When you talk “home” to writer and director Mara Brock Akil, you’re not necessarily talking about paint swatches, sconces, and square footage. I mean you should. Besides being the creative powerhouse behind TV shows like Girlfriends and being Mary Janethe screenwriter and producer is also revealed to be a design expert who masterfully renovated the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, Black Lightning director Salim Akil, and their sons, Yasin and Nasir. It’s awash with beautiful original details, vintage Murano chandeliers, and a robust collection of work by black artists, including Lorna Simpson and Noah Davis.
But for Brock Akil, design is about more than just the details: it’s about the kind of lifelong desires that passionately touch you and drive you to moodboard since you were a teenager. “We are really our heart’s desires,” she says. “And I want my home to reflect that.”
Brock Akil’s career – she runs her own busy production studio in LA and has a development deal with Netflix – is on a roll. But in recent years she realized that she craved a place of refuge as a source of inspiration and recovery. That need became even more pressing in the wake of the 2016 murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two unarmed black men who were shot by police within weeks of each other that summer. A generally optimistic person, Brock Akil found herself paralyzed with fear in a country that was constantly undermining and devaluing black life. “Joy is earned,” she says. “We don’t have to wait for it. And that’s what this house is.”
She had always loved Hancock Park, a historic enclave in the Wilshire section of LA. A Zillow listing for a late 1920s Italian Renaissance style house stopped her. The 10,400-square-foot home had beautifully preserved architectural details and amenities such as a gym, pool, and movie room. Still, she wondered, “Can we live in it? Can we reach that ‘dream state’?”
She enlisted designer Tiffany Howell of LA firm Night Palm Studio and explained her goal to create a home that reflected her own family’s story while preserving the home’s history. It was their third project together – the two first connected after Brock saw Akil Howell’s work on actress Laura Harrier’s home in Silver Lake. She hired Howell to design the creative suite in her production offices and was impressed when it was completed in just three months.
Like Brock Akil, the designer believes that a space is first defined by a ‘feel’. Former music video director Howell starts with a soundtrack for each client; Brock Akil’s was heavy on Sade, John Coltrane, Solange, Phyllis Hyman, Prince and Anita Baker. This is followed by a study of favorite smells, places to travel and other design preferences. “I do a deep dive,” says Howell. With Brock Akil, she discovered the writer’s love for 1970s Italian and French interiors, accentuated by a bit of “funk and grit.”
In Hancock Park, the atmosphere is immediately evident in the hall, which features a wide staircase, arches, and a skylight encased in a ceiling painted a silvery blue. Reminiscent of Morocco where the Akils honeymooned, it feels less like a foyer and more like a courtyard. Howell sparingly furnished it with a black olive tree in a terracotta pot and a 1960s Murano chandelier that hung from the high overhead ceiling. Equally dramatic is the family’s dining room, where the wainscoting is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Skimming Stone, a creamy color Howell describes as “candlelight,” creating a soft glow around a vintage oblong table covered in parchment.
Howell was tasked with honoring each family member’s unique personality and taste while also building bridges with the home’s overall style. Salim was given a book-filled study with a low-slung brown velvet sofa perfect for reading. In their own lounge, the boys stretch out on vintage leather Togo sofas that Howell bought from a dealer in Prague. And of course Brock Akil has several rooms of his own. One, aptly named the Rosé Room, is painted with a soft blush. Here, Brock Akil hosts friends such as legendary model and activist Bethann Hardison, who recently stopped by to admire the Vladimir Kagan sofa and pool view.
Upstairs, the master bedroom has a custom floating bed upholstered in blue velvet; artwork by Kara Walker hangs overhead. And across the hall is Brock Akil’s dressing room, where her well-crafted wardrobe hangs from custom powder-coated rods, her shoes perfectly aligned underneath. The walls are covered in Scalamandré wallpaper and a sitting area has a round vintage sofa and an Italian mohair lounge chair salvaged from a Barneys department store in New York.
The boutique-like space is also a wonderful tribute to the shopping trips she took to Saks Fifth Avenue with her grandmother, mother and aunt as a child. As black women in 1970s and 1980s Los Angeles bought St. John’s knits, she was always aware of the racial barrier—and how her own family insisted on taking up space. And now in her own home in Hancock Park, she continues the tradition.
Styled by Bebe Howorth
This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE