A Conversation with Interior Designer Lisa Yates
You’ve likely seen Lisa Yates’ work before. Since moving from Texas to the Vail Valley twelve years ago, she has created memorable residential interiors for several of the region’s top design firms—most recently as a lead designer for Collective Design Group. But ask her clients what they like best about Lisa, and they’re just as likely to describe their friendship as their gorgeous new rooms.
“I think that design is a very personal thing, and I like to form very close personal relationships,” she says. “We gotta get deep—that’s how I approach friendships and my relationships with clients. We have to get deep in order to get them exactly what they want.” Recently Lisa was featured in a series of print advertisements with one of her clients, Cathy L., who’s friendship grew throughout the design process.
Here, we get to know Lisa a bit better too, uncovering her passions for dentistry and deserts—and what might be the secret behind her designs that instantly feel like home.
What is your earliest design memory?
I lived in Atlanta when I was very young, and every year, my mom would take me to the Street of Dreams, which was like a Parade of Homes. I remember wandering through those homes and being completely blown away. This was the late 1980s, so these were traditional houses with columns at the front, grand staircases, floral wallpaper, and big, heavy, poufy curtains. My mom thought it was just something fun to do and never realized that I was actually taking note of everything.
Did you want to live in those houses?
I wanted to live in them and be the one who designed them. As I got older, I started thinking, “They should flip this room and change the furniture layout.” I was totally looking at things with a designer’s eye.
So a career in design was a foregone conclusion for you.
Actually, when I began attending Baylor University, I was studying dentistry.
I’ve had so many dental procedures done, ever since I was little, and it always interested me. I thought it would be nice to know what they were doing in there.
How did you make the shift from dentistry to interior design?
The R.A. for my dorm was in the design program, and at the end of my freshman year, I happened to see some of her work. I said, “Look at what you’re doing! I love this.” I mentioned it to my family, and my mom pointed out that when I was young, I was always drawing floor plans and the fronts of houses. I even did the landscape design for her yard. My grandfather, who was an architect, built me a dollhouse, but instead of playing with the dolls, I would just redo the furniture. It was being reminded of those things that made me rethink the path I was taking. I switched my major to design at the beginning of my sophomore year.
Were you prepared for the client-interaction element of design?
Yes, and that’s why I pursued residential design rather than commercial or hospitality design. I think of it like, “We’re going to be friends, and we’re doing this design thing on the side.” My clients and I text each other and we get cocktails and we hang out after the whole process is done. It just feels personal.
What happens when you disagree, as friends often do?
From the get-go, I try to establish a relationship in which my clients and I are so comfortable with each other, they feel comfortable asking for crazy things that they know I might not be into—and they’re OK knowing that my answer might be no. But I won’t say no without an explanation—and a suggestion of what might work better. There’s always a compromise.
Can disagreements be helpful?
I like it when clients are comfortable enough to go back and forth in front of me. A couple’s bickering in the tile showroom helps me get to the bottom of what they want much quicker.
Do you try to nudge clients out of their comfort zones?
I have clients who walked in and immediately said, “We want the old traditional mountain style that you’re not going to like.” I said, “I’m going to give you what you want, but we’re going to do it in the most current way we can. I’m going to push you a little bit so that it’s not feeling old to you in two years.” My goal is to give clients the look they want and keep it timeless.
What sparks your best ideas?
A lot come from the act of the reset. My husband and I are rafters and skiers, and I like to get out of cell range whenever I can. We love going to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and the best trip I ever did was 22 days down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I was away from work for four solid weeks. When I come back from those getaways, I’m super inspired and excited about starting again. And I’m always trying to sneak a little bit of a desert thing into my designs.
What about the desert do you connect with?
It’s incredibly gorgeous and also kind of harsh; it’s all about survival of the fittest out there. Everything is intense: the water, the greenery, the sand, the sun, the rain, the cold. And even though it’s vast and empty and barren, it’s also really dynamic; there’s a lot happening. The simplest things can be the most interesting.
Do you translate those ideas to your work?
The dynamism is what I try to bring back into my work, as well as the idea that simple combinations—like lots of different textures in the same color palette—can create a ton of interest.
What clues about your personality and style does your house reveal?
I have an awesome piece of abstract art that [depicts] a horse. My mom comes from a family of cattle ranchers, so I grew up around horses, and I’ve always loved incorporating them into interiors out here. People always think of antlers, but I say, “How about a horse?” My husband collects rocks and animal skulls, so I have a skull gallery wall, and so many rocks you wouldn’t believe it. But my husband can tell you where each one is from. And I still use a dresser that was in my room when I was a baby—it feels very midcentury-modern now.
So it’s all very personal.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten rid of the stuff I thought I needed to make a room look well put together. Now, all I have are the things that mean a lot to us. I can pick something up and tell you the story behind it.
How do you create that kind of personalization when you’re furnishing a client’s new home?
I always ask, “Is there anything of yours that you want to put in, and how can we make it mean more to you now than it did before?” One of my current clients said, “I have this old church pew, and I’m not really churchy, but I just really like it.” So we’re putting it right in her entry foyer and putting a new cushion on it. I like making meaningful old things feel fresh and new.
Speaking of D.I.Y. updates, what do you make of home-design TV shows?
If I could produce one of those shows, it would be very different, like “The Real World” for interior design, with cameras on 24 hours a day. Let’s show real life. Let’s show the nitty gritty. Let’s show the designer crying in the front yard because the light fixture showed up with the wrong finish—and the right finish isn’t available for two years. Let’s show that the carpet color was ordered wrong because someone transposed two numbers. Let’s show the tears and the joy throughout the process, and exactly how we get to the finished product. Let’s show the true timeline and emotions.
What do you like better, starting a project or finishing it?
Finishing, for sure. I love the install; I love seeing everything come together. It’s so cool to step back and say, “All of those crazy little things that I stressed about for the last 18 months, here they all are.” And even though it’s sad to say goodbye, I love seeing how clients are living in their homes; how they’re enjoying them.