Inside the showroom of Olde Mobile Antiques, Matthew Metcalfe-Bees turns over a Mottahedeh Chinese cache pot, inspecting the characters on the bottom. “Shop owners probably hate it when they see me do this,” he admits with a laugh that’s easy and affable.
What looks like nonsensical markings to the untrained eye, however, tells Matthew that this pot is worth every bit of the $5,000 the antique store is charging for a pair. “It’s a perfect matching pair, pristine condition, and a style that’s out of production.” He once turned a pair just like these into lamps for a customer in Nashville, he tells me. His eye for giving fresh energy and new life to traditional antiques is what gives Matthew his edge in the world of interiors — and what has gained him national attention amongst designers and magazines.
He walks casually up and down the rows of gilded frames, Louis XVI dining chairs and marble statuary, commenting on pieces that catch his eye, displaying an impressive depth of knowledge that doesn’t feel showy. When asked how he gained such expertise, he replies that auction catalogs can teach you a lot — what something is called, where and when it is from, what’s unique about it, and most importantly, what it is worth. “I almost never order new things for my clients,” he explains. “I prefer to buy an old piece and have it re-covered or restored to perfection.” Pulling together a truly stunning room with antiques, however, requires more than just encyclopedic knowledge: It takes panache, and Matthew has that in spades, too.
Matthew’s early path didn’t lead straight to design. Born and raised in Georgiana, Alabama, he says he spent a great deal of time at his grandparents’ farm in rural Crenshaw County. He enrolled at The University of Alabama, where he was determined to study law and pursue politics. By his third year of college, however, one of the style mavens of Greenville (“Who taught me everything I know about floral design,” he adds) gave him a “come to Jesus” talk about his future. “She asked when I was going to stop wasting my time with politics and start doing what I was meant to do.” Matthew attributes her confidence in his design skills for giving him the confidence to pursue it as a career. “Every time I see her, I say thank you,” he continues. “She put the pieces of the puzzle together for me.”
Matthew finished with a bachelor’s degree in art history and then went back for another in interior design, but never worked under the tutelage of other designers before setting up his own firm in 2009. His creative eye, he says, came instead from his paternal grandmother. “She just had a way of making everything beautiful,” he remembers. “My life in design truly began in the garden with her; if she had a spade in her hand, I had one in mine. I was always one step behind her.” And while growing something beautiful and creating something beautiful are two very different things, Matthew insists they go “hand-in-glove.”
He describes his grandmother as a force to be reckoned with, a woman who grew up “dirt poor” but came to run her own farm while her husband was away on projects as an engineer. “I don’t know how she balanced that and raising kids with a husband on the road, but the farm gave her the freedom to make her own decisions.” And when there was something she wanted to buy — like, say, a beautiful armoire going up for auction down in New Orleans — she would sell a cow or two. These days, Matthew is quick to laugh, “I can’t tell you how many times I wish I had a cow to sell!” The juxtaposition of life on the farm while shopping high-end estate sales perfectly explains Matthew. He loves Alabama football as much as he does bespoke drapery. He is as comfortable in the Crenshaw County dirt as he is in a room full of the country’s best designers. He fits in shopping the storefronts of New York’s Hudson Valley, and during the mayhem of Mobile Mardi Gras, too.
And Matthew credits Mardi Gras as one of the main reasons he left Charleston for Mobile. He had just been at Mobile’s Carnival in early 2020, reveling with old friends from his University of Alabama days, when the pandemic struck. He retreated to his mother’s home in Georgiana for lockdown and, in later months, made frequent visits to close friends in Mobile when he needed a reprieve from the monotony. During these visits, he says, he made the decision that it was time to come home for good.
Not long after he made the move, Matthew met his now husband, Addison Metcalfe-Bees. “We met in August, were engaged in December and married by May.” Through a whirlwind romance, picture-perfect wedding at the Fairhope Inn and settling as newlyweds in their first home together, Matthew says he plans to follow the design advice he gives all young couples he counsels. “Buy one or two nice things every year, and before you know it, you will have five or 10 really wonderful things to anchor your home.” Compared to most newlyweds, however, Matthew has a head start.
And his work hasn’t slowed down either. With a roster of clients like his, scattered from Los Angeles to Nashville to upstate New York, where he lives and operates an office is almost inconsequential. Luckily for Mobile and Baldwin counties, from now on, that will be right here.
Matthew Metcalfe-Bees breaks down the room
When I design, there is no set style because I am designing for my client, not for myself. But there are a few things I go back to again and again. One of them is Leontine Linens in New Orleans. Their applique monograms are so beautiful, I used to ask my parents for their shams every birthday and Christmas.
This Louis Philippe half tester was the very first antique I ever bought. I was 14 years old, and my mother and I went to a football game in Tuscaloosa. It was an early game, so afterwards we had time to shop. It was $650, and I put it on layaway!
Artist Cristina Pepe came down from Toronto and hand-painted the pagoda and trellis work directly on top of the grasscloth wallpaper in my bedroom. It was inspired by the chinoiserie details in Claydon House in the U.K.
It’s all in the details
I almost always have a touch of animal print in a room, just to liven things up. I stripped the floors in my former living room (overlooking King Street in downtown Charleston), removing a deep red stain, and decided to whitewash them. Heart pine has a tendency to turn pink when you whitewash, so we added a touch of white to the poly, and it turned out so pretty, I didn’t want to cover it with rugs! The zebra was just enough.
This Hickory Chair sofa was originally made for a home on Pawleys Island, South Carolina. It ended up with a client of mine in Montgomery, who wanted to trade for a painted sofa I owned. We made the swap, and I re-covered it in a Schumacher yellow velvet. My Goldendoodle Presley used to sit right there and watch the traffic go by out the window. Now the sofa sits in my office at Feather Your Nest!
I love all the cypress-paneled drawing rooms in South Carolina homes and wanted to recreate that for myself but didn’t have the budget. I opted instead for a vinyl Thibault wallpaper that gave the same look!
I’ve always thought of myself as a Jeffersonian.
This kitchen floor had asbestos tile that I couldn’t safely remove, so I glued down wall-to-wall sea grass rug, and it was phenomenal. I loved it so much, I did it again in my kitchen in Midtown Mobile. It is surprisingly resilient, even with pets, wine and food!
The yellow in this breakfast nook is Monticello yellow. They scraped the paint away in Jefferson’s home and discovered his dining room, which had been painted a soft Wedgewood blue for years, was actually “the color of an egg yolk from a hen that has been fed marigold seeds,” as Jefferson himself described it.
A kitchen table is so much more inviting than an island! We all have memories of gathering around our grandmother’s kitchen tables, and you just don’t make the same memories around an island. The antique dining chairs were re-covered in a Charlotte Moss fabric for Lee Jofa. The print is a traditional floral in Wedgewood blue, another nod to Monticello.
Pull it together
I love to frame works on paper in multiples. Tearing sheets out of an old architecture book is an easy idea! My family doesn’t come from people that have old oil portraits, let’s just say. So we floated old black and white family photos in large glass frames and hung 10 of them over my mother’s dining room buffet.
Never be afraid to ask for a better price. It’s not haggling, just be honest about your budget. I found this bust of Napoleon when I was on a high school trip to France, and the antiques dealer was selling it for three times the money I had in my pocket. I told him what I could pay, and he made the deal. I carried that bust in my lap on the airplane all the way from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Miami.
Ask the Expert
What are five things for which you are always on the lookout when antiquing or at estate sales?
Pairs of chairs, silver, stemware, china, any well-loved English antique.
What design advice can you give someone setting up their first home?
I tell young couples to invest in one or two good purchases a year, and in five years they will have a good collection of 5 – 10 good items.
What do you look for in a house or a good room?
Architecture. Albert Hadley always said you’ve got to get the architecture correct first. Once those windows, doors and moldings are in the right place, the design can truly begin to live.
What do you try to accomplish in your designs?
I strive 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.
What are ways you can take a stale antique and freshen it up?
A reputable faux finisher can give any old thing new life, and I love painted furniture when done correctly. It all comes down to the lines of a piece.
What’s on the horizon?
I’m currently working on a sorority house in California, an architecturally significant home in Nashville, and soon a farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. I’ve also begun the process of writing my first book on interiors that I hope to publish in the coming years.
And what’s happening in Mobile?
I’m prepping for a holiday pop-up here in Mobile, and hoping to get that going in mid to late fall.