Interior Design

Changing Traditions

It’s said “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but is that true when it comes to some of interior design’s legendary traditionalists? Have their approaches and styles remained unchanged, or have they evolved with the times? We put that questions to a group of six such designers whose firms have collectively been fashioning rooms for some 275 years. While that number definitely makes one think “antique,” we discovered that these veterans — busy as they are overseeing the projects of loyal clients around the world, creating furniture and fabric collections, committing to show houses and charitable industry causes, and even authoring a book (or two!) — still apply a novice-like excitement to their craft. And that means their signature “looks” keeps evolving.

To prove this point, we asked each designer to share a room his or her firm designed in the past and one of more recent vintage.

Ann Pyne, president of McMillen Inc.
(Founded 1924)


Photo by Drix Duryea

Photo by Drix Duryea


This 1928 photo is of the “new” drawing room of the apartment of our founder Eleanor Stockstrom McMillen at 447 East 57th Street. When I say “new” I mean lots of things. First, “new” because McMillen Inc., Mrs. McMillen’s firm, was only four years old. (Now we are 90.) “New,” too, because apartment buildings in that area were new. And with nothing around her but townhouses, Mrs. McMillen chose to buy on the 4th floor because she wanted to be living “in scale” with her neighbors — not way above them. “New” because, believe it or not, the look of this drawing room was “new” for the time — very un-Edwardian, and very uncluttered. And “new,” finally, because McMillen did not place the customary gilded mirror between the windows, but filled the space with a sheet of mirror.

More important, the vignette of the drawing room shows the classic McMillen taste. The oval forms of the Louis XVI chairs, the swag of the 18th-century console, the roundness of the bust’s breasts contribute to a lesson in harmony of line and form such as Mrs. McMillen had recently learned from Frank Alvah Parsons and William Odom, the founding educators of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, later to become the Parsons School of Design. Mrs. McMillen was bold in placing voluptuous busts right there, though she wouldn’t have spoken of them the way I have, if at all!


Photo credit by Bjorn Wallander/OTTO

Photo by Bjorn Wallander/OTTO


This is the “drawing room” of a client at 69th Street and Park Avenue, done by McMillen, or, more specifically, by me, so I feel liberated to call it a “drawing room” — a phrase that is today eschewed and avoided, even by other designers at McMillen. (“We” say “living room.”)

This is a proper drawing room, just as Mrs. McMillen’s was — no TV, no card table, no books, no sofa that looks like it should be slept on. And it’s a room that strongly references the concept of socialization in France in the 1770s, which saw the most refined and elegant way of conversing in groups that has ever existed. No American sewing circle here, where one speaker blabs away at the expense of more civilized behavior. Rather, this drawing room seems to make its host say, “Come, sit here, and we can have a tête-à-tête ” or “Come, sit over here and we can join the others.”

When I say “drawing room” I’m also referencing the kind of formality, no matter how soft and luxurious, that is created by symmetry and discipline. The valences of the curtains are a good example — the pair is mirrored ever so slightly, given the McMillen preference for subtlety, but enough to announce that sofa between them is “authorized” to be there. (As an aside, Mrs. McMillen was not a fan of valences, but then she didn’t have to hide two sets of shades, as well as the heading of the sheers. Also, in 1928, no one was thinking much of the damage sunlight could inflict on furnishings and art, nor did she have Hunter College looking in her window, as this townhouse now does.)

I also mean “drawing room” in the sense that the objects in the room have their own tales to tell — whether they are tales of the 21st century, as told by the Thomas Houseago plasterwork mask, or of the mid-20th century, as in the mirror above the mantle, or of the 19th century, as in the garden statues, or, especially of the 18th century, as, for example, in the English open-arm chairs in the Louis XVI taste.

As to the Andy Warhol photograph by Scavullo, it arrived in the room quite by accident — in the very place where an 18th-century period cartel clock would have been placed, and in fact was placed there by me, until it crashed to the floor. (I had hung it on the tip of a picture-light outlet instead of on a nail.) But what a lucky crash that was! Because Andy Warhol’s “mask” dominates the room and asks the same question the voluptuous bust does in Mrs. McMillen’s drawing room of 1928: “Who are you, and what do you think I am doing here?” The design of each room answers that question.

Ellie Cullman, cofounder of Cullman & Kravis
(Founded 1984)



Photo by Durston Saylor


This photograph from 2000 is of a dining room, located in a Georgian residence in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, that we designed in the English country style, which was so popular at the start of my career. All the furniture is English or early 19th-century American, and the artwork follows suit with this glamorous Severin Roesen floral bouquet. Passionate about decorative paint from the start, we glazed the walls in a rich ruby red, derived from the room’s antique Bidjar carpet. The plaid curtains with valences and tassel-fringed edges, as well as the period tabletop accessories, complete this very traditional interior.


Photo by Nick Johnson


This was the dining room we designed for the Kips Bay Show House in 2010. Our objective was to create a glamorous room, which spoke to the changing tastes in contemporary interior design. While, as before, we are employing antiques, now we are incorporating a mix of periods and styles — from German neoclassic dining chairs, circa 1810, to the side cabinet by French furniture maker Maxime Olds, circa 1930. Photographs serve as the artwork now: the oversized banquet room by Candida Hofer (Palacio Nacional da Ajuda Lisboa VII, 2005) dominates the room. Again we have employed decorative paint, but in a subtle palette of Venetian stuccoed walls in pewter with an over-wash of gold. Curtains are now simple panels, articulated with hand-embroidered and jeweled leading edges and bottoms. And accessories are eclectic — from 19th-century Foo Dogs to a contemporary vermeil candelabra on the sideboard. While these interiors could not be more different, what has united our work for more than 30 years is a passion for detail, decorative paint, art and antiques.

Charlotte Moss, founder of Charlotte Moss LLC
(Founded 1985)



Photo by Edward J. North


This sitting room, done in the late 1980s for my own Park Avenue apartment with head-to-toe Geoffrey Bennison fabric, is a classic example of how my work would have been described then as well as now: layered, saturated, personal and comfortable. In the interim, this look has evolved, pared down and, oftentimes, cycled back to its roots.


Photo by Pieter Estersohn


In a bedroom in my current New York townhouse, some 25 years later, the basic tenets of design remain the same, but the execution adapts to the moment. The pulse of our time obliges us to review, assess and adapt. I know my sensibility and tastes have evolved; in fact, it is inevitable if we continue to educate our eye and remain curious. As one’s style evolves, editing and eliminating become second nature, and staying true to oneself is essential.

Alexa Hampton, president of Mark Hampton LLC
(Founded 1976)



Photo by Peter Vitale


This is a brown sitting room my father did for the Kips Bay Show House in 1979. I was eight years old, and my whole third-grade class went to visit the room. Needless to say, I thought it was totally gorgeous then and now. The design is classic but fresh enough that even my child’s eye was excited by it.


Photo by Steve Freihon


This bedroom was in the Kips Bay Show House in 2012. I was, in no way, thinking about my father when I did the room, although there are some fun similarities. His room is chocolate brown, mine is “dragon’s breath” from Benjamin Moore. Obviously, the white contrasting material in each room’s middle is also a commonality, as are some of the furniture’s Regency sensibilities.

There has never been a real strategy to how I design, vis-à-vis producing interiors that might be construed as the teleological work product of the firm of Mark Hampton. However, trained as I was by him, I was certainly infected by some of his ideals and schooled in his practices. He always enjoyed rooms that had historicity and logic on their side, loathed arbitrary design for the sake of effect and loved reveling in simple beauty. I confess that I feel the same. Finally, he understood that the client needs to be happy first and foremost, and that interiors should reflect their inhabitants’ taste and point of view. This respect for one’s client is definitely one of the firm’s calls to arms that has continued since it first opened in 1976. My father was at the helm of his firm for 22 years. I have been at the helm of it for 17. I think I will find it very weird when, in five years, I equal his time in charge. However, no one is, or ever will, really be his equal, so I suppose I won’t worry about it too much.

Nina Campbell, founder of Nina Campbell
(Founded 1974)



Photo by Fritz von der Schulenburg


This was my first project: the Buddha Room in Annabel’s Nightclub in London’s Berkeley Square, which I created in the 1970s. Mark Birley, the owner, bought this amazing antique Buddha, and I organized the stone stand, as I liked the idea of the painted wood of the Buddha in contrast to the stone. I then chose a red lacquer with which to paint the entire room, to complement the matte paint on the Buddha with the high gloss of the walls. Mark already had a collection of Pavel Tchelitchew’s Ballet Russe watercolors to use in the room, and we added as much seating as possible to accommodate a very busy and successful nightclub.


Courtesy of Nina Campbell Interiors/Cico


I designed this entire London apartment in 2012 for a couple who wanted me to only use shades of white to best show off their contemporary art collection. The apartment was also very dark, so this conformed with the request to make it as light and airy as possible. To create interest in the dining room, I used many different textures. The rock-crystal chandelier gives a beautiful glow when lit. The curtains are a modern two-shaded damask. Diego Giacometti bronze wall lights and the almost-black table give the room weight. The clients also love music, so the carpet has been designed with shades of whites and beiges, but with musical-instrument motifs in the corners. I’ve been in the business for 50 years, so my style has evolved with the times whilst sticking to the principles of designing traditional but contemporary interiors, which are both practical and comfortable.

David Easton, principal of David Easton Inc.
(Founded 1972)




This 1976 photo is of one of my very first major commissions — a Georgian house that I designed in Lake Forest, Illinois, and for which I also did all the interior decorating. The project was greatly influenced by my earlier years at the Parish Hadley office and then at Colefax and Fowler, where I later worked. This was the beginning of the opulent 1980s. I wanted to add texture with the crisscross glazing on the walls, and the client wanted antique furniture. (We had great fun traveling to England to find great pieces.) In the mid-1970s, there was a plethora of wonderful antiques shops, and you could have your pick of beautiful mirrors, eclectic antiques and all sorts of accessories. The draperies were much in keeping with the style of the house and the rug was designed and handmade in Portugal. The crown moldings and plaster ceilings were all in keeping with a Georgian house: we took the detailing from a beautiful antique mantel that we bought in London and copied that in various detailing around the room.


Photo by David Marlow


Fast forward almost 40 years: we designed this room in Aspen for a client who came to us with a very modern art collection, as well as African sculptures, which she wanted to incorporate into the room. Instead of antiques, the client wanted all the furniture to be custom designed. The idea was for this room to have a simple, open and uncluttered feeling, but still have a softness to it — with modern edges — warm and inviting, with no heavy draperies, and a very simple, modern carpet, which I designed. My personal journey has evolved over 50 years, from my being a very classical and traditional decorator-architect to becoming much more streamlined and contemporary. I believe people are looking to live more simply and don’t necessarily want all the bells and whistles that they did 30-some years ago.

Loading next story…

No more stories to load. Check out The Study

No more stories to load. Check out The Study