The House That Chan Built

On the North Shore of Kaua‘i, Los Angeles-based designer Chan Luu finds a place to call home.

“I always wanted to have a home on an island somewhere in the world,” explains artist and designer Chan Luu in describing how she came to build a house atop a lush hillside on Kaua‘i. “Because I am from Vietnam, living in Los Angeles, I really miss that tropical weather, the stormy ocean, the dramatic weather.”

Luu’s self-named company, headquartered in Los Angeles, supports village artisans who manufacture her clothes and jewelry around the world.

Los Angeles has been the setting of her journey from young Vietnamese immigrant to American style-setter. “But I love rain. It’s sunny all year round where I am in L.A., and it’s boring and not really healthy without rainfall.”

Her wistfulness for the green landscape of her youth has led her to the North Shore of Kaua‘i and the creation of this home she calls her Hut House.

Built on a 3-acre property near Kalihiwai Bay, the Hut House represents a four-year collaboration between Luu and Los Angeles design firm Johnston Marklee.

Johnston Marklee had already designed Luu’s Pacific Palisades home in Los Angeles. But for Kaua‘i, Luu wanted them to do something “totally the opposite. My house in LA is a cool, glamorous, sexy house. My house in Kaua‘i is a place where you leave everything behind and be with yourself.”


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Luu's hip roof is a modern take on the traditional Hawaiian home, acting as an umbrella to shelter the house from Kaua‘i’s heavy rains while filtering natural daylight and air.

The house draws its Hut House name from the way separate living spaces are clustered around the courtyard. The emphasis given exterior space created a 50/50 split between indoor space and covered outdoor space.

“Chan prioritized outdoor pathways between rooms,” says Nicholas Hofstede, who led the project. “It was essential that the house design could create as much contact with the outside as possible and that subtle and dramatic changes in temperature, sun, rain and wind would be perceivable from any part of the house. Every room has at least two exterior walls which optimizes views and ventilation, and all of the primary living spaces have very large clear skylights which closely connect the interiors with the weather and sky.”

“We translated Chan’s needs into a collection of separate pavilions that were unified under the large, singular roof,” says architect Sharon Johnston. “The house resembles a village, with four distinct volumes and circulation arranged around a partially open central courtyard protected by a single monolithic roof.”

The pavilions, courtyard and lanai make Luu ever-conscious of the sky, ocean and mountains in all their changing moods. “In Kaua‘i it’s so unpredictable,” Luu explains in an email. “In one day, I get sunshine, overcast, rainy, windy. It’s very inspiring. I just love it. Hawai‘i is home (Vietnam) to me. It reminds me a lot of my childhood.”

Luu’s journey from Vietnam to Hanalei began in the seaside town of Nha Trang, south of Saigon. The daughter of a wealthy manufacturing family, she’d grown up doing craft projects with her family’s servants before her family’s fortune changed dramatically when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.

Chan was a privileged but frustrated student in Boston in the waning days of the Vietnam War, yearning to take the first steps toward becoming a designer, yet forbidden by her parents from deviating from their plan for her to become a doctor or business graduate.

Saigon’s fall allowed her to reinvent herself, but it also necessitated her supporting her parents, who had lost everything and fled to the United States. Luu credits her upbringing in war-torn Vietnam as having taught survival skills since she was a kid. “I moved to Los Angeles with $400 to my name.”

She worked her way up through the Los Angeles fashion scene, eventually owning her own little boutique in Palos Verdes. The start of her own design line happened literally by accident when she was confined to bed after a skiing accident in 1995. Luu began teaching herself to bead to distract herself from the boredom, and from this sickbed diversion an accessory empire was born.

“I take ancient crafts and modernize them,” says Luu. “It’s a collaboration in designing with village craftsmen.”

When Jennifer Aniston was photographed wearing one of the shell necklaces Luu had paid Kashmiri refugees in Jaipur, India to paint with religious imagery, Luu soon found she’d sold half a million of them. Her next hit were skinny scarves fashioned from old Indian saris. Then in 2003, she started making beaded wrap bracelets after being inspired by styles she’d seen worn by worshipers near Indian temples. She translated the idea into something richer, using custom dyed leathers, sterling silver, and hand-cut semi-precious stones.

Her designs have since been worn by Michelle Obama, Blake Lively, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Kate Hudson, Christina Aguilera, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock and Janet Jackson. Her work has been featured in Elle, Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated and Vogue.

But as high as Luu has flown in the fashion world, for her hideaway she wanted to return firmly to her roots.

“I grew up in Vietnam with French influences and a French education. I am a multicultural person, I want a house that reflects who I am, I want it modern but still rustic. We furnished the house with a lot of French colonial elements and, of course, we started with the courtyard, my favorite spot of my house.”

The courtyard at the house’s center reinterprets that colonial feel in an entirely contemporary fashion, featuring a white and gray striped floor and ceramic sculptures from the Belgian studio Atelier Vierkant.

“The interior courtyard is a reflecting space the house is centered around,” elaborates Johnston. “Intersecting views across the courtyard are especially poignant when it rains. Ceramic basins and stones collect and filter the water from the roof, as part of serene, and ever changing landscape.”

“In addition to the many environmental benefits of the courtyard,” adds Hofstede, “for cooling, to capture breeze, to give shade, there is also an important communal aspect that Chan was looking for in the house. Especially in Hawai‘i with such a history of the lanai, having both a 360-degree lanai on the exterior, coupled with the courtyard on the interior give a great balance of outward and inward facing exterior spaces.”

Hut House is also a modern take on the traditional Hawai‘i home. Its wraparound lanai and its hip roof were initially modeled on the pre-statehood architecture still seen in schools and community buildings in Hanalei. Johnston specifically cites the Waioli Mission Hall, built in 1841.

“We were inspired by the simplicity of the roof and column structure and the generous porch that surrounds these buildings,” notes Johnston, who points out that the traditional hip roof was given an update here. “Th e twisted roof varies in height to accommodate four torqued skylight wells that bounce indirect light into the home.”

Luu’s favorite elements are the lighting, the scale and how the architects managed to bring nature into every room of the house. Her favorite time there is five in the morning when “the island is waking up with all the beautiful colors through sun rays and the nature noises: the wind, the rain, the birds and the roosters. The rooster singing reminds me of the childhood time spending with my grandmother in the country side in Vietnam.”

The beauty of her home and time on Kaua‘i go back with her to Los Angeles and the work she does there. “The bright red dirt, the greenery, the purple skies… all go into my collection. The calmness, the sanctuary feeling, the see through design of the house where everywhere I look, I see the beauty of nature around me. I am living inside a beautiful piece of sculpture.”

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