Maria Yee started her environmentally conscious furniture company in Scotts Valley in 1988, then took it nationwide.
When Maria Yee was a child, the idea of making furniture was a bit of a fantastic dream. She grew up in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, during the Cultural Revolution. Her parents—and most of their belongings—were taken away by the Communists, leaving her and her brother with little more than one little square table, two chairs and two beds.
“Because I didn’t have the money to pay for electricity, me and my younger brothers sat in the dark. I sat in the corner and always imagined that I would have a house, and also what kind of furniture I would have,” Yee says.
One of the items she imagined was a small, basic table that would later become the “harvest table,” the first piece of furniture she would ever design.
“I think the harvest table is kind of a reflection of my personality. It is well proportioned, and detail-oriented, but simple and using all natural materials. That was how I wanted to do the harvest table. It was on my mind for so many years,” Yee says.
It was in 1988 that she finally realized the harvest table, when she moved to Scotts Valley and started her company Maria Yee, Inc. People seemed to respond immediately to the elegant design. She called it “California contemporary” because it incorporates elements of different traditional cultures’ styles, but is also modern in look and feel. As she’s expanded the company to include pretty much every kind of furniture, her California contemporary approach has remained the same.
Michael Baetge, founder and owner of SC41, discovered Yee’s furniture a few years back and loved it. He started selling her furniture in his store immediately.
“It’s contemporary. It’s modern. It’s elegant and sophisticated. It’s simple,” he says. “When you get closer to truth, the simpler something is, the more beauty there is in it. And her style, her presentation is just eloquently gorgeous in the way that she displays and creates and designs her furniture. You don’t get tired of it, that’s why it lasts so long. It really is timeless.”
When she started, she used reclaimed woods for her raw materials, which was inspired by her desire to make furniture that was also environmentally conscious. As her company expanded, and she was producing more furniture than she could find wood to make, she switched to commercially produced wood, but chose to do so in an environmentally conscious way.
Though she was living in Scotts Valley, her manufacturing plant was in China. In those days, few furniture design companies were thinking seriously about how their products were impacting the environment. Yee did so without a second thought. Now it’s become a lot more commonplace to do so in all things related to home design.
“She’s always been a leader in what she does. When she decided to go into furniture production, she was taking care of the planet by being green. She was socially conscious by taking care of her employees and doing it in a real, equitable way. Then, more than anything as a manufacturer, she chose to do it in, of all places, the place least aware and the place with least focus on the rights of employees and taking care of the planet. That was China,” Baetge says.
In 2002, Yee’s husband, Peter, who is also the CEO of Maria Yee, Inc., challenged Maria to find a new material that would create furniture as high in quality as the hardwood they were using, but was better for the environment.
On a trip to China, Maria was looking at the bamboo fields when it dawned on her: Why not use bamboo?
The advantages of bamboo are numerous. Bamboo is an extremely hard material, yet is smooth, and has a lot of beneficial aesthetic properties.
“If you touch the bamboo and it’s winter time, you’ll feel warm. In the summer time, you’ll feel cold. This is why so many south Asian people use bamboo,” Yee says.
A big environmental advantage for Yee, though, was that bamboo wasn’t a tree, but rather a grass, and therefore only takes about 5-6 years to grow before it can be harvested, as opposed to 50-60 years like the hardwood they’d been using. Materials with shorter life cycles are more sustainable environmentally when used in continuous commercial operations.
In 2006, Maria Yee, Inc. designed 100 percent bamboo-made furniture. They were one of the first companies to do so on a national scale. Crate & Barrel took an interest in what she was doing, and started to sell her products in their chain.
“Crate & Barrel are also very environmentally conscious for using the right materials, the recycled materials or the materials that would be sustainable. Even though this was so new, they were so supportive to carry our first furniture collection with 100 percent bamboo,” Yee says.
Today Maria Yee, Inc. owns a bamboo factory in China (her second factory), right in the heart of one of the largest bamboo forests in the world. Approximately 50 percent of their furniture is now made with bamboo.
Yee also has a showroom, which just recently moved to 1939 Monterey Road in San Jose. People can come and look at her products in the showroom, but she doesn’t sell to consumers there. It’s more for vendors and companies to come look at her different available products. Her products can be found in stores small and large, like SC41 and Modern Life, locally.