When Sam Donnelly and her family moved from the UK to Los Angeles nine years ago, they did what most other English transplants do: get a house in the hills. “It was tough because I didn’t know LA. I had only vacationed here once when I was very young,” said Donnelly, a former executive producer of Great Britain’s Got Talent, now an executive producer on America’s Got Talent. “I just landed and rented a house in Laurel Canyon.” While Donnelly regards their former Spanish-style residence as ‘a dream’, it proved impractical as her then 5-year-old son got older. The hilly landscape and winding streets are not made for cycling to a friend’s house. So in 2019, Donnelly made the decision to move to flatter terrain.
“You just don’t feel like you’re in the middle of the suburbs of Studio City,” says Donnelly’s architect, Ryan Perella. After working on Donnelly’s previous home and getting a good feel for her style and the way her family lives, Perella knew this property, surrounded by mature trees, was right up his alley. The existing house? Not so much. “I think the permit says ‘must keep three walls’, so that’s exactly what we did,” he said. “It was really a start-from-scratch build.”
The architect leaned in simple gable roof shapes, leaving room for a huge accordion door from the living room. When Donnelly isn’t traveling across the US during filming, she leaves it open all day. “That’s kind of the point after you’ve lived in London all your life, isn’t it?” she says with a laugh. For her teenage son and his friends, it’s an ideal passage way to the tile-lined pool – they start at the doorstep, run down the stairs and jump right in.
The only thing more shocking than the year and a half it took to renovate the one-story house is the two year Donnelly waited for her lavish sequence to arrive (the family used the house’s small original in the meantime). The entire kitchen has been designed around the presentation of the French-designed appliance: Perella opted for simple dolomite worktops around the perimeter of the room and dove gray on the walls.
The matching leather armchairs in the living room are the only thing Donnelly brought from England to the US. (She’s owned them for nearly 30 years, and they’ve lived with her in every house she’s ever owned.) The sculptural woven pendant lamp is a newer find from Kenya that’s handcrafted from recycled plastic fibers.
Donnelly’s eye is for the details: in addition to her day job, she has started a company called Mercantile and Merchant, where she deals with real estate development and interior design. This eventually led her and Perella to work together on decisions like leaving the awkward niche next to the fireplace (a happy accident left over from construction) where it was and filling it with firewood. “Sometimes our best design decisions start from midnight Instagram posts,” shares Perella.
Or sometimes those ideas stem from another design decision. After landing on the flying duck wallpaper for the powder room, Donnelly and Perella turned to Urban Electric to create a custom sconce that would match the neck color of the birds perfectly. In the primary bathroom, another custom job took place: a wall-to-wall wood vanity packed with drawers (although some are just for looks—they disguise plumbing).
“It looks like a piece of furniture,” says Perella, who took the same approach with the kitchen island (the ornate legs look like they could stand on the base of a wardrobe). Adding a skylight to the room was a factor of living in a tight-knit suburb. There would never be privacy if there was a large window on the wall. “It sits right up against our neighbor’s house,” notes Donnelly.
Creating backyard flow was a top priority for Donnelly and her family, who hadn’t had the luxury of true LA indoor-outdoor entertainment at the time. Lining the yard with gravel and drought-tolerant plants suited the climate, but also helped create a sense of direction between the pool-slash kitchen and the fire pit on the other side. “They feel like rooms,” she says. “I’m waiting for some things to grow a little bit more, and then there will be more surprises as you navigate space.” This one gets our golden buzzer.