Debra Lee fell in love with contemporary design as a young girl living on an army base in Germany, where her father filled the family quarters with Danish Modern furniture. The romance never died for Lee, now the chairman and CEO of BET Networks, who once considered a career in fashion.
Today, in a Massachusetts Heights neighborhood of neo-Georgian mansions and faux chateaux, Lee presides over a dramatic, four-level edifice of angled and curved steel, glass and stone that like its owner is stylish and versatile.
Above all, the house is a family retreat for her Los Angeles-based son, Quinn Coleman, a DJ and music festival promoter, and daughter, Ava Coleman, who studies communications and the music industry at the University of Southern California. It is a sprawling art gallery for dozens of glass sculptures Lee has collected over decades, including pieces by African American sheet glass master Therman Statom. It is a grand entertaining venue with indoor and outdoor spaces perfectly scaled for cozy suppers with her besties, star-studded BET fetes, charity benefits and political fundraisers such as last year’s $40,000-a-plate dinner for President Obama.
And it is a welcome refuge for a globe-trotting executive who bided her time before creating her first custom home. In 2000, Lee bought a 1939 California Art Deco-meets-modern dwelling designed by Kennedy Center architect Edward Durrell Stone, but soon began eyeing a neighbor’s adjacent property for a guest wing. When it hit the market, she bought and razed the small Tudor-style home. Architect Michael Marshall, an avid Modernist and principal at Marshall Moya in Georgetown, urged Lee, who is divorced, to build new digs for her family on the site.
“She told me that all her friends go to exotic places,” Marshall recalls, “and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Debi, I’ll create your own personal resort.’”
Together with his business partner, Paola Moya, and Deborah Kalkstein, who owns Georgetown’s Contemporaria furniture showroom, he went heavily into natural and industrial materials and a relentlessly neutral palette. “Our style is not about the blue room or the green room,” says Marshall. “It’s about a continuity of steel, glass, wood and flagstone. The art is its own character. There is an energy between art and architecture.”
It is here that Lee—who studied international politics at Brown University, earned dual Harvard graduate degrees in public policy and law, and left Steptoe & Johnson in the 1980s for BET—can kick back in her private theater, wine-tasting room and hot tub, or read a book on a secluded terrace.
But it is in her beloved master suite facing Rock Creek Park—which she calls her “tree house”—where the busy executive unwinds completely. Facing a wall of windows split by a stone-clad fireplace, her bed seems to float toward the center of the room. “It’s the only place it could go so that I could have closets to die for behind it,” she says. The adjoining dressing room has a center island and three walls of Poliform closets for storing Lee’s shoes, purses, clothing and jewelry.
The ultimate luxury is a hairdresser’s sink and makeup station tucked into an alcove off the master bathroom. “In the old house, I did my makeup on the kitchen table.” She pauses to survey her girly domain, then admits, “Sometimes I have to make myself leave the bedroom and enjoy the rest of the house.”
A steel-and-glass bridge links her sanctuary to Ava’s room, with its pastel colors and vaulted ceiling; directly below is Quinn’s lair, which—owing to all his music-related electronics—boasts the heaviest wiring in the house.
The second-level living room, with its 23-foot ceiling, mimics Lee’s bedroom directly overhead; wraparound windows bisect a towering slate fireplace surround. Virtually all the furnishings Kalkstein chose are Italian—Molteni, Capellini, Minotti—and she positioned Lee’s entire art collection during construction, so that niches and display space could be created as part of the process. “Debi’s work takes her to many different design-oriented places,” says Kalkstein. “I think she’s very sophisticated about art, architecture, design, materials and color.”
A few steps above the living room is a combination dining and bar area, where stools line the counter and simple chairs surround a table. To the left is the wine room with a trio of industrial chillers flanking another table. To the right is a professional-grade kitchen.
Asked if she cooks, Lee laughs aloud. “No. I have a chef.”
Lee credits the project’s success on her design team and their clear understanding of her aesthetic. “Michael and I have very similar taste and style. The first ideas he presented I loved.” Starting a major project in a recession did prompt a few budget cuts, but, she reflects, “I felt like I had my own little economic recovery, putting all these people to work.”
Native Washingtonian Annie Groer writes widely about design, politics and culture. Stacy Zarin Goldberg is a photographer in Olney, Maryland.
ARCHITECTURE & INTERIOR DESIGN: MICHAEL MARSHALL, AIA, and PAOLA MOYA, Associate AIA, Marshall Moya Design, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: DAVIS CONSTRUCTION, Washington, DC.