INTERIOR DESIGN

Venerable Interior Design Firms Look to the Future

by Tim McKeough  |  September 12, 2016

Top talents like David Kleinberg, Ellie Cullman and Jamie Drake are setting the stage for their successors, insuring that their namesake firms continue to thrive well into the 21st century.


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An alumnus of the great — yet, sadly, late — Parish-Hadley, David Kleinberg recently made five of his longtime designers, who have been with him from four to 16 years, equity partners in his firm. From left: Scott Sloat, Kleinberg, Lance Scott, Sean Matijevich, Christina Maroni and Matthew Bemis. Photo courtesy of David Kleinberg Design Associates

When Albert Hadley dissolved Parish-Hadley Associates in 1999, following the death of Sister Parish in 1994, it represented the end of arguably the most influential American interior design firm of the late 20th century. Parish-Hadley had fostered the careers of numerous designers who went on to earn their own acclaim — Bunny Williams, David Easton, David Kleinberg, Brian J. McCarthy, Thom Filicia and Mariette Himes Gomez, among them. But the company itself was finished.

Today, a number of widely respected firms are taking steps to ensure that they don’t suffer a similar fate, while also passing the torch to a new generation of designers. Kleinberg, who worked at Parish-Hadley for 16 years before striking out on his own in 1997, made five of his longtime principal designers — Scott Sloat, Sean Matijevich, Lance Scott, Christina Maroni and Matthew Bemis equity partners in David Kleinberg Design Associates earlier this year. “There was a long history of people at Parish-Hadley who had moved on and opened their own firms, but I thought maybe that’s not what has to happen,” says Kleinberg. “I walked into our office near the end of last year after being away and saw it buzzing along and people collaborating, and I thought, This is really a team that works.”

Giving them equity in the company provides a reason to stay, and it also positions the firm for a long life. “I’m certainly not thinking of leaving tomorrow, next year, or in five years,” says Kleinberg. “But I wanted to know that there’s something in place, for me and everyone else. There’s no reason that the business can’t continue just because the person whose name is on the door may not eventually be sitting at a desk.”

Some might question whether a firm can find continued success after its founder departs, particularly when it’s someone as high-profile as Kleinberg, who is lauded in shelter magazines for his polished, updated take on traditional elegance. But according to the designer, his partners have already helped the firm’s design approach evolve while remaining at the fore of contemporary taste. “Because people have been here so long,” he says, “they’ve influenced me probably as much as I’ve influenced them.” As a result, he continues, they have developed a collective approach to interiors and a shared point of view that will continue into the future.

Since David Kleinberg’s equity partners have been with him for so long, he says, they have helped the firm evolve while developing a shared point of view. This tailored Park Avenue master bedroom, completed in 2015, features an upholstered headboard and bench. A 1940s Murano chandelier from Karl Kemp Antiques hangs over the bed. Photo by Durston Saylor

In this East Hampton, New York, living room, completed by DKDA in 2014, the neutral palette puts the focus on the Andy Warhol painting above the sofa. The room includes a pair of travertine and polished steel lamps from Karl Kemp Antiques and Italian 1970s armchairs from Gustavo Olivieri. Photo by Peter Aaron

In this Upper East Side living room, designed in 2014, a Garth Weiser painting hangs above the sofa, which is flanked by a pair of French 20th-century Primavera ceramic table lamps. The room also features a Jean Royère gilded-iron coffee table and Swedish cane-back chairs, and the space is punctuated by a 1930s Swedish spiral chandelier. Photo by Pieter Estersohn

DKDA custom designed the tables and chairs in this Park Avenue dining room, which features a Gerhard Richter painting above a stainless-steel bench by Sebastian Errazuriz. A pair of arched Russian mirrors flank the doorway. Photo by Pieter Estersohn

The fireplace is the focal point of the Tribeca living room that Kleinberg designed in 2008. A pair of tufted sofas surround the custom DKDA coffee table, and yellow throw pillows add a pop of color to the otherwise neutral space. Photo by Pieter Estersohn

A Willem de Kooning painting hangs over the sofa in this Park Avenue apartment, which Kleinberg designed in 2000. The living room decor mixes styles and eras, juxtaposing an 18th-century Venetian mirror with a pair of Diego Giacometti lion head armchairs and a Marc du Plantier gilt-bronze and glass cocktail table. Photo by Pieter Estersohn

 

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Ellie Cullman founded Cullman & Kravis in 1984 with her late partner Hedi Kravis. This month she made four senior designers, each of whom has been with the firm for more than a decade, equity partners. Clockwise from top left: Lee Cavanaugh, Claire Ratliff, Alyssa Urban, Cullman and Sarah DePalo. Photo courtesy of Cullman & Kravis

Although rare in the interior design world, the move takes a page from architecture firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which maintains a robust, well-regarded business even though its founders haven’t been involved for decades. There is precedence in other industries as well. “Our business isn’t that different from those with brand equity in other sectors, such as investment banks, law firms and advertising agencies, which endure beyond the original founders,” says Ellie Cullman, of Cullman & Kravis, who maintained the name of her firm after partner Hedi Kravis died in 1997.

Earlier this month, Cullman announced that she was making four of her senior designers — Lee Cavanaugh, Sarah DePalo, Claire Ratliff and Alyssa Urban — equity partners. All have been with the firm for more than 10 years, she notes, and lead teams that are largely responsible for their own projects, putting their personal stamp on the company’s richly detailed, sumptuous interiors. “They are the face of Cullman & Kravis to their team’s clients,” she says. “The design partners initiate and maintain client relationships on each project, which includes organizing and leading client meetings and presentations. I’m delighted they will join me in steering the company into the future.”

All of Cullman & Kravis’s newly minted equity partners have been with the firm for more than a decade and lead their own teams, so their style has influenced the firm’s signature elegant look. For this oceanfront home in Sagaponack, New York, a soft palette of whites, creams, steel blues and grays was selected to highlight the homeowners’ collection of contemporary art as well as the view. Completed in 2014, the room contains a pair of vintage Otto Schultz chairs from Lief and an Hervé Van der Straeten light fixture. Photo by William Waldron

The theme of Cullman & Kravis’s bedroom design for the 2014 Kips Bay Showhouse in New York was “Some Like It Hot,” an affectionate reference to the iconic 1959 movie. The glamorous space had rose-gold-leafed walls and a lacquered four-poster bed. It also contains antiques, including a gilt-bronze and rosewood marquetry cabinet are from H.M. Luther and the Art Deco console tables in ash burl with patinated bronze details from Karl Kemp Antiques. Photo by Nick Johnson

Designed by noted architect John Volk, this 1931 landmarked house in Palm Beach was marred by previous renovations. During its 2012 revamp, Cullman & Kravis worked to revitalize the space and infuse it with a “tremendous sense of fun.” “The design mantra was ‘If you love it, it will work,’ and the result is a collection of eclectic and modern interiors,” the designers say of the project. Photo by Eric Piasecki

Inspired by French Art Deco design and 1940s movie interiors, Cullman & Kravis transformed this pied-à-terre into a retreat that highlights the owner’s passion for vintage and contemporary photography. Most of the furniture is by prominent Art Deco makers, including Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jules Leleu and Jacques Adnet. Photo by Eric Piasecki

This Georgian-style house on 100 acres of rolling farmland in Bedminster, New Jersey, was a new construction but designed to feel as if it had been there forever. For the 2008 project, the designers say Cullman & Kravis was tasked with creating decor that was “commensurate with the scale and complexity of the architecture, which meant furniture and art had to be of the very highest quality.” The gilt mirror and bedside table are from H.M. Luther. Photo by Eric Piasecki

Ellie Cullman’s New York City living room, designed in 2005, had Venetian stucco walls painted a rich terra-cotta color that was overwashed in gold to complement her art and antiques. The Venetian chandelier was from Bernd Goeckler Antiques, the obelisks were from Karl Kemp, and the commode was purchased from Guy Regal Ltd., now Newel. Photo by Durston Saylor

 

 

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Jamie Drake (right) founded Drake Design Associates in 1978 but recently partnered with former protégé Caleb Anderson and changed the name of his firm to Drake / Anderson. Photo by Brittany Ambridge

Another industry giant who recently brought on a younger partner is Jamie Drake, who not only recruited his former protégé Caleb Anderson to share the business but also changed the name of the firm, from Drake Design Associates to Drake / Anderson. “I was thinking about how to move forward as I approach a more mature age,” says Drake, who originally hung out his shingle in 1978, “and how I could continue to offer a large base of clients top-level service while still doing things that are refreshing and exciting after nearly four decades.”

Anderson cut his teeth working with Drake but then completed a stint with MR Architecture + Decor before launching his own firm in 2013. Widely pegged as someone to watch, he jumped at the opportunity to merge firms. “I was initially so shocked and surprised,” he said. “Jamie’s firm is very established, with a big staff and solid infrastructure, so it allows me to get involved with really ambitious and exciting new things.”

The partnership, says Drake, is also allowing him do new things, like traveling to Vietnam, to oversee production of his furniture line for Theodore Alexander, and to China, where Jamie Drake–branded stores will open this month to sell those pieces. “I can go away for a more relaxed period of time and focus on that,” he says, “rather than worrying about what’s happening back at the office.”

Drake acknowledges that the firm is recognized for his ability to create interiors with bold colors and big drama, but he points out that his aesthetic has always been evolving. “As times changes, we change,” he says. “My firm has changed a few times with a chameleon-like skin in its thirty-eight years before becoming Drake / Anderson. We always look forward to absorbing what’s new, exciting and current.” With Anderson, he adds, the firm is better positioned to remain a leader in the years ahead. “Caleb’s sensibility really taps into the mindset of the moment,” he notes, “which is calmer and more serene.”

“We have an opportunity to create something new together,” adds Anderson, “but still reference what we were both always known for.”

Jamie Drake, known for his bold use of color, says his new partner, Caleb Anderson, has a calmer, more serene sensibility. It’s a combination that, Drake says, enables them to create something new. This mindset can be seen in the bedroom Drake / Anderson designed for this year’s Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse, which included a David Wiseman ribbon table from R & Company, a Saint Clair Cemin sculpture from Paul Kasmin Gallery and an oval mirror by Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti from H.M. Luther. Photo by Marco Ricca

The living room of Drake’s West Chelsea, Manhattan, apartment, which he designed in 2012, includes a cocktail table of his design and a Pedro Friedeberg Hand chair. Photo by Marco Ricca

Drake chose rich green walls and a gold ceiling for the library of the 2012 Kips Bay Showhouse, which included a side table from Karl Kemp topped by a table lamp from John Salibello. The room also featured a cocktail table from Lorin Marsh and accessories from Maison Gerard. Photo by Peter Murdock

This Upper West Side living room, completed in 2009, contains a pair of Art Deco mahogany and brass armchairs from Maison Gerard, table lamps from Bernd Goeckler and artwork by Ron Ehrlich. Photo by William Waldron

In 2002, Drake decorated this parlor in Gracie Mansion, New York City’s mayoral residence, for then-mayor (and longtime client) Michael Bloomberg. Photo by William Waldron

In the living room of Drake’s former home in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood, which he decorated in 2000, the centerpiece was a painting by Graciella Hasper, which hung above a Schiaparelli sofa by Michael Taylor. He used bold magenta fabric from Schumacher throughout the space. Photo by William Waldron

 

Mariette Himes Gomez (right) has long been prepping her daughter, Brooke Gomez, to lead Gomez Associates. Brooke, who has been with the firm since 2000, is now vice president. Photo courtesy of Gomez Associates

Some designers are looking closer to home for partners. At Gomez Associates, Mariette Himes Gomez has been grooming her daughter, Brooke Gomez, to take a growing leadership role in the firm. Brooke began as a designer in 2000 but is now vice president, responsible for all the firm’s contracts, collaborating with her mother on design and spearheading new business opportunities. “Brooke is the future of this company,” says Mariette, who is known for fresh, tailored interiors with soothing neutral palettes. “She grew up with all of it, and we go together like peas and carrots.”

Among Brooke’s initiatives is a more affordable service for young clients on a budget who need decorating help but not soup-to-nuts interior design and construction administration. That way, she says, “if people want our look but have smaller projects, we can do it” by helping to select furniture and accessories, including pulling from the firm’s collection for Hickory Chair.

 

 

 

 

Mariette Himes Gomez says that she and her daughter, Brooke Gomez, “go together like peas and carrots,” so it makes sense that they share a penchant for neutral palettes and tailored interiors. The pair, who operated Gomez Associates together, collaborated on this New York master bedroom in 2006. The space embodies purity, with pristine white walls, carpet, upholstery and linens. The iron four-poster bed provides a jolt of darkness to cut through it all. Photo by Scott Frances

This Manhattan living room had faux-bois-painted walls when Mariette and Brooke began their 2006 design. The duo insisted on keeping the patterning and tracked down the original French artist to restore the work. They selected vanilla upholstery and English and French antiques in similar wood tones to complement the walls. Photo by Scott Frances

This Manhattan dining room, designed by the Gomezes in 2005, has walls lined with parchment squares that “create a neutral backdrop for candle light,” they say, adding that chandeliers are a must for proper dining. They prefer to use glass because it’s “less obvious and accents the formal crystal.” Photo by Scott Frances

Mariette and Brooke chose cocktail tables in the style of Jean Royère to tie together the two conversation areas in this Palm Beach living room, which they designed in 2003. They added neutral draperies to soften the waterfront space. Photo by Scott Frances

For this Boston-area living room, which Mariette designed in 1998, she chose a neutral wall color to highlight the clients’ art and American antiques. She added some cozy elements because, she says, “New England weather requires a good-size carpet, reading chairs and an evening fire.” Photo by Scott Frances

“Neutral overstuffed sofas and chairs are all about conversation and comfort,” Mariette says of her 1996 design of a beach house on Long Island, New York. “The intricate English oval back dining chair is echoed in the circular pattern of the throw pillows,” she adds. Photo by Scott Frances

“Alfresco dining needs only a roof, floor and lighting,” Mariette notes of her 1996 design of this Long Island beach house’s dining terrace. “In this instance, the pair of bell jars complement candlelight at dinnertime. In the distance is one of the client’s original sculptures and, of course, the views!” Photo by Scott Frances

 

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Alexa Hampton, the daughter of Mark Hampton, took over his eponymous firm after his death in 1998. Since then, she’s been named to Architectural Digest‘s AD100 and Elle Decor‘s A-List. Photo by Scott Frances

At some prestigious firms, successors have already taken over the reins with excellent results. Alexa Hampton, for instance, has kept the firm Mark Hampton, started by her father, among the country’s most sought-after interior design offices since his death in 1998 at the age of 58. “We never actually discussed a succession plan,” says Alexa, who worked in her father’s office from the time she was a teenager. “I can’t imagine that he thought it would continue, but I don’t have the luxury of knowing.”

Over the past two decades, she has developed her own confident voice while also respecting the original essence of her father’s firm, which was renowned for composing rooms with a deeply comfortable, collected look. “He was incredibly erudite, so for me, continuing his work meant that it would have to be educated design to some extent. But I’m a much sillier person than my father, and I can’t be who I’m not,” she says.

Indeed, Alexa’s interiors often have a slightly more edited, lighter and brighter appearance that reflects today’s tastes. There’s no question that she has found her own success, but at the same time, she adds, “I would never do anything that would shame him.”

 

 

 

Rich in color, pattern and texture, Alexa Hampton’s layered, Morroccan-inspired living room for the 2014 Kips Bay Decorator Show House included a hand-painted Atwell coffee table from Alexa’s Hickory Chair line. Photo by Jean Bourbon

For the 2012 Kips Bay Show House, Alexa designed this bedroom, which featured lacquered chocolate walls and a canopy of the Meadowmere print fabric she designed for Kravet. Photo by Steve Freihon

In 2008, she outfitted the living room of this Louisiana residence with pieces sourced from dealers like Objets Plus, Niall Smith, James Sansum and Gerald Bland. Photo by Scott Frances

A canopy hangs from the coffered ceiling in Alexa’s Manhattan master bedroom, which she completed in 2008. The space includes pieces by Hickory Chair, for which she designs a line, and a Stark carpet. Photo by Scott Frances

Alexa completed this Manhattan home in 2000, two years after taking over her father’s firm. Photo by Scott Frances

The Upper East Side home of the late Mark Hampton and his wife, Duane, was featured in the July 1991 issue of House & Garden. Photo by Keith Scott Morgan

Mark and Duane’s master bedroom contained a canopy bed, a tufted chaise longue and plenty of framed family photos. Photo by Keith Scott Morgan

Mark’s design for the sitting room of the 1979 Kips Bay Show House combined dramatic artwork and Asian screens alongside ivory-upholstered tufted seating. Photo by Peter Vitale