Designer Q&A: Matthew Monroe Bees

After setting aside a potential career in politics, this Alabama native found his true calling in designing interiors that deftly balance the best of the past and present.

Text: Karen Carroll
Images used courtesy of Matthew Bees

Southern Home (SH): What is your earliest memory of beauty or your first endeavor at creating it?

Matthew Monroe Bees (MB): Most likely my paternal grandmother’s home in rural Crenshaw County, Alabama. She always had a way of making everything beautiful. I was always one step behind her when I was growing up. My life in design truly began in the garden with her; if she had a spade in her hand, I had one in mine. Growing something beautiful and creating something beautiful are two very different things, but they go hand-in-glove, pun intended.

SH: Please share your aha moment, when you realized you were destined to decorate.

MB: Oh, gosh—I fought hard against my design instinct. Instead, I wanted to pursue law and eventually run for political office. A very stylish woman from my hometown, who taught me everything I know about floral design, sat me down and had a come-to-Jesus talk with me around my junior year of college at The University of Alabama. She asked me when was I going to stop wasting my time with politics and start doing what I was meant to do. It was her confidence in my design skills that gave me the confidence to say to myself that I could do this for a living. Every time I see her, I say thank you—she put the pieces of the puzzle together for me.

SH: In a few words, how would you describe your style?

MB: Collected, Euro-Continental, Southern.

SH: Who or what has been your biggest creative influence?

MB: There are too many to list—I admire the greats from both past and present—but the one that stands out the most is Christopher Spitzmiller, a fabulous potter who has also created the most spectacular house and garden called Clove Brook Farm in upstate New York. Chris has become a dear friend and unbelievable source of inspiration. He’s extremely nurturing and always available to give his two cents. When he says, “Well, Albert Hadley/Mario Buatta/Bunny Williams has always said…,” my ears perk up, and I engrave the words that follow on my brain.

SH: What do you consider to be your own decorating “superpower?

MB: Being able to take even the newest of residences and make it look like it has been put together over generations. There’s nothing worse than store-bought interiors.

SH: Will you reveal a few key decorating elements you love to return to again and again?

MB: Good curtains, glazed moldings, tassel-tied chair seats.

SH: We’ve heard you refer to yourself as a collector as much as a designer. What do you love to collect, and are there any tips you’d give to someone just starting their own?

MB: I really have an addiction to chairs, stemware, and china. I spot chairs all the time in the wild that I have no place for but cannot live without. I also love to entertain, and setting a beautiful table is something essential to my life. Regarding advice, I think collections are very personal. Don’t collect something because someone says you should, but because you love it. And remember, it’s never hoarding if it’s something good!

SH: What’s the object or piece of furniture you’d save in a disaster or one you’d never sell?

MB: I’d save a framed photo I have of my grandparents in my grandmother’s garden. As far as everything else, there’s probably nothing I wouldn’t sell for the right price.

SH: Your rooms are so gracefully grounded in tradition, but are there any current trends you are happy to embrace?

MB: Little known fact, I love acrylic furniture. I will sneak a piece or two past my clients from time to time. I’m also a lampshade junkie and love lacquer and marbleized paper ones that seem to be all the current rage. Everyone wants to label me a “grandmillennial,” which is a term that is both trendy and unwanted. If my style must have a calling card, let it be “nouveau traditionalist.”

SH: And is there a design trend you hope to never see again?

MB: Remember in the ’70s and ’80s when folks had pendants swinging from chains over the bathroom vanity? I hope to never see those pendants in a bathroom ever again.

SH: Being invited to do a room at the Kips Bay showhouse is a big deal for any designer but can be career-changing for a young one like yourself. You had that honor a couple of years ago—tell us what the experience was like.

MB: Well, in my year [2019], we had a little over four weeks from start to finish, so the name of the game was beat the clock! The funniest moment had to be when I was boarding a plane to fly up to New York for the installation, and I received a text asking if they could cut a hole in my ceiling—a ceiling that presumably had just received its final coat of paint, and my room was waiting for the magic to start. A neighboring designer’s room had completely lost power, and they had to rerun the power source, which apparently involved hacking into my ceiling. Everything worked out in the end, and that neighboring designer, Young Huh, is now and forever a close friend. After the initial joy of being selected wore off and the reality of the task ahead set in, I don’t think I took a full deep breath until the showhouse was over. Next time, I hope to be more relaxed and enjoy it more. It’s an overwhelming experience, but the bonds formed are for life. The Kips Bay organization is amazing, and it’s really all about the people and the difference they’re making in the lives of the inner-city youth.

SH: Do you have a mantra or favorite quote that sums up your perspective on decorating?

MB: I’ll channel the wisdom of another of my design heroines, Sister Parish, who believed that innovation is often the ability to reach into the past and bring back what is good, beautiful, useful, and lasting. I think about those things in every project I tackle. The goal is always to take the best of tradition and classic design and make it feel fresh for today.

SH: Finally, what should no Southern home be without?

MB: A great piece of mahogany furniture and a good bottle of bourbon.

 

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