Matthew Yee’s design style is summed up in his own words as “warm contemporary” and it’s certainly an excellent description of his Murray Hill apartment, which also doubles as his office space. Quite some time ago, we, somewhat memorably, interviewed his partner, Vincente Wolf, who told us that we bored him and that he’d quite like us to leave … but, we must add, by the end he was offering us swigs of some exotic vodka straight from the bottle (perhaps we all needed it). As it happened, we also ended this interview with Matthew talking about vodka — and he would have mixed us one too, although we suspect it would have been beautifully served in a sleek glass.
So Matthew you studied economics and art history at NYU – did that turn out to be a useful combination?
I didn’t really know it at the time but you know … with me, I’m not really very technical and dealing with the business itself — I learned that as I went along. To be honest for the economics, it was like, “just memorize it, take the the damn test and that’s it.” What I really love now is working with and interacting with the clients.
What’s hard about the business side of it?
I suppose … [lowers his voice to a whisper] it’s all the numbers …
How did you get your start?
I used to manage the showrooms of Ann Sacks. I knew so many people in the industry, all the designers and the architects and I learned so much. My very first job was as an office manager with a company called Les Prismatiques and they sold high-end Lucite furniture.
Did you already know that you wanted to move into interior design?
I had no idea – I just needed a job. But I was intrigued. Whenever the sales people were out, I would go on to the showroom floor … and I started learning about the industry. Do you know, shortly after [doing that] my sales surpassed everybody else’s sales?—admittedly everybody else being only two other people. I started selling at Country Floors, which at the time was huge. I became the number one sales person the year after I joined. It was after that I got the job at Ann Sacks, where I stayed for nine years.
Being good at selling is a really useful gift.
Well, I had no idea I could do it. [After Ann Sacks] I tried a year in real estate. I didn’t love it. It takes a certain type of personality. It’s a little cutthroat. Anyway, after that I started in design.
How influenced are you by your Asian heritage? I see lots of Chinese pieces around the apartment.
I’m full-blown Chinese, born and raised on Long Island and my parents are from mainland China, the southern region. My grandparents only spoke Chinese but I didn’t speak it all that much. I spoke very broken Cantonese and the way to go these days is Mandarin.
Oh, think of all the design jobs you could get in mainland China if you spoke Mandarin well …
Yeah, I wish … but I don’t have time to even do the work I have here, let alone find the time to take Mandarin lessons. But I would love it. And I think a lot of the Chinese people moving here from mainland China really could use some help but you have to be able to comfortably communicate with them. And communicating is huge.
Even though you don’t speak the language, do you bring your background into your visual approach?
Definitely. I grew up with a lot of my parents’ and my grandparents’ things. They had a lot of antiques in [their] houses – you know, rosewood curio cabinets filled with ornate pieces. I mean I love it but I don’t want to display things quite in that way. Some Chinese pieces can be very, very tacky but others … there’s a certain calmness about them.
Was your mother a “tiger mother”?
No she wasn’t. She was very strict but not in an obnoxious way.
What do you think about the whole “tiger mother” thing?
You know, I don’t mind it. I think it’s okay to push your kid. I don’t think people push their kids enough these days. There is a fine line, I know. My dad was very booksmart—he was an engineering specialist for Boeing Aerospace and used to design things for rocket ships. I used to look at his portfolios and I’d take one look then just close the book up. My head just works in the opposite way. But you know, the Chinese thing … it’s like nothing ever seems to good enough.
Do you feel that way? Does it turn you into a perfectionist?
A little bit. I have some of that perfectionist/OCD thing going on.
But you feel more American, right?
I feel all-American actually but I’m still connected to my heritage. I don’t forget it. I know who I am. The most hilarious question I get is: “Do you have a turkey for Thanksgiving?” and I say, “Oh yes we do but we stuff it with wontons.” That’s my joke.
So how do you work the whole thing with Vincente [Wolf – his partner] Do you mainly see each other at the weekends?
Yeah. We have a good rapport in a sense because he’s so busy doing his thing during the week and I’m totally busy doing my thing during the week. I mean we both run our own business. I really just see him Thursday through Sunday. He has a place in Montauk and we go there and we travel together. This year we’re going to Bangkok again. I love going there.
Vincente was fabulously rude to us when we interviewed him. We enjoyed it. He kept yawning and I said, “Why are you yawning—are you tired?” And he said, “No, I’m bored.”
[Laughs] No way! Really?! Were you asking him questions like this?
I think I asked him something like, “Is there anything here you could easily give up or get rid of?” And he answered, “Well, I’d like to get rid of you two.” Anyway, by the end he was offering us bison grass vodka straight from the bottle. We all had a swig.
That sounds like him! Our personalities are very different but somehow we get along very well. He might have that snarky kind of personality but he’s really not like that. His friends really love him—they would die for him.
Where’s your favorite place to have dinner?
Truthfully there’s a little Japanese restaurant, right on Astor Place … I don’t even know what it’s called … wait … it’s a Japanese bar and you can’t have a cocktail unless you’re sitting … I know! It’s called Angel’s Share and they have these mixologists behind the bar. You have to just wait for your cocktail until you’re sitting at the bar.
What is the perfect cocktail?
I love martinis. Martinis are my drink … I could shake them right now if you like … I’d be more than happy to … Ketel One vodka, extra dry—you just breathe the vermouth into it. Twist in the summertime and olives in the winter.
But that’s just a glass of vodka!
I know. My friends used to tease me … you know, Matthew’s here, just take the vodka out of the fridge and put a straw in it.