Subtropical Modernism: Lively Landscapes in the Florida Keys
Debra Yates and Benjamin Burle of Debra Yates Great Space, Inc. in the Florida Keys use brilliantly colorful garden walls and sculptural plants against a neutral backdrop for a lush, lively take on modernism. Here, they share six tips on how they achieve their signature look.
Don’t put the emphasis on property walls
In order to allow the boldest elements of the landscape to take center stage, designers Debra Yates and Benjamin Burle use neutral tones in non-focal areas so the backdrop takes on less visual importance. “We often use a sharkskin color, a subtle grayish blue, on property walls,” says Burle. “We want perimeter walls to fade by the wayside, so the emphasis is placed on colorful fountain walls or other design elements.”
In this landscape, Yates and Burle used freestanding fence panels to create transitions when walking through the garden. They selected blue-lavender and yellow ochre stains, which contrast and harmonize with the spiky Sanseveria and yellow Tabebuia tree in the courtyard. The neutral tones of the backdrop recede from view, creating the illusion of a larger space.
Design the interior and exterior together
While most landscape designers stick with the out-of-doors, Burle and Yates blend interior and exterior design so their landscapes are perfectly integrated with the home. Yates says, “if we’re using wood floors inside, we’ll run wooden decking outside in the same color, size and direction.” That same idea of continuity can be used with stone, concrete, or paint colors to make the home and landscape feel as one.
Another technique they employ is to create a clear line of sight from the front door all the way through a neutral-toned home, to an eye-catching pop of color outside. “Making the exterior visible from the interior is key to success,” says Burle. The contrast between neutral and bright draws the eye and provides an immediate invitation into the outdoors.
Choose materials with character and texture
Many of the materials Burle and Yates choose for their landscapes have a Third World, industrial look which add warmth and character to the landscape. "I love primitive and edgy design," says Burle. "It's beautiful, but not too refined."
One such material is corrugated metal, which they overlay on wood to make curved garden walls. "It creates an undulating sense of movement in the garden," says Burle, "and gives us the ability to make smooth transitions and curves." Another material they use is rock salt concrete treated with hydrochloric acid, which has a pitted, turquoise-green surface. "The concrete changes with time, and makes things not look so new, even when they are new," says Yates.
Not only do these materials bring a timeless quality to the garden, but the textural interplay between light and shadow adds a subtle sense of intrigue to the landscape.
Keep the look clean by using multipurpose elements
"We want to create a Zen-type setting where you feel comfortable," says Yates. "There's a negative energy when you have too much stuff." A lack of clutter allows your eye to travel all the way through the home and landscape to the back of the property, and makes your outdoor space feel larger and more gracious.
In order to keep things open and uncluttered, Yates and Burle incorporate storage, privacy, and other uses into fountain walls and other aesthetically beautiful pieces. "We want our design elements to serve more than one purpose," says Burle. To that end, they place colorful exterior walls and fountain walls so they not only serve as a focal point of a garden, but also provide privacy from neighbors or screening from unattractive elements such as garden sheds or pool supplies. Benches can also double as storage, where the seat acts as a lid to hide hoses and other garden errata.
To define the space indoors, they have used a multipurpose freestanding wall on wheels, which has storage and an entertainment system on one side, and a painting on the other. This can be moved around for parties to encourage either larger or more intimate groupings.
Use plants as sculptural elements
While many plant enthusiasts gravitate towards having a wide variety of species, Burle points out that planting with fewer varieties is much more dramatic. "We like using plants as sculpture, so we put the emphasis on native palms and trees, and less on groundcovers and shrubs," he says. Palms and trees should be pruned and lit so their natural forms are emphasized.
With palms, Burle recommends leaving the "boots", or stem remnants, when pruning. Often, people will carve into the trunk when removing a stem from a palm, leaving a smooth trunk that offers little in the way of textural interest. A "booted" palm, by contrast, catches the light and casts complex shadows which are beautiful when viewed from indoors or out.
Large groupings of native plants are another key to their effortless yet bold landscapes. "They are low maintenance, great for the environment, and it's a way of reclaiming what was there," says Burle. "There's a misconception that native plants look ratty, and when people place 50 different natives between palms and shrubs, they do look ratty. But if you make a bold statement by using large groupings of only three varieties of plants in the landscape, it is much more impactful."
Don't let fear be a part of your creative process
Most of us feel hesitant about incorporating strong geometric shapes, continuous swathes of plants, or bold color into the landscape. But Yates asserts that design "shouldn't be weak". "People can be timid or afraid, but I don't have that problem. I have faith in my vision and I'm not nervous about it." Part of her secret to success as an artist and as a designer is in finding diverse sources of inspiration.
Yates and Burle make time every year to travel and visit galleries, nightclubs, pocket parks, and hotels. While they read design magazines, they try not to follow trends so they can keep their own design process pure. Through exposure to a variety of settings, artists, and designers, they stay inspired to implement their own new ideas and energized to create pockets of beauty throughout their own region of the Florida Keys.