Paint! Lampshades! “Dean of American Design” Elissa Cullman on therapy for apartments and why “in New York, our coats are our cars.”
It was a failed attempt at a screenplay that sent Elissa Cullman and the late Hedi Kravis into the world of interior design; the producer whom the writing partners approached turned down the duo’s script, but was so inspired by their sumptuous descriptions of rooms that he hired them to refurbish his country house. Twenty-six years later, Cullman & Kravis is a world-renowned interior design firm famed for its English-inspired aesthetic and its work with art and antique collections. The co-author of the seminal Decorating Master Class, Ellie Cullman has appeared on Architectural Digest‘s authoritative “AD 100” list for the last 10 years and has been dubbed a “Dean of American Design” by the magazine. The firm’s current projects include an Upper East Side duplex penthouse with 5,000 square feet of outdoor space and a shingle-style house in Sagaponack-as well as a room in the annually anticipated 2010 Kips Bay Designer Show House at 106 East 71st Street, a townhouse currently on the market for $28.8 million. Observer HOME talked with native New Yorker Cullman (whose father was the longtime owner of steakhouse Peter Luger’s) about inspirations—and designing for New York living.
How does your experience as a lifelong New Yorker inform your process?
I approach every project from many points of view, and my process is informed by my experience as a designer, an art and antiques enthusiast, a wife and mother and, of course, as a New Yorker. As all of these, I truly understand that it is often a challenge to live here. One enormous constraint in New York is that while we have every resource imaginable, space is at a premium. The fact is that every New Yorker wants a mudroom! We all want an extra space with ample-sized cubbies for soccer cleats and golf clubs, lots of hooks for extra coats (because in New York, our coats are our cars), a dedicated space for the dog crate and the cat box and easy access to the laundry room. We are more than willing to trade the house in the suburbs for the cultural opportunities of New York City, but it would be really nice to have the extra room.
How has the way we live as New Yorkers changed over the course of your career?
Like everywhere else, our lives have changed in so many ways because of technology. Flat-screen televisions, “Wi-Fi”, and “smart house” systems that are accessed from our Black Berrys have altered our expectations and convinced us that whatever we want can be instantaneously achieved-and with a minimum of interference in our lives. In home design, clients are asking for easy access to all of these. We often install flat screens in every room, including the living room in the over-the-mantle spot that was previously reserved for a precious piece of art or for a fine antique mirror, not only because few New Yorkers can afford the luxury of an unused living room, but also because they want to be “plugged in” all of the time.
Best “instant fix.”
Paint! A fresh coat of paint really makes a space feel renewed and is a cost effective way to make a major difference. Lampshades! Change your lampshades—especially if you have dark green or black ones in a room that needs more light. If you change all of your shades to uniform off-white linen, you will notice an immediate, uplifting effect. There is also nothing more cathartic for me than to redo every book shelf and tabletop—I call it “Apartment Therapy.” Table tops, like bookcases, must be arranged and organized with thought. Start by taking everything down, and then carefully put it back, looking at each shelf and every surface as if for the first time. Keep in mind that every tabletop deserves the same considerations as the floor plan of a room to create a cosmos of form, material and color.
Favorite local shopping source or haunt.
Here’s a designer’s secret: We absolutely love the antiques “supermarkets” in Stamford, Connecticut. Just a short train or car ride away, they are really worth the trip. [Ellie’s Stamford picks: Antique and Artisan Center, Greenwich Living Antiques and Design Center, Hampton Antique Galleries, Harborview, Hidden Galleries.]
Favorite catalogs or large chain home furnishing stores you find inspiring.
We’ve been ordering a lot from the new “inexpensive” catalogs such as Global Views, Bungalow 5 and Worlds Away. We also like Wisteria, Circa Lighting and Vivre. Ballard Design[s] is also a good resource for basic upholstery. Williams Sonoma Home, Restoration Hardware, CB2, West Elm, PB Teen and Crate and Barrel are terrific home furnishing stores. Some of the large chain stores now let you use COM (Customer’s Own Material) fabrics to customize pieces.
Where do you go to be inspired in New York?
I love to walk around the city and look at all of the exterior architecture and ornamentation. With the camera on my BlackBerry, I can take terrific pictures and notes on what I see. We actually used some of these photos as inspiration for two patterns in our new fabric collection with Holland & Sherry—a brick pattern from a building on the Upper East Side and a curvilinear design from ironwork on the Lower East Side. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoy sitting in the international departure lounge at J.F.K. From New York, I can go anywhere in the world, and I always find travel tremendously inspiring.
Tell us about your room at Kips Bay this year.
We [decorated] the Dining Room…at 106 East 71st Street for Kips Bay this year. [I] am a passionate foodie, and I have conceived this room as a celebration of food and dining. Called “Dinner at Eight,” our design honors eight of the great chefs of New York City: Mario Batali, April Bloomfield, Daniel Boulud, David Chang, Anita Lo, Eric Ripert, Michael Romano and Marcus Samuelsson. The artworks in the room are wild. We’ve included a whimsical 7-foot sculpture of cooking pots, a 21-inch bright blue ice cream pop and a “portrait” of a typical New York City slice of pizza. I hope everyone will come to the Show House this year to support a terrific organization and to see all of the fabulous rooms decorated by some of New York’s greatest decorators.