Furniture designer Maria Yee brings together China’s traditional craftmanship with her forward-looking commitment to green principles. Born in southern China, Maria enjoyed an idyllic childhood. All that came to an end with the Cultural Revolution when anti-intellectual radicals arrested her parents and she was sent at the age of 15 to do hard labor. Maria survived, and her subsequent work as a mechanical engineer in Beijing sparked a love of Ming Dynasty styles and China’s age-old wood joinery techniques that use no nails or screws. She began to produce museum-quality reproductions and later drew inspiration from her California surroundings to create a full line of furniture under her company Maria Yee, Inc. Known for her innovations on this traditional wood joinery, Maria is a noble steward of the environment and a humble contributor to her community.
Montecito barrel chairs by Maria Yee
Tell me about your life in China prior to the Cultural Revolution when your parents were imprisoned and you were sent at the age of 15 to work in a rock quarry. Were you an artistic child? Did you have ideas of what you wanted to do in your life?
I had a normal, happy childhood. My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father was a university professor of architecture. My childhood dream was to become a physicist.However, because of my father’s influence, I developed my design interests very early on.
During this time of hard labor, how would you describe your mindset or outlook on life? Did you maintain hope of things changing, and did you have any creative impulses stirring within you despite the hardship and repression?
I was very determined to overcome the adversity, to reunite with my parents and my brothers, and to get on with my life. My whole purpose was to excel at my assigned tasks and to survive. Very little else distracted me.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution, you apprenticed as a machinist and studied mechanical engineering. Did this background impact how you approach furniture design and construction?
Yes. I learned to design for manufacturing. In fact, without this training, I would not have been able to create my BreathingJoinery™ system. It enables me to innovate the traditional wood joinery for furniture making so my solid hardwood furniture can be enjoyed all over the world under varying climatic conditions.
Sonora media console by Maria Yee
Sukiya compact office armoire by Maria Yee
You describe going to Beijing to work as the principal engineer on the Beijing Opera Academy’s revolving stage as being a big turning point in your life. What is it about your visits to the palaces, museums and temples that inspired you, and what particularly drew you to furniture from the Ming Dynasty? Could you tell at the time this was an important moment in your life?
I realized that there were things that I could do to counter the devastating consequences of the Cultural Revolution. I could actually revitalize the art of joinery furniture construction. Although I did not anticipate the importance of my decision, I thoroughly admired and enjoyed the simple and elegant beauty of the Ming furniture lines and forms.
Ming 2-piece media cabinets by Maria Yee
Ojai wooden dining chair by Maria Yee
Shinto office armoire by Maria Yee
Initially you organized a group of expert craftsmen to make museum quality reproductions of Ming Dynasty furniture. Were you taught by these craftsmen about traditional joinery work, or did you also learn on your own?
After moving to California with your husband, you initially stayed at home to raise your children. Did you keep honing your furniture design and construction skills during this time? And tell me how the decision came about to turn this into a business.
Yes. Initially I focused on making museum quality Ming reproduction furniture. That was why Gump’s of San Francisco was my first, and for 5 years, my only customer. By the way, this year we celebrated our 20 year partnership with Gump’s. Gradually I began designing my own furniture, inspired by the rugged and majestic beauty of the California central coast. My furniture business was launched when I was urged to visit the High Point, NC, furniture market by the Gump’s buyers. I was challenged and motivated to perfect my BreathingJoinery™ system to handcraft solid hardwood furniture for all the different weather conditions.
Horseshoe Armchair by Maria Yee, which caught the eye of the Gump’s buyer and served as the catalyst for the start of Maria Yee, Inc.
You’ve infused Ming Dynasty styles with a California contemporary feel. How naturally did these two aesthetics come together?
It was easy. Hiking in the coastal redwood forest and immersing myself in the Pacific Ocean vista in Big Sur did it.
Metro low platform bed by Maria Yee
Ojai dining table by Maria Yee
From the beginning of your business relationship with Gump’s, you insisted on maintaining authentic craftsmanship and using the highest quality materials, even going back to China to salvage wood from the temples and buildings that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Was this a full-circle experience for you, combing through what had been destroyed from your childhood?
It was really bittersweet. I tried to be helpful and useful. I learned to do the doable, to move the movable.
Metro circular cocktail table by Maria Yee
When you debuted Maria Yee, Inc., at the High Point, North Carolina International Home Furnishings Market in the mid 1990s, was your joinery system the cornerstone of your line?
Yes. It all started with the BreathingJoinery™ system. The business blossomed with my California contemporary design. Now our patented solid BambooTimbre™ is carrying the torch for Maria Yee, Inc.
Close up of RidgeBamboo corner by Maria Yee
Metro lounge chairs and Shasta tables by Maria Yee
What retailers are you now working with, and do you also do business directly with customers?
On the national level we work with Crate & Barrel, Room and Board, and Magnolia Home Theater of Best Buy. We also work very closely with regional and local design showrooms. We do not sell directly to consumers at this time.
You seem to be on the forefront of China’s effort to conduct business in an environmentally friendly way. Can you describe some of these efforts you’ve incorporated into your business practices?
We have always been very protective of the environment. We do not use tropical forest species. We do not permit clear-cutting hardwood plantations. We created our own FSC-certified supply chain in China. We produce solid hardwood furniture from China that is FSC-certified. We partnered with a US company to develop a high quality water-based finish for large scale production in China. Our factories follow strict ecological, socially responsible operating practices, above and beyond government requirements. We are the first to create sustainable furniture, constructed without nails or screws, with our patented solid BambooTimbre™.
Laguna pedestal dining table by Maria Yee
Montecito loveseat by Maria Yee
Where do you see your work going from here?
With our pioneering efforts on EcoLuxury™ furnishings, we are striving to create Tradition for Tomorrow™. We want to bring the happiness and pride we find in creating our designs into our customers’ homes.
(Editor’s note: Maria Yee’s Tradition for Tomorrow™ is not a separate product line but refers to the strong environmental position of their EcoLuxury™ line and emphasizes sustainability as a revitalized tradition.)
What are some your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
I like simple, natural things. I enjoy working, gardening, cooking, swimming and taking walks. Sharing fun times with my friends and family makes me very happy.
Maria Yee researched and developed her BambooTimbre™ products as an alternative to solid hardwood. In 2008, BambooTimbre™ received Forest Stewardship Council certification.
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