based indie film company, and involvements take him from Asia to Hawai‘i. (He organized a relief effort in the Philippines and actively backs Filipino hip-hop culture, for isntance.) “He travels quite a bit, but wanted something that would be a great platform for entertaining clients in Honolulu.”

Skirting familiar island design in favor of clean lines, factory-like finishes and warm touches, Eoyang settled upon a tropical modernist design scheme, softening the building’s industrial bones with a fusion of modern, natural materials and multicultural cues referencing the homeowner’s international lifestyle.

The penthouse, one of only two top-floor units of Vanguard Lofts’ original Vladimir Ossipoff-designed structure (a six-story addition was added later), complements the environment with a judicious mix of original concrete, exposed walls and industrial-size windows—dramatic filters of light and city vistas, with the roof deck overlooking the Honolulu skyline and extinct Punchbowl Crater. Still, “It was important to keep things honest in their materiality, but not overly fussy in their detailing,” explains Eoyang of balancing all of the design elements, including dark, wide-planked Brazilian walnut floors and a striking black-and-white palette, with golden amber hues, copper paneling and moody uplighting providing a soft, accenting cast throughout.

The fully functional vault door adds immediate intrigue.

A marvel of modernity, the open gourmet kitchen still manages to express a melding of old and new. Contemporary commercial fittings like Thermador appliances and stainless-steel cabinetry give way to a full-slab Turkish Carrera backsplash and a cozy dining area, featuring hand-sculpted furnishings from Benji Reyes. In fact, Eoyang composed the coffee table over lunch with both the artisan and the owner during a trip to the Philippines. “[Reyes] did almost all the furnishings in the condo,” Eoyang notes. “This, again, was to keep everything very warm, and a little bit whimsical—we didn’t want this [design] to be something from a soul-less modeernist catalog. We wanted to bring in through the personality and the warmth of the owner.”

And so they did, with personalized storytelling touches, like the aforementioned bank vault door. In a nod to the client’s predilection for entertaining and his enjoyment of top-shelf cocktails, he insisted the home boast high-capacity wine storage, sending Eoyang in a search for, as she puts it, “something big enough to make a statement that would be appropriate to the vernacular of the building.” She found it—at an animal hospital in Colorado, of all places. As for procuring the historical stunner, “They said, ‘If you come and take it away, you can have it,’” Eoyang remembers with a laugh, still somewhat amazed at scoring a find for part of the building that, because of its historic concrete and thick structure in the floors, could bear its weight.

And, given the homeowner’s rather international tastes, the home reflects a mishmash of cultural styles, most notably with the sleek lines of European modernism to complement a Japanese sense of order. True to form, the Japanese-style wet room informed the bathroom, which claims an artisan-made cypress ofuro (soaking tub) as its anchor, with a Dornbracht rain shower backlit by glowing honey onyx that punctuates the space with “real wow,” for a restrained take on opulent Filipino flair. The Vanguard penthouse is not unfamiliar territory for Eoyang; this is her second architectural foray in the islands (her first was a penthouse at the Hokua, also in Kaka‘ako). “Designing on O‘ahu is more urban than designing something more pastorally driven, like you might in the outer islands,” she says. “Balancing that with the laid-back Hawaiian ethos is a challenge that I really love.”