Thursday, March 10, 2011

Southern Charm and Taste Too Big For a Niche

Charleston's Niche Interiors carries a range of upholstery, antiques, lighting, original art and smalls.
During a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I stumbled across Niche Interiors.  Niche is a chic new design shop offering a sophisticated selection of antiques and tailored upholstery which are beautifully merchandised with layers of original artwork, lighting and smalls.  Niche's merchandise transitions well to a variety of settings; Niche would be at home as easily on Madison Avenue as on Charleston's King Street.  Read on for decorating inspiration, floral design via four wheeler, caramel cakes, talk of a love child and funny stories from the deep South in my interview with Niche's fashionable young owner Matthew Bees.

MannerOfStyle: What is your design background?

Matthew Bees: Anyone who knows me know the answer to this question, The University of Alabama! And if we've just met, it wouldn't take long for you to find out because I am a die hard sports addict and luckily went to a school obsessed with sports and winning!

Niche Interiors owner
Matthew Bees
What people might not know is I chose The Capstone (what we call UA) because I was set to pursue Law and originally majored in Classics program. It only took one semester of Latin and Philosophy for me to find my way over to the Interior Design program. I identify with Darryl Carter in this sense because he too had parents with different ideas about future employment (he actually practiced law).  I just found my way a little sooner. I did actually study both Interior Design and Art History. I contemplate one day continuing my studies and attending law school. How great would that be? I could handle the divorce and then design the new house, talk about your one stop shop!

M.O.S.: What attracted you to transition from event planning to decorator and retailer?

Caramel Cake is a Southern tradition. 
Bunny Williams orders them for
friends from Caroline's.
M.B.: This can only be explained in three words, Dorothy Faye Bees, my grandmother. She was the ultimate chic southern lady and I followed her every foot step as a child. I watched as she conducted business during meticulously planned dinner parties and lunches. She knew the importance of being in a well designed space while entertaining and that no one could say "NO" to her wishes (or sometimes demands) after one bite of her multilayer caramel cake. She was the type of woman that books are written about and movies are produced (reference Gone With The Wind or Steel Magnolias).

Rhett Butler and
Scarlett O'Hara from
Gone With The Wind.
However, she only loved one thing as much as she loved me (maybe more on days when I misbehaved) was her garden. I cannot remember a time when there wasn't a wonderful bouquet of flowers in her home. That is where my passion for design "blossomed." Growing up in rural south Alabama (Greenville to be exact, about 40 miles south of Montgomery) the best floral designers in town were not the local florist but the local women. They sat as part of church guilds that arranged breathtaking alter flowers weekly. They mostly used floras grown in their respected gardens (but occasionally mixed in roses from the local Piggly Wiggly). 

I took note of those works, and I began to experiment. However, my parents were both entrepreneurs and busy starting and running their respected empires. So our property was well manicured and low maintenance, similar to what one finds surrounding a hospital. So I took to the woods. I would spend hours on my four wheeler searching for wild flowers and grasses. Each day I would bring my finds home and arrange them for my mother. (Lucky her!!!) Sometimes she would bestow my creations on her office staff. They just couldn't believe I had done these floral masterpieces.

Fast forward to my childhood baby sitter's wedding; I was 17 and I consider this my first and finest event. 600 guest, dinner and dancing and just one, that's right, ONE designer. Today I would need a minimal staff of 5 to pull off such a fete! I worked for weeks, installing lighting in trees on the property, sheering tents, arranging massive centerpiece (my first of store bought flowers). I wish I still had that kind of Mojo! The only help I had was a few local yard men and an issue of Martha Stewart Weddings. I’m sure others remember the days when that was THE only reference one had. The joy and amazement of the guest is still my favorite memory. I remember my kindergarten teacher noting that I always colored inside the lines and kept my crayons in order, she new I was destined for greatness. Isn't the saying "all one needs to know, they learn in kindergarten"?

Sybil Brooke Sylvester
owner of
Wildflower Designs in
Birmingham, Alabama.
Event Design never really crossed my mind again until after college. I was mesmerized by Birmingham based designer Sybil Brooke Sylvester. I became her stalker. Slowly she began to notice my work popping up at different events, and she hired me to help during her busy holiday season. I will never forget my first day working for her. I was a nervous wreck! We were designing the Christmas window display for Highlands Bar and Grill. She had laid out a row of rustic wooden boxes on one table. Then on another table rustic vines, florals, moss, dried pods and birch logs. She explained to me that over the summer she had taken a painting class. The instructor had taught her how to take a color and weave it through her work "beginning at one side, flowing trough the middle and finally out the other side" as she motioned her hands in the air mimicking her art instructor. I seriously floated out of my body, I could not believe I was about to work with THE Sybil Brooke Sylvester. Then she looked at me and said "OK go to it" and that was it, I couldn't believe it. I was to do the arrangement ALONE and then she would review. It has to be the hardest test I have ever taken, that includes the LSAT! But at the end of the day I believe she moved one dried pod a half an inch.

Sea Island wedding by Tara Guerard.

From Sybil I went on to working for several Birmingham event firms. Then another legend crossed my path, Tara Guerard. I was instantly hooked. Next stop Charleston! It took me two months to get a meeting with her and I must say I can't remember a word we spoke that day, I was definitely on auto pilot during our meeting! But I feel so fortunate that she was able to look beyond my motor mouth and has allowed me to work with her on some of Soiree's unbelievable events. Event design became somewhat depressing to me. Here I was, designing these amazing spaces, hours and hours on end, up and down ladders, running to beat the clock, the drama, the sweat, the weight loss all for a few hours of splendor. I needed something more, and when I say more, I mean more permanent. I wanted to design something that stood the test of time, not a mere few hours. So I set out to open Niche. I consider it returning to my roots, however I never really held a job in Interior Design or retail. I think I would rather be known as a Lifestyle Designer, but I consider my youth following my grandmother as my biggest inspiration. There are events daily, but one must always return home, home is permanent.

M.O.S.: Rumor is you're a pretty young guy! How have you cultivated your refined and stylish eye?

M.B.: I’m turning 29 in May, but I like to think I'm moonlighting as a 22 year old! I have also discovered that the key to youth is only having one candle on your cake, no numbers! I consider my upbringing to be the keystone of my style. I was fortunate enough to have parents who knew the importance of a well rounded education. I took my first trip abroad at the age of thirteen. Alabamians are about the most well rounded group of people you will ever encounter. I think my father is the perfect example. He is an avid sportsman, so much to the point where he has designed and manufactures his own line of deer hunting tree stands. However, when the camo comes off, he is known to enjoy productions at Montgomery's world renowned Alabama Shakespeare Festival. That is just the way we all are and I think it is because we have to look out into the world around us for inspiration but we always bring it home. Your New York readers may think I'm crazy, but Manhattan is home to the largest chapter of the Alabama Alumni Association and those chosen individuals know what I'm talking about.
At Niche, bespoke details abound.
This pillow is made of antique
marbleized fabric from Florence.

M.O.S.: What lines are you representing?

M.B.: My atelier at Niche Interiors features Bobby McAlpine Home through LEE Industries, Barbara Barry Realized by Global Views, and Dayna Decker Environments. We also have a hand selected offering of some of the South's finest artist such as David Braly, Doug Foltz, Beverly Erdreich, Sandra Hicks Barnes and Charles Ailstock.

M.O.S.: What have been your best selling items to date?

M.B.: Barbara Cosgrove Lamp "Urn in White" with a custom painted parchment shade.

M.O.S.: I see you carry Bobby McAlpine's upholstery in Niche. Did you get to know or work with him during your time in Alabama?

M.B.: I must state for the record that the following statement has not been approved by Bobby, or anyone affiliated with McAlpine Tankersley or McAlpine, Booth and Ferrier. I'm just being funny, but seriously I am Bobby McAlpine's love child - design love child that is!  I have long been a fan of Bobby and Greg's work, and, while I'm at it, Ray's good looks!  I was fortunate to have several of the same friends and we eventually crossed paths. When I was a freshman at Alabama, a professor in my very first design class brought me a vanilla envelope filled with clippings and told me she felt that they would "speak" to me. Guess what?  They were all Bobby's work. Bobby's work is the keystone of today’s Southern style. How many people can claim their dishwasher was on the cover of a magazine? No one, except Bobby McAlpine. I truly believe that he will be my generations Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Hadley rolled into one... and his style continues to grow.

Matthew Bees, Jonathan Oakman and Rhonda Bees at the opening of Niche in December 2010.
I wouldn't even open Niche until I talked to his business manager and nailed down Bobby for a book signing and reading. When they told me he was unavailable until December 3rd (this was in July), I said fine - that’s when we'll open, and that’s what we did. I filled the store with his pieces, and rolled out the red carpet for Bobby's Charleston debut. We are big on debuts here in Charleston, I believe debutant season lasts over three months. I made the joke that I spent over one hundred thousand dollars just to spend one night with Bobby McAlpine, I believe it was Greg that cracked back "you got off cheap!"

M.O.S.: Why Charleston?

M.B.: I blame Tara Guerard for this and she knows it! I visited Charleston many years ago when my sister was touring the College of Charleston. That was in 1991. When I encountered Tara's book Southern Weddings : New Looks from The Old South I fell into its pages. Bits and pieces of Charleston filled the backdrops of its photos. I was hooked. So I set up a visit for my birthday. As luck would have it my birthday, May 31st, falls during Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA. I was walking down King Street taking in all the architecture, sketching as I walked along and I got REALLY lost!  Somewhere South of Broad, (I now know I was on Water Street) this wonderful woman was out tending to her garden. I first complemented her hydrangea macrophylla - Blushing Bride. She knew instantly that I was a gardener. We chatted over the growing season in Charleston, and how dry it had been that spring. She happened to ask where I was staying, I replied "the Wentworth Mansion and could you tell me how to get back there!?!" She laughed so hard "Hunny if you were lost, you could have skipped all the hydrangea talk!" Charleston is like a year round vacation to a small European city. There is always a breeze and always some event going on... it’s a beautiful lifestyle that encompasses all the old in a new and vibrant way.

M.O.S: What do you love most about Charleston style?

M.B.: I must say there is a new movement/momentum in Charleston that caused me to open Niche. These persons are finding themselves inheriting their parent’s homes and their parent’s furnishings. While Great Grandmothers camel back Chippendale sofa is a classic, Mothers butlers’ tray coffee table is less than desirable. Why not add a stylish coffee table that is pleasing to a younger aesthetic? That is what Niche is all about. Interpreting the old in a new way. The juxtaposition is the NEW classic.

For more about Niche Interiors, call (843) 793-4272 or check out


  1. What a great interview with a delightful fellow!

  2. WOW - this is fabulous! How fun to interview MB.

  3. Great post. I wanna meet his Dad, he makes deer stands.

  4. Thank you! It was a fun interview and has been very popular with readers!

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