A Wilmington Island couple patiently awaits their dream home in style
Brandi and Ryan O’Kelley were relatively new to life in the South when they decided to build their forever home on the Wilmington Island waterfront. To allow time to adjust to life in the Lowcountry, the Arkansas natives decided to start small, beginning with the construction of their guest cottage.
But the “tiny house,” as the homeowners refer to it, is in no way petite. Coming in at 1,200 square feet, the cottage, designed by Erik Puljung of Hansen Architects and built by Alair Homes, is the first of four phases in the construction of the couple’s grand compound: Oak Knoll. (In a nod to Southern tradition, Brandi and Ryan christened their property with a name and crest designed by Emily McCarthy.) Desiring to create an “inheritable” home — one marked by timeless design and extravagant details — the O’Kelleys settled on a design altogether unique to the area.
Clad in KEIM-washed estate bricks — selected for their exaggerated size — and trimmed with jet black soffits and window sashes, each detail of the cottage’s exterior sings against the waterfront backdrop from which it deftly diverges.
Eager to push the design envelope, Brandi brought in Beth McDonald of Elizabeth McDonald Interiors for support. “I loved her exposure and New Yorker attitude,” Brandi says of the driven designer. “I knew she would understand my vision and get things done.”
With the exterior’s Euro-modern look intact, Beth married contemporary design and light-handed coastal details in the home’s interior. Neutral walls and cabinetry feel subtly fresh, drawing the eye up to the nickel groove ceiling for “a nod to the Lowcountry,” as natural light dances in through the elongated windows and French doors, which span two walls.
The color palette extends to the furniture — a mammoth white Ethan Allen sectional from the previous house mingling with a chrome coffee table in the living area and acrylic bar stools pulled up to the kitchen island. Designed with swimmers and sun tanners in mind, each piece was selected to last. “Each material chosen can hold up to water and sunscreen,” says Brandi.
For a dose of color, Brandi turned to unconventional art selections — Hermès beach towels. “Everyone thought I was insane when I said I wanted to frame the flamingo,” the homeowner says with a laugh, referring to the larger-than-life bird featured prominently on the living room wall. An Hermès sailboat towel also hangs in the couple’s elegant master bathroom.
Complete with a spa-like, walk-in shower, soaking tub with room for two, and waterfront views, the luxurious ensuite is their favorite room in the house. “With Ryan’s demanding schedule (he works as a radiologist in Savannah), it was essential we have a place to forget our troubles at the end of the day,” says Brandi of the bathtub’s relaxing appeal. Beth designed bespoke motorized shades for a “fun, tech feature,” allowing for extra privacy.
The custom details continue in the master closet and laundry room where storage reigns supreme. A mix of streamlined cabinets and shelves — with dedicated shoe and purse storage for Brandi (she is an avid collector) — the couple’s every need was considered and met.
Beth even accommodated the O’Kelley’s three furry friends with custom iron crates perfect for doggie beds that tuck neatly under the laundry room counter, providing a generous work surface and hidden sleeping spot.
More stylish surprises can be found in the petite powder room. Covered in a grass-patterned vinyl and decorated with a beaded chandelier, contemporary sconces and a fashionable mix of metal hardware, the little room is another glamorous favorite of the homeowners. “I show everyone my powder room,” says Brandi of the delicately appointed room. “This cottage is more glam and freer than the main house will be.”
Their future home will feature stronger, more traditional, French-inspired details, heavy moldings and new furnishings selected for the space. The couple plans to begin construction next year once the building craze dies down, and lead times are shortened.
But, having achieved more with their tiny house than they could have imagined, the O’Kelleys are content to look across the lawn, dreaming up the details of their pool (they break ground this November), tennis court and house from the comfort of their cottage patio. “We are glad to have done it this way,” Brandi says of their decision to start with the guest cottage, giving them the time to settle into the South and determine their wants and needs in a new space. “It will make for a better main house.”