There's an indefinable moment when you walk into Barry and Shauna Walker's Thai-inspired oasis in the offbeat Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and realize you have checked out of American life—or at least your spirit has. Turning off a frenetic boulevard into the spa, guests walk through a tiled outdoor corridor lined with fat wicker chaises, rusted lanterns, pots exploding with banana plants, and bamboo umbrellas, take a seat, and likely forget all about car pools, shopping lists and mortgages. Once changed into brown cotton t-shirts and Thai culottes, massage guests are escorted into a dark communal treatment room that’s painted chartreuse and lit softly by antique chandeliers.
This space is filled with flashes of fallen grandeur—second-hand wrought-iron ceiling grates, a gigantic stone fountain clearly made by hand, and oddly formed rattan chairs that you won't be able to find at the Cost Plus World Market. Wood-beamed ceilings evoke a rural Asian countryside. Filmy curtains separate each massage space—individual rectangles of wooden platform—so that every patron is connected to the other in space and sound; throughout treatment, guests can hear one other, as well as the spa’s remarkable soundtrack of Armenian folk singers, aboriginal drummers from Australia and Chinese harps. Through this surround-sound sensual confrontation, guests share in a very human experience.
"We wanted to create a spa that wasn't all dry-walled and sterile and predictable," says Barry Walker, who, along with Shauna, created the stunning space without help from any design professionals. That he is a music video director and former antiques dealer, and Shauna a choreographer, is revealed in myriad ways. "We wanted it to be rugged, and engage all five of guest’s senses," Barry says. "We tried to create a spa that was raw and surprising; a spa that would not only transport you to a different place, but a different era."
Featuring native Thai massage therapists who the Walkers met at a local Thai temple—many are former monks who learned the healing art in their native land—The Raven transports guests to Wat Pho, the famous Buddhist temple in Bangkok that houses one of the country's oldest Thai massage schools. But the era one enters in stepping into the Raven isn't 2013; it's Wat Pho of the 1950's. Natural light streams in from skylights and the double-doored entryway, and at night, lanterns, candles and moonlight illuminate the scene.
This unique design inspiration came from a months-long journey that the Walkers took across Thailand and Cambodia. "My back was busted from decades of football, punk rock shows and a car accident or two," he says. "So I went into an ornate temple for a massage every day—every day! It was a life-changing trip, and that's what I wanted to recreate here."
Barry Walker, his younger brother and a small crew of construction workers did the heavy lifting themselves to create the spa in 2004. Walker, who has designed and renovated many homes, has a knack for entering a space and creating a dimensional vision for it. "I walk in, put on my gloves and do over the whole thing," he says. "I have no formal training, but I am very visual, and not afraid to knock down a wall and change my environment." He and his brother built the main fountain by hand—without using any plans to guide them. "It weighs about 800 pounds, so it’s never moving from that spot," Walker says.
To furnish the spa with its exotic, unexpected look, the former antiquarian frequented the big Los Angeles-area flea markets, picking up wooden tables, lighting fixtures and the like at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena City College and Long Beach. He also worked with his antique sources throughout Southeast Asia, Guatemala and Morocco. "We avoided just importing chairs from Indonesia, and instead chose pieces that were a little beat-up and homemade."
The Walkers have channeled their diverse artistic backgrounds to great effect. "I was used to designing windows, and we were both used to creating complex experiences for people, and I think we did that here," Barry says. "We went on a journey and we wanted to share it. So now, people come in and they keep coming back. If they leave The Raven feeling like they were just somewhere else, then we've done our job." —Alison Singh Gee