Gone, Hollywood: A Wild, Modern Home That Will Make You Forget You’re in LA

Photo by Ryan Benoit

Like Zora Neale Hurston said, “Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow.” So it seems wonderfully apt that Lora and Frank Banzali — two magnetic Midwesterners who traded Illinois winters for LA’s endless summer — would cultivate their surroundings with cold-hardy plants that mingle easily with sun-hungry tropicals.

Their house feels like a world away from Los Angeles, even. For one, this canyonside casa is quiet. (Except for a few noisy animals, but we’ll get to that…) Passing cars are few and far between. The temperature is easily 10 degrees below what it is on Hollywood Boulevard, which is only about a mile away.

“I tell them, ‘Drive into the void.’ It’s like a black hole,” Lora says about directing friends up the Hollywood Hills at night. “You basically leave the city business [and] job behind, which helps us recharge our internal batteries. It lets us appreciate where we came from and separates work/city life from ‘home.’ ”

Famous former residents have included Joe Cocker and Peter “Peter Perfect” Ishkans.

Famous former residents have included Joe Cocker and Peter “Peter Perfect” Ishkans.

Lora and Frank met while undergrads at Northwestern. Today Frank is an anesthesiologist and marathon runner, and Lora is the founder of Lo Motion LA, plans and executes soirees through Button Events, and works in advertising and marketing at Allure’s West Coast office. (She and C met while C was also working at Condé Nast.)

Despite the busy day jobs, they’ve been able to beautify and populate their landscape, one now bursting with ferns, yucca, acacia, wild orchids, succulents, eucalyptus, araucaria conifers and ivy. The stark verticality of their yard adds to the effect. And the furnishings? Modern and at the same time playful and exuberant. Like the people they live with.

We stopped by for the full tour. We also asked them about their modernist finds, their landscaping process and the lively creek across the street.

When you first saw this house, what was it that spoke to you?

LB: The architecture (it’s very non-cookie-cutter) and the balance of the windows to let the outside in.

There was the opportunity to expand and develop the landscape as well. We love the fact you could just stare out a window from the inside and enjoy the landscape — and Frank spends many hours daydreaming about landscaping.

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It’s been almost two years since you first moved in. What was the situation like outside back then?

LB: A couple parts of the outside landscape were dying due to lack of watering and there were a lot of dead branches we had to clean out. Luckily, the concrete patio came with the house, but it appeared that the last owner did not utilize the outdoors as much. It was a blank slate, which stimulated our creative juices!

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Art by LA artist The LGL mingles with a potted snake plant and the “Shhh” sign Frank stenciled and Lo painted. Pro tip: Lora says it keeps the volume down when kids come to visit.

Did you know exactly what you were going for? Or did you just go with the design flow…?

FB: I’d been gathering ideas for both indoor and outdoor for many years prior, so we just had to find the right home to have those ideas come to life. It took us a matter of a few months to purchase the major furniture and think of wall treatments, et cetera, but as the years went by, there was definitely editing going on as to furniture, colors and placement of items throughout the house.

We [also] wanted to create small ‘vignettes’ throughout the indoors and outdoors.

LB: I’m more into editing – I let Frank’s creative juices flow but I’m all about order and not looking too cluttered. Over the past two years, we’ve changed things around — due to functionality and just because we wanted to switch things up. Our personality plays a huge role in the decor — you’ll find humor throughout. We don’t take ourselves that seriously. We’re a good team like that.

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A favorite shrub: Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense), whose leaves alternate beween green and plum-color.

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Challenges have included the shadiness of the canyon. “When it gets dark out, it gets pitch black,” says Lora. They’ve experimented with plant placement as a result, and added landscape lighting, which enhances their movie nights. (They hang their big screen from the second-floor balcony railing.)

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Frank set up an irrigation system that waters the plants three times a week (twice a week in winter), which he augments by spot watering.

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Their ethos in a nutshell? “Modern warmth.” It’s about “balancing our appreciation of modern clean lines, pops of color and simple Scandinavian design with the warmness of nature, texture and functionality,” says Frank.

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Here, the Banzalis kick back between a potted acacia (left) and Mexican bamboo (right). Trees on the property also include pines, Catalina cherry, red bottlebrush and eucalyptus.

Frank, how did your upbringing in rural Galesberg, Illinois, influence the gardening you do today?

FB:  I grew up in a small town as a child and then mainly lived in big cities like Chicago and LA, which influences my love of both the warmth and quiet of a small town and the modern, architectural aspects of a big city.

My dad grew up in the rural Philippines with very meager means and the philosophy of ‘nothing beats working hard, and if you want something done, do it yourself, especially by the cheapest way possible.’ There are so many things I took from my dad and mom, but definitely a green thumb. Dad is basically self-trained master gardener.

I still have fond memories of helping remodel my parents’ bathroom and manually screwing in all the cement board into the walls and floor, and also digging huge koi ponds with my brother in clay dirt — yes, clay dirt!

LB:  I’m thankful for Frank’s background — although sometimes his DIY spirit injures me. (I.e., I almost fell down our hillside helping him landscape!)

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Firewood is taken from right there on the property and from around the neighborhood.

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Estwing axe made in Rockford, IL.

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A perky string-of-pearls succulent.

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A fern and tillandsia happily soak up the shade.

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A fiery wild orchid grows on the Banzalis’ southern hillside.

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Orbed succulents include sedums and the fleshy tendrils of a Fenestraria rhopalophylla. After spotting an example at a boutique for $70, Frank found a glass bowl for a few dollars at TJ Maxx and added his own plants, dirt and stones.

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The Funston Fire & Ice Chest by Shift Design features a firepit up top and inverts to an ice chest in the summer. (Check out the bottle openers on the side.) Find it at ShopHorne.com.

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Mexican bamboo.

Do you get the gardening equivalent of ‘runner’s high’?

FB:  I’m always thinking of the next project, like I always think of my next meal while I’m eating. Once I start a project, I just can’t stop till it’s done. I’m in the zone, so I can spend practically the whole day doing a project. It’s a natural high.

LB: I never got the runner’s high when I ran races (hence my early retirement from them!) I do get a cleaning high. Although that could be from the bleach!

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Lo and Frank get their design inspiration from Apartment Therapy, Houzz, Dwell, Architectural Digest and Lonny Magazine.

Any memorable party stories?

LB: Our Game Nights are memorable. However, first rule of Game Night is you don’t talk about Game Night. We will host movie theme nights: college frat movie night and a beers and brats movie night.

Oh, and the creek across the street! What are the frogs up to these days?

LB: Usually in spring and summertime from early dusk to about three to four hours later, it sounds like a symphony of ‘ribbits.’ It almost seems like they are having prolonged discussions – probably about us being their new neighbors. Other than that, it is very quiet, with the occasional coyote yowl. Which of course was a big change from living in downtown LA across from the Staples Center.

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The front of the house (and its towering yuccas) overlook a creek mobbed with frogs and bamboo.

What’s next for your home and garden? 

FB: We will soon start remodeling our bathrooms. Down the road we’ll possibly add a guest house or an addition to the existing house. We’re also creating a patio to the south hillside area.

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Special delivery: foxtail agave.

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A wall of trees secludes the front entrance.

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Zamioculcas makes use of the ample window space in the dining room…

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…and in the bedroom.

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A schefflera (left) clears the air in tandem with a pot of succulents (right).

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Succulents include the stone-like lithops, the striped hawthornia and knobby sedum.

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