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Publication Date: 2014-05-20


Q&A with Ellie Cullman

Ellie of Cullman & Kravis enlightens us with thoughts on her inspirations, her firm’s design philosophy, and a bit of the unexpected.


How would you define your style?

The goal of our most recent work is to redefine the traditional interior. Our designs have been edited, clarified, and strengthened with new materials and palettes to achieve a “modern traditional” aesthetic. With this fresh approach, the point of view is contemporary while still respecting the 30-year history of our company. We use antiques of all periods and origins alongside modern artworks, custom made furniture, and exceptional textiles to create dynamic interiors that are complex and layered-always comfortable and never overly formal.

We don’t have a signature style – we embrace our clients’ preferences and each project’s demands. This works because we are passionate about absolutely everything – from traditional to modern furniture, from folk to contemporary art, from European to Asian decorative objects and on and on. We are design chameleons, as our recent book: “The Detailed Interior, Decorating Up Close with Cullman & Kravis” demonstrates.

What inspired you to go in to interior design?

I became passionate about antiques, especially Americana, spending every weekend going to country fairs in search of hooked rugs and quilts, gameboards and weathervanes. I ended up curating two shows for the Museum of American Folk Art – and this was where I learned how to analyze what is “good, better, best” – another important milestone in my education.

Then thirty years ago, my late partner, Hedi Kravis and I decided to write a screenplay about her divorce from Henry Kravis, a name you may recognize. We submitted our opus to our dear friend, Stanley Jaffe, who had just won an Oscar for Kramer vs Kramer. He gave it a serious read and told us there was only one good thing he could say about our opus – it was beautifully typed! He said we had absolutely no talent at screen writing. And, without missing a beat, suggested that we should become decorators! He had just fired his third decorator and wanted to hire us to finish his apartment.

The rest is history!

You have been so successful both at interior design and building a fantastic interior design company—what are the key factors that have been instrumental in your success?

There are a few major factors that I attribute towards building our company. The first is understanding how important it is to listen to the client’s needs, rather than adhering to our own personal aesthetics. We always listen to our clients, and try to make decorating a fun experience for them, which is why I believe we have formed such wonderful relationships with our clients. Additionally, we are fiscally responsible. There is no way to run a successful business without the proper bookkeeping. Our paperwork is insanely detailed, and we always adhere to agreed upon budgets, and project time frames. Lastly, our office is collegial—we work in teams with everyone supporting each other, which creates a wonderful atmosphere for our employees to work in, and resonates in our projects.

Where have you been finding inspiration lately?

Inspiration is everywhere: the russet red in a Rothko painting, an embroidery motif from a costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, the patterned flooring at San Marco Square in Venice. Everything your eyes see is a catalyst for a color, motif, or pattern which can be incorporated into an interior.


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