A Los Angeles designer ditches the big city for a woodsy Michigan fixer-upper, reimagining both the home and her family’s lifestyle.

By Mary Beaumont
August 24, 2020
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Credit: John Stoffer

In the age of real-estate apps and endless online design inspiration, so many of us have done this: We picture a peaceful, poetic life in a beloved place, perhaps our old stomping ground. We find a fixer-upper online, letting our fantasies whirl and reveling in the imagine-what-could-be down every hallway. And then we snap up that home after seeing only a quick video tour and a hand-drawn floor plan, moving our family (including two kids under age 4) halfway across the country and plunging into a top-to-bottom remodel.

OK, maybe we don’t actually take the leap on that last part. But it made sense to Los Angeles interior designer Sarah Sherman Samuel. The idea of relocating her family to Michigan, not far from where she grew up, gelled after the birth of her own kids. When she and husband Rupert unearthed the perfect project home—dated kitchen and bathrooms, good light and lines—in a verdant wood near Grand Rapids, the couple took it as a sign. “Kids grow up so fast, and we wanted to be able to be present for them,” Sarah says. “The best gift we could ever give them was slowing down.”

Not that the past two years have been slow, exactly. Design projects on both coasts and around the country have kept Sarah busy. After arriving from California, the family camped for a while in the new house (as in, mattresses on the floor) while planning the remodel. Then they moved to a small rental to make way for the major projects. The kitchen doubled in width and window count. Some spaces assumed new purposes. And every room shed clunky baseboard heaters and gained in-floor radiant heating to keep the home (and its many tiled floors) toasty warm during intense Michigan winters. Sarah and Rupert, with help from her handy dad, took on plenty of heavy lifting themselves, including installing the mazelike pattern of heating panels.

For all that’s finished, more tasks remain: In the walkout basement, a pair of guest rooms and another living space await transformation. To a designer, that’s exciting: “It’s a blank canvas, a place for me to experiment with new techniques and finishes, or my own art, products and furniture.” This project house probably will remain in a state of progress, much as the family that upended one existence for another. Watching kids Archie and Clover exploring the woods, though, brings to life the couple’s online house-shopping vision. “If we didn’t have kids, I don’t think we ever would have left L.A., and I am pretty confident we will be back one day,” Sarah says. But for now, a cozy home among the trees feels exactly right.

Credit: Sarah Sherman Samuel

In Sarah's portfolio, exteriors follow a familiar pattern: They’re either white or black. Her own home would not deviate; she cloaked it in Caviar from Sherwin-Williams. “There is just something magical about how a black house feels right at home amongst the trees,” Sarah says. The moody new hue replaced a worn red finish and delivers striking contrast with the surroundings in all seasons.

Credit: John Stoffer

Behind that door in the kitchen (above): a working pantry, holding the fridge, food and small appliances. Sarah relocated a bathroom to make space to have everything contained in one spot—and the airy aesthetics of hiding the kitchen’s most hulking machine.

Credit: John Stoffer

The kitchen looks out over a comfy family room, where the furniture and wall decor echo the symmetry of the twin archways. A 5-foot circular skylight washes the room in sunshine.

Credit: John Stoffer

Updated beadboard doors and hand-brushed brass hardware (both from Sarah’s own lines) transform an Ikea media unit into an elevated credenza. The wall tapestry rolls up and clips out of the way to reveal the TV.

The 1980 home’s original design marries midcentury-modern lines (sharp angles and soaring ceilings) with postmodern curves (a circular skylight and spiral staircase). Sarah leaned into the juxtaposition, expanding doorways into large arched openings and softening edges with shapely furnishings.

In online photos, the home’s tongue-and-groove pine ceilings looked unappetizingly orange. “I toyed with the idea of painting them and putting in wood flooring, which would have been the easiest and least expensive route,” Sarah Sherman Samuel says. “But once we saw them in person, I ended up designing the whole house around them.”

Credit: Sarah Sherman Samuel

The kids’ bedrooms feature more color than the rest of the home, but a consistent palette ties everything together. “Each room relates but uses the colors in different proportions,” Sarah says. The nature-inspired lineup leans heavily on whites and ivories, plus ocher, blush, rust, lavender, and hints of blue and green.

Sarah cut the bunks’ arched frame with a jigsaw. A railing and ladder will come later, when Archie is ready to sleep up top.

Credit: John Stoffer

Archie’s room was originally a large laundry space. Sarah wanted both kids sleeping on the same level as the master bedroom, so washer and dryer decamped to the basement. That stylish abstract? It’s by Archie himself, a project from preschool.

Credit: John Stoffer

Matisse-inspired wallpaper and a dreamy canopy add little-girl whimsy to Clover’s room.

Credit: Sarah Sherman Samuel

A mirrored wall treatment came down to make way for inset shelving in the living room. Plush carpet ensures a soft landing for Archie (age 5), Clover (2 1/2) and rescue pup Cracker.

Credit: John Stoffer

The family calls this mostly white living room “the tumble room” because the kids horse around and jump all over the furniture. (Yes, really, Sarah says: Shoes stay by the door. Food stays in the kitchen. Bright room stays bright.) Toys hide in the leather-clad credenza, originally made to house stereo equipment.

Sounds Grand

Sarah and her family have quickly made Grand Rapids home. Here are some favorite stops in and around town:

SIP: THE SØVENGÅRD A vast, leafy biergarten complements a craft pint. The local brew scene has earned Grand Rapids the title of Beer City, USA.

EAT: TERRA Farm-to-table dining with dynamite pizza and a cute kids menu printed with jokes for littles to tell at the table.

STROLL: VILLAGE OF ADA East of Grand Rapids, the Samuels like to grab treats and walk past picket-fenced homes to the town’s covered bridge.

PLAY: FREDERIK MEIJER GARDENS AND SCULPTURE PARK A lush location that combines the beauty of nature and art. The family enjoys warmer-weather concerts at the outdoor amphitheater.