Designer Spotlight

Pragmatic Chic

Elissa “Ellie” Cullman, seen here in the sitting room of her home, has been creating highly detailed, thoroughly thought-out interiors for more than 30 years (photo by Nicholas Hancock). Above: “Beige can be boring unless all the details are exciting,” says Cullman of this Central Park South pied-à-terre. Unless noted, all photos by Eric Piasecki © Monacelli Press

The title came about because we are obsessed with details,” says Elissa Cullman (or “Ellie,” as she is known to her friends and admirers in the design world and beyond) of The Detailed Interior (recently published by the Monacelli Press), which she co-wrote with her firm’s senior designer, Tracey Pruzan. “We like to say that inspired rooms are more than just pretty: There’s an underlying logic and layering of information in the nuances of the details.”

For the past 30 years, Cullman & Kravis — the Manhattan-based design firm, founded by Cullman and the late Hedi Kravis (Pruzan joined 10 years later) — has consistently practiced a unique version of pragmatic chic. “We even like to make sure our clients are fully prepared for a dinner party down to the cocktail napkins,” Pruzan says. “And personalized umbrellas in case of a rainstorm!”

Over the years, their work has landed the firm an impressive roster of international clients as well as top-tier status on every designer best-of list and a bevy of industry awards, not least of all inclusion on Architectural Digest’s “AD 100” roster since 2000.

“It’s the details that create a more wholly integrated environment,” concludes Cullman. “They should be rich with meaning, full of sparkle and life.”

1stdibs contributor Susanna Salk recently sat down with Cullman to discuss her new monograph — in detail.

What aspects of this book are different from your first, Decorating Master Class: The Cullman & Kravis Way?

The first book focused more on the macro issues, the logical and sequential process of decorating and design, but in this one we’ve narrowed our focus to explore and explain the essential details in our interiors.

A Cullman-designed New York town house features a large-format print by Candida Hofer and a pink coffee table by Yves Klein.

A Cullman-designed New York town house features a large-format print by Candida Hofer and a pink coffee table by Yves Klein.

You got to work on Oprah Winfrey’s Hawaii house after she admired the living room of your own Connecticut home on the cover of Architectural Digest and immediately called you — while you were taking a bath. Was having her as a client liberating or intimidating?

Oprah was amazing. She is intuitive, decisive and great fun to be with.

Despite the fact that it’s in Hawaii, Winfrey wanted American decor rather than tropical. How did you marry that aesthetic with such a distinctive setting?

A few major themes guided the design direction: While the architecture was reworked and updated, the traditional Hawaiian farmhouse-style characteristic of many historic homes on Maui — a look that Oprah loves — was carefully preserved. In fact, the “Upcountry” Maui aesthetic is not that different from the classical American Country vocabulary. However, rather than filling the house with palm trees, pineapples and tropical fruit, Oprah wanted to celebrate her passion for dogs and horses. We found plenty of them, fashioned from wood, iron, tin and stone, and used them as sculpture and decoration to weave a connective motif throughout.

Left: Oprah Winfrey’s Maui estate incorporates four separate cottages, with this room used as a place for her guests to meet and mingle. Right: In one of the 11 guest bedrooms of Winfrey’s Maui home, antiques and embroidered-linen curtains enrich the pastel seafoam-green-periwinkle palette.

Left: Oprah Winfrey’s Maui estate incorporates four separate cottages, with this room used as a place for her guests to meet and mingle. Right: In one of the 11 guest bedrooms of Winfrey’s Maui home, antiques and embroidered-linen curtains enrich the pastel seafoam-green-periwinkle palette.

 

The living room of a town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side incorporates masculine and feminine motifs, plus Asian accents, all while concealing contemporary conveniences like a flat-screen TV.

The living room of a town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side incorporates masculine and feminine motifs, plus Asian accents, all while concealing contemporary conveniences like a flat-screen TV.

Your design for a living room of an Upper East Side Stanford White–designed town house feels distinctly feminine yet grounded by more masculine details, such as a suit of armor and a richly colored rug.

The room strikes many notes. The crystal chandelier is a counterpoint to the masculine Kerman carpet. The delicate curves of the antique pillow fragments are in contrast to the strong musculature of the samurai armor. It’s all about balance.

The clients had lived in Japan, where you once lived, and the interiors obviously reflect that experience.

Actually, my husband and I spent two years living in Japan, and later I attended Columbia Graduate School in East Asian studies. It was wonderful to share this passion for Japan with my clients. While the envelope of the interiors is traditional, the house also accommodates the lifestyle of the young family members living there. For example, one of the pair of burled walnut chests that flanks the fireplace has been “surgically altered” to hold a flat-screen TV on a hydraulic lift. The formal space is activated because we ignored the taboo on televisions in a living room. The upholstered armchairs actually have rotating bases so they can turn to face the TV. It’s the mix of high and low that keeps interiors fresh, not fussy.

In this corner of the same Manhattan town house, Cullman and her team created Zen-like balance by carefully considering and curating each and every detail.

In this corner of the same Manhattan town house, Cullman and her team created Zen-like balance by carefully considering and curating each and every detail.

I love how the vignette of the Biedermeier commode (from the same town house) feels both edited and lush. What’s the trick to striking an elegant chord that doesn’t feel too fussy?

The details are strong and restrained. The intensely colored blue-silk curtains don’t have lots of frills, just the bold embroidery with the anthemion motif. The walnut chest is warm and rich, and the column details are linear rather than curvy. Instead of lots of little things on top, the three pieces are distinctly bold, and each brings a different material and palette to the table top.

In this Palm Beach house, you’ve tackled an enormous room and given it balance, scale and detail, using the creamy tones of the rug and walls to help organize the varying details. How do you do this?

We decorated this home for longstanding friends of mine who bought a landmarked house designed in 1931 by John Volk, a noted local architect. This project was tremendously fun to work on. The design mantra was “If you love it, it will work,” and the result is a somewhat eclectic interior, a gracious home that reflects a great feeling of freedom and exuberance.

To help organize such seemingly unrelated items as orange-linen curtains, a pair of sinuous 1940s French rope-twist tables and the leopard silk-velvet on the Jansen chair, we employed a silk-shag area rug, tailored upholstery and rough stucco walls, all in fresh shades of cream. Other details like the vintage pair of Louis XVI–style caned chairs, stripped to their natural pine and upholstered in Fortuny cotton, help support the sense of ordered, rustic opulence. Also, the tall casement windows and the original pecky cypress cathedral ceiling emphasize the expansive ease of the room and provide the most gracious tonal envelope for all of our details.

Left: Cullman often uses modern art to add contrast to rooms decorated largely with period antiques, as she did in the Palm Beach home. Right: For a Palm Beach home, Cullman let the motto “If you love it, it will work” guide the eclectic look.

Left: Cullman often uses modern art to add contrast to rooms decorated largely with period antiques, as she did in the Palm Beach home. Right: For a Palm Beach home, Cullman let the motto “If you love it, it will work” guide the eclectic look.

 

The dining room of a newly built New Jersey estate harkens back to the end of the 19th century, with an antique chandelier whose motifs echo those of the ceiling moldings and the window draperies.

The fact that you put a modern silkscreen by Donald Sultan above the bench in the entryway of the Palm Beach house changes the entire dynamic of the space. I think of you more as a traditionalist, but, when I looked through the interiors in this book, I realized you often find the perfect juxtaposition by turning to modern art.

Modern art plays an especially important role in many of our designs, as it brings an irresistible energy and spark to grand spaces. Not only does the art of the present enliven the past, but antiques and decorative objects from the past add history and character to new rooms.

The Regency-style bone-veneer bench here is a great piece — its generous scale and open shape are welcoming and warm, two essential ingredients for every entry. We found it on a shopping trip to London with our clients.

Tell me about the logical underpinnings of all the pretty detail in this dining room.

This space is in a home in New Jersey that was newly designed by architect Allan Greenberg but meant to look as if it had been there for 150 years. While this seems like just a pretty picture, the choices here are quite specific. Look at the chandelier, for instance. This five-foot-tall ormolu-and-cut glass Empire chandelier is from 1815. It features a metal crown of feather shapes that draws the eye to a fluted ceiling medallion and the corresponding form echoed in the drape of the curtain heading. So with just one great antique, we’ve drenched the entire space in light and connected several key visual elements of the room.

In a bedroom in the New Jersey home, Cullman made choices about color, pattern and furnishings in complete concert with the home’s 18th-century-inspired architecture.

In the master bedroom of the same New Jersey house, the custom-made rug relates to the patterning on the ceiling. How premeditated are you when bringing details like these into an interior?

We absolutely think about details from the very beginning. For example, an antique textile purchased in London inspired the design of the rug for this room. The whorls of the dense, hand-tufted wool serve as a counterpoint to the elaborate plasterwork details on the ceiling. A simple graphic design or a muted all-over pattern would have felt weak against such strong architecture.

Similarly, saturated yellow Venetian-plaster walls highlight the refined millwork and support the architecture. Knowing that we would need a strong wall color in the room, we designed the rug with a clean ivory ground and bursts of color in the pattern.

All of this must be considered early on in the planning stages so that the decorating will reflect and enhance the architecture — it all needs to feel like one idea.

The clients for this Central Park South pied-à-terre collect photographs and constantly change their placement. So in a way, the detail that captivates is in continual motion. Tell me how you went about creating a pared-down backdrop that still maintains its elegance.

When working with a limited palette, we love to bring in materials as luxurious as possible because each element needs to be meaningful. Here, the walls are waxed Venetian plaster, the rug is silk, the curtains are hand-embroidered with metallic beads and silk threads and the pillows have double hand-sewn silk fringe. Beige can be boring unless all the details are exciting.


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