There’s crazy Key West, and then there’s creative Key West. This is a story about the latter. Located on a quiet lane is a simple house that began as two modest cottages built in the early 1900s to house cigar factory workers. The 300-square-foot structures were connected in 1986 by artist and dancer Susan Sugar and her late husband, Manfred Ibel, who was an architect. “Manfred was the most inspiring human being,” says Susan. “He built everything here. It’s really like a handmade cottage.”
Splitting her time between Manhattan and Key West, Susan is drawn to the simplicity of life in the near-tropics. The house is handsomely made with inexpensive materials, including painted plywood floors and whitewashed walls, rolling X-frame doors, tin rooftops and a translucent fiberglass ceiling in the sunlight-filled indoor-outdoor bathroom with louvered walls.
Natural ventilation and air circulation were central to everything Manfred designed, and this house flows beautifully with skylights that open, sliders that disappear into pockets and six doors that connect the interior to the deck, which threads everything together. Through an opening in the deck stands a coconut palm that friends initially warned was dangerous. Then Hurricane Irma came and knocked over an even bigger tree, which got caught on the palm rather than destroying her home. “My late husband had a tree in the middle of every house he designed,” she says. “The spirit of Manfred is in this tree.”
Spending most of her time outdoors is one of many things Susan loves about living here, and her days are punctuated by two trips to the beach – at sunrise and sunset – where she paints. “My subject is the sea and sky in all kinds of weather,” she says. “I’m capturing something that’s moving, and plein-air painting really inspires me. Sometimes my paintings get rained on, but I don’t mind. It’s just water.”
Even back at the house, Susan will often sit outside during storms under the covered breezeway. “I often feel embraced by this house,” she says. “There’s a simple elegance here that defines me and my paintings.” When not painting, Susan shifts her artistic attention to the garden, where she grows bananas, pink grapefruit, orchids and other native plants.
“Whether I’m painting or singing or gardening, it’s all the same spirit,” she says. “The spirit of art and nature and trying to find extraordinary things that most people overlook.” That curiosity draws her to Key West in the offseason. “I love it when the town empties and the ocean is warm. In summer, the wind on my skin feels like silk.”
“I consider my life to be my greatest work of art, and this house is a reflection of that,” she says. “It’s everything that I love.”
See more of Susan’s work here.