When the lot next door to her Michigan home went up for sale, a design star seized the opportunity for her first-ever, ground-up design: the Sarah Sherman Samuel showhouse.
Though her fanbase is fixated on her playful, organic interiors, it was the great outdoors that spurred Sarah Sherman Samuel’s latest project—a new-build home where her signature style could be infused into each and every detail. “It came about as we realized the lot of land adjacent to our current home was for sale. A builder owned it and was selling the land under the premise that whoever buys the land, builds a house with them,” Sarah tells us.
Said builder’s reputation for clear-cutting trees in favor of large properties preceded him. “The magic of the area is its wooded acreage in such close proximity to the city,” Sarah explains. “We were desperate to save it, especially since the land ran adjacent to our backyard— it’s the view of the forest that our entire house opens up to. We decided to see it as an opportunity to save as much of the landscape as we could while also getting a chance to build my own showhouse.”
It would be a project with no client and no constraints. A place where the in-demand designer could experiment with an architectural vision, collaborate with favorite makers and artists, and showcase her own furniture and product designs within the walls. “Normally a project has many guidelines or predetermined factors that need to be taken into account in the design,” she explains, listing off key items like the foundation, rooflines, plumbing locations, and an existing floor plan. Not to mention the clients’ budget, needs, and style. “There are quite a few very defined guardrails you need to work within. With the showhouse, however, there were virtually none—only our budget and site conditions. This was as exciting as it was intimidating.”
The design process was what Sarah called a full immersion, with many of the steps between idea and actuality removed. For the structure itself, she collaborated with Mera Studio Architects to get her vision on paper. “I needed to translate it to the many hands that built it: the framers, the flatworkers, the drywallers, the tile setters, and even more at the micro level…it takes an army!” The initial plans were handed over to the framers, who then engineered a way to create a unique barreled ceiling that would set the tone for the interiors.
The project took an even more personal turn midway through when the fluted brick for the exterior—a new design Sarah created exclusively for this house—delayed construction. “We were manufacturing an entirely new product and were waiting on new machinery to be fabricated, and the previous builder essentially jumped ship,” she recalls, leaving Sarah to find her own subcontractors.
It ended up being a blessing in disguise. “My husband Rupert got his builder’s license and took over the construction side of things. This allowed even more freedom with time and resulted in a more satisfying collaboration. We have a shorthand, and he expects that I won’t just come up with the norm. He still questions me sometimes, but he’s accustomed to trusting the vision even when he doesn’t see it yet.”
The tight-knit nature of the build—and close proximity—meant Sarah was able to oversee every detail, every step of the way. “Typically, all the finish schedules and documentation are in the construction drawings but being a personal project, we were much looser with it,” she says. “I was able to be on site almost daily answering questions.” Being steps away also allowed her to do the electrical walk-through in person, mark out the outlets and light fixtures on-site instead of on paper, and even draw the elevations and tile layout mere days before the tile setters arrived.
Sarah’s career has evolved from only interiors to include product design, and the showhouse served as a perfect place to include her pieces. She has furniture, rugs, wallpaper, fabric, bedding, and decor available through Lulu and Georgia; a line of fine art and handcrafted furniture available through her own workshop, SSS Atelier; cabinet fronts for kitchens and bathrooms at Semihandmade; and tile and exterior brick at Concrete Collaborative. And she showcases anything else she dreams up that her dad (Pop Pop, as he’s affectionately known) can make—from interior doors to the bench on which she’s perched on our winter issue’s cover.
“Personal projects are where I learn the most, not only because I am so intimately involved but mostly because there is so much more room for experimentation,” Sarah says. “Designing a house from the ground up and filling it with my own furniture, textiles, lighting, and art has created the ultimate example of my work in its purest form… while saving the trees and view from our current home in the process.”