How one sharp-eyed beach bum learned to channel California warmth into A-list interiors
Sperm have different shapes that affect how they do their job,” says interior designer Cliff Fong. He’s sitting in Galerie Half, the vintage-furniture showroom he co-owns on Melrose Avenue, amid works by blue-chip mid-century designers such as Charlotte Perriand, Jean Prouvé, and George Nakashima, musing about the shapes of something other than tables and chairs. He was surprised to find these little swimmers can have shapes that range from optimal (oval head, single long tail) to subpar (misshapen head, crooked tail) for their reproductive mission. “I would understand that motility is good. Count, obviously, is good. But apparently sperm are all very different. No two are alike, supposedly. That was really, really interesting,” he says.
For most of his life, Fong hadn’t had much occasion to think about sperm. Then three years ago, when he was 45, a straight female friend who wanted to have a child asked Fong about being her donor. He said yes and threw himself into the process. “I had a lot of tests that I don’t think I would ever have had. Apparently all the plumbing works. It was good for my ego, I guess,” he says, noting that in the room where one leaves the sample, “whatever they have that is supposed to motivate you is not a very democratic offering.” He’s now a dad, though not a primary parent, to a nearly two-year-old boy.
As he talks about it today, what still clearly intrigues Fong is the way that shape and function, even with sperm, are so intrinsically linked. His love of form is an inclination that has made Fong one of Southern California’s top interior designers. Clients from the Hollywood A-list (Ryan Murphy, Portia de Rossi, Ryan Seacrest, and serial fixer-upper Ellen DeGeneres) as well as socialites and hedge funders tap him for a look that combines seemingly opposite qualities: refined and relaxed, rich and muted, soulful and cerebral, layered and spare.While he doesn’t exactly fly beneath the radar, Fong is an insider’s designer with a penchant for stealth. He christened his design company “Matt Blacke, Inc.,” rather than give it his own name.
“I’ve never really wanted to name anything after myself. I think it diverts attention away from the work,” he says. “Matte black,” he adds, “is a color I always liked. It’s sort of edgy with the edge taken off a bit.” In designing a home, he doesn’t feel like he has to put his personal stamp on every design. “Not everybody has to look at a project and say, ‘Oh, Cliff did that.’ I like the thought that maybe it might look unique enough to really just be about the client that commissioned the work, not about me as the designer.”
For quite a long time, Fong has been able to pick and choose clients he enjoys working with creatively. “Some of the most important things I’ve learned about doing this kind of work was learning who I can really be of service to. Because there are a lot of people who just like their hand held, or it’s just another vanity, like having a hair-and-makeup person or a personal shopper. Some people just want to live in something that feels like a Four Seasons Hotel. I’ve stayed there; they offer an amazing brand of hospitality. But if someone wants to spend that money, I think they can live better,” he says.
Lately Fong has been more in the public eye, getting screen time as a judge on DeGeneres’s HGTV show Ellen’s Design Challenge, which wrapped its second season last year. But he’s also got two new projects that aren’t hidden behind the privet hedges of the rich and famous. One is the new home of beloved L.A. Italian restaurant Gusto, which has just transitioned from a hole-in-the-wall spot on West 3rd Street to a much larger space on the same commercial stretch. The gorgeous spot, owned by chef Vic Casanova (formerly head chef at the Four Seasons Los Angeles), gives off a New York vibe via custom Carrera-marble tables, vintage milk-glass globe chandeliers, Italian black-and-white photography, and 1950s French tuxedo leather club chairs. He previously designed chef Michael Voltaggio’s West Hollywood restaurant, Ink., in 2011.
And on the same stretch where Galerie Half sits on Melrose, Fong is opening an unconventional art space. “It’s a gallery, in a way, but I’m not going to be working as a gallerist. I’m opening it as a free space for unrepresented artists to have their own shows, and a free space for galleries that don’t havea presence in Los Angeles.” His first exhibition will debut in October with paintings by the German artist Christoph Schellberg. The show will be up through November 17, 2017.
While Fong gives off a warm California vibe (he’s a surfer and scuba diver), he grew up in Brooklyn and upstate New York with decor that was traditional with some Asian antiques in the mix. His first design memory is of being six or seven years old and sitting in a classic Eames 670 lounge chair when his family visited friends who owned a post-and-beam modern house on Cape Cod. “I remember kind of spinning around in this corner of glass with all these beautiful steel beams. I remember thinking about how interesting and cool that was,” he recalls.
He moved to La Jolla, California, with the idea of becoming a marine biologist, but ended up moving to Los Angeles, taking art-history classes at UCLA, and getting a job, at 19 years old, as a clothing salesman at Fred Segal. From there, he worked his way up to become a manager and merchandiser, and, within five years, a buyer.
“I was told I was kind of the youngest buyer on the circuit at that time,” he says. That’s when he got to know DeGeneres. “I was her salesperson,” says Fong, who also did fashion styling for her when she was promoting her first sitcom, Open House. After the hip clothing store Maxfield hired him to become a buyer, he began going on buying trips to Europe, where he bought his first Hans Wegner and Jean Prouvé chairs at a market in Paris.
At age 31, Fong was already a burnt-out overachiever, leaving his job at Maxfield and working as a freelance stylist and fashion consultant. “From 2000 to 2004, I lived at the beach and was kind of a bum. I smoked a lot of pot and drank and was pretty unproductive. It was kind of nice.,Ellen tells me I was literally a bum. I did nothing and it was so amazing.”
Because he did nothing, Fong was often available to cat-sit for DeGeneres while she was traveling the country doing stand-up. “One time she was gone about a week or so and said, ‘By the way, you want to fix this place up for me?’ We had recently been furniture shopping together. I remember we bought a Wegner flagline chair and a Prouvé standard chair. While she was away, I rearranged things, bought a few things, and she was really happy with it,” says Fong. His projects for DeGeneres went on to be featured in her 2015 book Home.
She writes in the coffee-table tome, “Since meeting Cliff, I haven’t owned a home that he hasn’t touched. Sometimes he leads the entire effort. Sometimes he’ll redo something after it starts to feel a little stale. Sometimes he just comes in at the end, after the very last lightbulb is installed, and tweaks it all ever so slightly.”
Because Fong’s design career sprung from this relationship, many of his early clients were lesbian studio executives. “I used to be kind of embedded in the lesbian community,” he says.
He opened the furniture store Galerie Half in 2009 with antiques dealer Cameron Smith and Madison fashion boutiques owner Mark Goldstein as partners. (Fong designed the Madison stores.) He rarely refinishes pieces, preferring items that have the look of having been softened by time. While he will always love the greats of mid-century design, he recommends that would be collectors check out such lesser-known (and more affordable) names as Mats Theselius, Pierre Paulin, Pierre Guariche, Pierre Chapo, and Axel Einar Hjorth.
What he’s not into is boring, uninspired design. “It’s amazing how much repetition there is in newly remodeled houses or houses that are flipped. Not everybody has to have dark wood floors and white walls. Or now a lot of people have thin, white-oak, or gray-washed laminate floors and white or grayish walls. It’s kind of flimsy on substance. Now everything looks sort of provincial European or Belgian, largely due to companies like Restoration Hardware—who, don’t get me wrong, I respect very much.”
Lately, though, there’s one client who’s been giving Fong fits: himself. He recently bought a ranch house in Los Angeles that has plenty of outdoor space so his son can have a yard. “In the process of doing this, I actually find I’m sort of frustrated with myself. I keep telling my team here that if I were my own client I would’ve fired myself a long time ago. I’m way over budget—like three times over budget— which I’ve never been for a client,” says Fong. He keeps finding new things he’d like to change and tweak and add, from a water feature to cabinetry. “When I bought the house, I delusionally thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this will be easy.’ Hopefully by the time my son is three, the pool will be done.”