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Flying colors, piece by piece

Welcome to Catherine Phillips' world.

From the outside, it looks pretty regular: a modest 1950s Florida ranch house tucked so far off South Tampa's well-trampled path that one needs directions.


"Welcome to the house of red," Phillips says, standing in her living room, all 5-foot 1-inch of her, a tiny, pretty, high-octane woman in a snow globe of pop-art color.

It's a house of red, all right, punctuated by exclamation points of bright taxicab yellow.

And mosaics: Mosaics, mosaics, everywhere.

Phillips, a 48-year-old United Airlines flight attendant and personal trainer, works on the side as a mosaic artist, blanketing the most unlikely objects in her house with her art: from the gumball machine to the commode lid to picture frames to the cocktail table.

"I don't like anything white," she says.

No kidding.

She's painted wicker wing chairs bright yellow and covered the seats with bold red and yellow rooster fabric purchased in Paris. The ceiling fan is Kool Aid red; so is the leather sofa, the biplane mounted on the wall, the toaster oven, the telephone, the carpeting, the dining room table and her Christmas tree.

"When I first wanted to decorate my house red _ back in 1980 _ everyone said I would get tired of it," she recalls. "But I didn't. I still love it."

The red tree _ snagged for $10 at the Hyde Park Jacobsen's going-out-of-business sale _ is her "patriotic tree" dressed in handmade red-white-and-blue ornaments. It stands in tribute, she says, to her conservative political beliefs and stays up year round.

Phillips' creative touches turn even the most basic household objects to art: a sweep of her paintbrush turned her mother's sewing cabinet into a piece of folk art; the same for a chest of drawers, a pedestal sink wrapped in sunflowers.

"You really have to come to my house at least five times to consume everything," she says.

She bought the 1,400-square-foot, circa-1955 house six years ago. Other than adding a pool, she did little other costly renovation, instead sprucing up the interior with her palette of eye-catching colors and paintings, including wonderful artwork by artist and friend Rosemary Fox. Another artist friend painted the dining room walls with palms and cactus, and others have donated to her red chili pepper collection, a theme that further energizes the space.

Overall, the look is all about individuality, a lesson in how far the uninhibited soul can fly when given breathing room. She's not above incorporating lava lamps _ or her collection of vintage Nancy Drew books _ into the decor.

"I'm single and live by myself, so I don't have anyone saying, "I don't like that,"' jokes Phillips, who loves to cook and entertain and frequently invites friends over for cocktails and munchies.

Her parents helped her landscape the pool area, and her mother sewed the pillows and valances that tie the color scheme together.

Her contemporary mosaics incorporate tiles depicting margarita glasses, flamingos, farm animals, Coke bottles, ladies' handbags, pink crabs, girls in bikinis, whimsical smiling faces. They defy the traditional, muted, more feminine mosaics that were all the rage in recent years.

Phillips collects china at thrift stores, from online stores and from a cadre of close friends who know by heart what she likes.

Half French by birth and fluent in the language, Phillips, who is now based out of New York and regularly flies to London, San Francisco and Los Angeles, also picks up china on her travels.

Broken coffee cups purchased from a shop in Brazil make an appearance in one mosaic; cherished 1960s orange, avocado and yellow dishes in another.

"I think of them as little storybooks, because, in some ways, they really do tell a story," says Kay Murphy, a friend who employs Phillips as her personal trainer and collects her mosaics.

"They're so original, so Catherine. She's not just taking pretty pieces and putting them together. She has a plan. She goes to so much trouble. And everyone who knows her tries to find things she can use."

Phillips' mosaics range from $50 to $300 depending on size and complexity. She covers anything that will hold her creations: planters, picture frames, Kleenex boxes, mirrors and lamps. She covered the vanity in the master bedroom in chartreuse, red, pumpkin, and yellow tiles. The lime green and yellow table on the patio blooms with a red mosaic flower.

Phillips, who works from a studio in her spare bedroom, sells her mosaics from home, an added treat for clients who get a tour of the pop-art house.

And just how does she find time for it all?

A former legal secretary who once operated an aerobics studio in South Tampa, she runs 4 to 6 miles a day, balances a hectic flight schedule and still manages to squeeze in her loyal following of clients who hire her as a personal trainer.

Oh, and by the way, she's a certified sports nutritionist.

And a size zero.

Read it and weep: Even her house is clean and organized and ready for a visitor on a moment's notice.

Her secret? A sunny attitude, an appreciation of Tampa ("We can walk outside in December in flip-flops!"), loads of good friends and a "happy house."

"I love, love, love my house," she says. "It's not like I had a big plan. It just keeps evolving, little by little, one step at a time. I really have fun here."

Catherine Phillips is reflected in a mosaic-decorated mirror in her Ballast Point home. Her mosaic creations include tables, a bubble gum machine, pots, sinks and other items. Phillips is also a flight attendant and a personal trainer.