Matthew White and Frank Webb are just so nice – we could have dug around all day and we don’t think we would have found anything hiding away in their personalities other than the usual designer perfectionism, manic neatness and fondness for small dogs. And they didn’t bother to hide any of that anyway. They are both clearly grounded by loving families and long-term relationships with their respective partners. It was interesting to see two people with different design sensibilities, wonderfully exemplified in their two apartments (both of which are in the same Park Avenue building), who work so well together.
You have both had ‘other’ lives, as it were – how did you get your start in interior design?
Frank: It was totally by chance. What had happened was that I was in banking for 17 years. When I got out of college I went straight into a bank training program … you know, a typical path. If you weren’t going into the diplomatic corps, then the next path was to do something in finance. You know, I had a great ride and I did tons of things and a lot of which, interestingly are applicable in what we do here as well … but it never really lit my fire … and then I happened to meet this guy. We are both, obviously, neighbors here in the building. Our interviews with the co-op board were literally on the same night. And then we both embarked on renovations. I get on the elevator one day, and I was pretty positive that this was the new guy, so I said ‘Are you the new guy?’ and he said ‘Are you the new guy?’ … and we got to talking and we just kind of hit it off.
Matthew: It’s such a small building that if two places are under construction at the same time, it’s kind of a big deal. I was very aware that somebody was doing an apartment upstairs, and being a good neighbor I never spied on him or anything. I refused to do that and he refused to do it as well … but I was dying to see it but I wasn’t going to go in until I was invited.
How long ago was this?
Frank: Three and a half years … no even longer. We purchased the apartments in early 2002.
Matthew: It’s one of those great New York stories … the chances of getting into an elevator, you know …
You [Matthew] were a dancer. How did your lives before this career prepare you for this one?
Matthew: That was my first career. That was 30 years ago. I think a theatrical background is pretty great to have as a designer. I don’t see ballet so much as a performing art, I see it more as a visual art, very much a three-dimensional visual art. There’s such a long history of great design with costumes and sets.
Frank: It was really your first exposure to world travel and experiencing different cultures.
Matthew: Oh yeah, yeah.
And you [Frank] said that you were a manager. Do you like managing people?
Frank: Well to be honest with you, when I first got into it, I thought that this was the last thing I wanted to do. But in the end I think I was actually pretty good at it.
What kind of things stressed you out?
Frank: The stressful part is probably also the opportunity in it because you’re dealing with so many personalities, so there’s no one approach that’s going to work with everybody – not that I ever tried to do that. What can get stressful is being in a position where you have to constantly change gears … but that can be the entertaining part of it too… I [had to] be an actor too …
Do you think that managing clients in design is different from managing clients in banking?
Frank: In both places you’re dealing with something that’s highly personal. Even if you think of banking as hardcore, it’s something people keep close to their vests, and people get emotional about it as well.
Matthew: There’s nothing more personal than somebody’s house. When you have somebody coming in for you to help them with their house, it’s sort of an oxymoron. What we do is very odd. It doesn’t make any logical sense.
How do you mean?
Matthew: Well, because a house is a personal expression of the owner. It’s how you want to be seen in the world, it’s how you want to see yourself and it’s who you are, in a way …so, um … what’s my train of thought?
You mean that you’re merely the broker between the owner and his or her personal expression of the house?
Matthew: Yeah. So we’re really hyper aware that when we’re done and when we leave, we’re no longer part of the picture.
Going back to your earlier comments about theater being a good background for design plays into something that always bothers me – the idea of a home as a set, a theater … it’s meant to be your home.
Matthew: It is sort of like living on a set. It is a stage for your life.
But isn’t it meant to be a kind of sanctuary?
Matthew: What we do try to do is make it relevant and understand that it is your sanctuary as well.
Frank: There’s so many different aspects of a house, because there’s those moments where it is on show, and you’re entertaining. But then there’s those moments when you’re having your coffee in your pyjamas.
How often do you do that?
Frank: All the time.
Matthew: We used to refer to ourselves as Lucy and Ethel because we could literally have meetings just going up and down these stairs.
So which one was Lucy? How do your personality types differ?
Matthew: That’s kind of interesting because in many ways we have very similar personalities but we have completely different aesthetic interests. But we get along, we get along great. It’s almost like a brother. We can joke and tease. It’s like a chemistry that was immediate, you know, because truthfully we haven’t known each other all that long.
But you’re friends, not lovers, so that helps.
Frank: But it’s really the next closest relationship you can have to a marriage.
It is like marriage. No sex.
Frank: We eat a lot of chocolate. [much rueful laughter all round]
So there’s really no friction?
Matthew: No, not really. Every once in a while, [there’s] a little flare-up but it’s immediately dealt with. We don’t go to bed mad.
Frank: We don’t let things fester. We tell each other when something bothers us, and that’s where I think that brother relationship comes in. We’re both very meticulous but in very different ways.
Matthew: I’m more meticulous about big picture things and, I think, you’re more meticulous about details. I think it’s easy to say ‘Oh, I’m the creative one because I have a creative background, I’m a dancer, and he has a different background, therefore it’s easy to pigeonhole us.’ But we’re not that easy to pigeonhole.
How do you separate your personal lives? Do you see each other socially?
Frank: We do. It’s just so convenient, and our partners all get along. We went to Italy together.
You have come tremendously far in a very short space of time. What were the turning points that helped bring you to where you are now?
Frank: Well, I certainly. And I don’t pretend that I would have been here on my own.
Matthew: It’s a little like actors, you know when the media suddenly say ‘Oh there’s this new talent’ but of course they’ve been working in the industry for 12 years. It takes years and years. For me it wasn’t an overnight success. I had an antique shop for ten years.
Matthew: … Well the first time was [to Frank] … er, what’s that?
Frank: I was going to say AD 100 [being chosen for Architectural Digest, top 100 designers] …
Matthew: Yeah …the first time I was in Architectural Digest, was when I was working by myself. In fact the first time was our [together with his partner Broadway producer, Thomas Schumacher –] apartment on Central Park South …
Frank: But we’ve since been there together. They’ve accepted projects of ours that we’ve done …
Matthew: But they haven’t run yet … so I’d gotten attention through AD and that was a huge stamp of approval.
What does it feel like when they finally say yes?
Matthew: I’d like to show you my stack of rejection letters. [laughs]… but, you know, ecstatic … when it happens.
How do you take rejection?
Matthew: Rejection is very hard for me.
Frank: But we’re very analytical about it too. We always sit down and try to figure it out. We try to debrief with people if they don’t hire us, and we also do it with our clients. Typically it has always been a happy situation so that makes it easier but to really say you know ‘What is your experience with us? Is there anything we could have done better?’
You [Matthew] said in your online biography that you grew up in a trailer park in Texas. There was a kind of deliberateness to the inclusion that interested me. Were you poor?
Matthew: I was thinking about that because by most people’s standards we were lower middle-class. But I always felt very rich. We had a family that loved us and we had a big garden and we had delicious food all the time. And my mom was a great homemaker. I have three siblings. We had a big extended family and we never socialized outside of our family.
Was there ever a time when you tried to hide it?
Matthew: Well, you know I did when I was in my twenties and maybe my early thirties because I was little bit embarrassed by it. And then I realized ‘Why would I be embarrassed by that?’ Trailer parks in the fifties and sixties were not what we make of them today. There was sort of a … not a glamour … but it was looked at differently. You know the whole term ‘trailer trash’ didn’t exist. I was definitely a fish out of water in that world because I was so interested in beauty, always drawing … and my mother was interested in beauty. We used to take trips to what we called ‘the fancy side of town’. I loved it, and I still love doing that. Now I’m in the world that I was peering in the window of.
Did you grow up privileged, Frank?
Frank: Yeah, I’d call it middle class … in Temple Burlington [Massachusetts]. I went to public school.
When do you get bored?
Frank: I get bored when we have to revisit a situation time and time again. Truthfully the biggest client problem is indecision – and that can get boring.
Matthew: Ultimately it doesn’t serve them well because usually the best things are presented up front. There have been times when the tenth choice has surprised us and we think ‘Aha! This is what they’re thinking and so now we have to get inside their mind to create what we want’ …we consider ourselves the Meryl Streep of interior design.
You’ve admitted you’re both control freaks … are you worriers?
Matthew: Oh I think we both are … I think you worry more than I do.
Frank: Probably … but we run an incredibly tight ship, truthfully, and we try to be as effective and efficient as we can.
So what do you do to bring it down, to try to stop worrying?
Frank: Oh … consume huge amounts of alcohol [laughs]. I’m sure when you’ve gone we’ll be thinking of all kinds of great answers we could have given you.