By Barbara Bowers
Debra Yates really doesn’t need numbers on her Von Phister Street house address. The striking colors, alone, link it to the well-known artist: salmon, purple, wet cement gray. The baby boulders and black, river-rock edging at walkways; the dramatic use of sansavaria in the garden are all part of the sculptural whole that Yates incorporates into the outdoor spaces she designs.
Her artistic touch, though, is on at least a dozen houses, hotels and gardens throughout the Keys. Her own place at 1205 Von Phister doesn’t necessarily stand apart from the others, although Yates began its makeover in 1998, one of the first updates she did on some of the island’s structures built since the 1940s.
“I see spatial design as three-dimensional art…sculpture, landscape, interior décor are all a part of it,” said Yates. “I incorporate everything from a building’s interior to the property line, where I create privacy with big walls that converts gardens into exterior rooms.”
Her 1940s Von Phister home—the one she grew up in—is a model for the applied art theory, design and experience that Yates accumulated and practiced during years as an art director in New York then a style director in Miami. Most apparent since returning to Key West and developing her own business, is a shift from her 1980s use of pastels—“my Miami Vice days”—to the daring colors she uses now.
“I wouldn’t call them daring,” said Yates, but she acknowledges that her exteriors are distinctive; that the minimal design of her home’s interior features the occasional citron-green or purple wall used to punctuate a layered effect of walls, which when she renovated, were structurally shifted within the house’s original footprint.
“Most people want walls to put furniture against, but I prefer art to furniture,” she said. “I need my home to function, of course, so I have places to sit and sleep and dine. For me, though, living is about space and how it flows. I accent with abstract art and I always put kitchen sinks in the middle of windows to bring the outdoors in.”
No window treatments and lots of mirrors reflect the harmony of art and nature that Yates infuses in her two-story, three bed/three bath house. For instance, upon entry, visitors can see through the house, front to back, and if they turn to face the front living-room wall, a mirror over the fireplace offers the same view. Concrete kitchen counters mimic the concrete patio-cum-outdoor room near the pool deck.
The illusion of space is further deepened with glass sliding doors in almost every room that open to a balcony or some nook in her garden intended for tropical living.
“This is a double lot. The guest house at the back of the property is where my parents lived until the primary residence was finished,” said Yates. “We were the first in the neighborhood to have a swimming pool, but it was deeper when I was a kid…it even had a diving board.”
Yates savors her childhood memories; nevertheless, she redesigned the pool and garden to suit her more contemporary interests. Now the pool sits on the same plane as the house’s first floor. Concrete pavers offset a purple wood deck surrounding the revamped pool, and these days, the pool is highlighted by a Roberto Burle Marx tile wall.
“He was such an important artist and friend that when my son was born, I gave him Roberto’s middle name,” said Yates of the Brazilian “Father of Landscape Architecture,” who was her mentor and a major influence on her art.
Other Marx paintings hang indoors, among Yates’ collection of abstract art. Most of it, however, is painted by Yates; a retrospective of sorts, of her own work, which she started selling in galleries in 1983. Two huge paintings on the landing leading to the second floor were commissioned for a restaurant in Miami in 1991. “When they sold the business, they offered to return the art,” she said.
The house feels bigger than its 1800 square feet, in part because of the large, colorful artwork on mostly white surfaces; in part because of Yates’ minimalist use of furniture, built-in shelves and hidden closets. What’s more, there’s little sense of moving from one room to the next; in fact, the space is so cohesive even the laundry room doubles as a sitting room when her family’s in town.
Yates says that her two children, plus 13 nieces and nephews, grew up visiting their grandmother in Key West. “All of them think this is their house,” she laughed, and in spite of the spatial changes, no one needs a numbered address to find his way home to Von Phister Street.
|Click to enlarge - all photos by Barry Fitzgerald|