Anatomy of an Interior
A successful interior, much like a great painting, is all about composition. This month, designer Ellie Cullman recalls the creative process behind a masterful design project driven by her clients' eye-popping contemporary art collection.

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Ellie Cullman of Cullman & Kravis

For over 30 years, Ellie Cullman has been one of the country's most revered interior designers. Her Manhattan-based firm, Cullman & Kravis, has established an approach to design that brings energy and life to traditional interiors, and it's won them high praise from the press and clients including Candice Bergen and Oprah Winfrey. C&K rooms reflect a classical sensibility while offering every contemporary convenience, but perhaps their greatest hallmark is Ellie Cullman's scholarly eye.

After graduate work in East Asian Studies at Columbia, Ellie worked at Japan House Gallery and the Museum of American Folk Art, where she curated two shows and wrote their accompanying catalogues. Her early interiors (she founded the firm in 1984 with her late partner Hedi Kravis) were focused on period accuracy, a reflection of her museum background, but that restraint gradually gave way to more livable and luxurious interiors. Only in Ellie's hands are Robert Motherwell, Biedermeier and Maison Jansen such natural partners. To take a closer look at how Ellie and her team tackle an interior, we asked her to tell us more about the Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre featured in her book, The Detailed Interior: Decorating Up Close with Cullman & Kravis (The Monacelli Press).

The bold patterns of a painting by artist Jon Thompson is reflected in the room's mirror.
Arched doors and inlaid ebony wood flooring details were used for the hallway.

LUXPOP! : This project was really about returning period elements to the home, while incorporating a collection of bold, contemporary paintings. Tell us about a little bit about how the commission came about, and about working with renowned architect Allan Greenberg.

Ellie Cullman: Allan and I are old friends. We first met in the nineteen-eighties when Allan was at Yale and working on the house of one of my friends, but we didn't work together until the early two-thousands, when I suggested Allan for a project in New Jersey that was later published in Architectural Digest. That house was instrumental in having potential Texas clients decide not only to hire Allan, but Cullman & Kravis and landscape architect Debby Nevins for their ground-up home in Houston. During the design process for their Texas project, the clients frequently came to New York City for meetings with Allan and the C&K team, led by my partner Alyssa Urban. At the same time, they discovered a passion for contemporary art. That made them want to spend more time in the city and to find an apartment on which Allan and Alyssa's team could collaborate.

A jade-toned sofa, Art Deco chandelier and celadon suede walls comprise a few of the library's design elements

LP! : What kind of home did they envision?

EC: They wanted to create a luxurious space for entertaining that was a tranquil backdrop to their vibrant and growing art collection. They were lucky enough to find a fabulous corner apartment in a nineteen-twenties building with eleven-foot ceilings and classical moldings, some of which had been covered over with mirrored panels. It was a wonderful space for their burgeoning collection. Modern art makes a traditional environment younger and more exciting!

LP! : Your firm is known for often starting a design with the living room rug, but in this case it was as much about defining a color palette to support the art collection. What advice would you give to collectors concerned about using color?

EC: Since our clients were collecting important and colorful art, they wanted to make sure the interiors complimented the collection without being overwhelming. We think it's important that artwork finds a comfortable place within its surroundings.

The decorative embroidery detail of the curtains reflects the contrast of the interior's round and square shapes

You don't have to have stark white walls like a museum or art gallery. You can feel confident using quiet tones and subtle patterns if they enhance the art in the room. Paintings with jolts of color, like the bright-pink Anne Truitt in the living room, don't need to be hung in an all-white loft. Here, they work with beige and muted grays that are warmed up by antiques, like an Austrian chandelier, and traditional upholstered forms, and the skirted sofa. It all translates into an appropriate domestic vocabulary for the display of modern art.

LP! : In your chapter on the residence, you refer to the colors as "luminous but muted tones"—can you explain a bit more about how finishes are as important as color choices?

EC: We love to add luminous qualities to all our paint finishes, whether it be metallic, high-gloss Venetian stucco or lacquer. Finishes add depth and movement to what would otherwise be a flat, one-dimensional surface.

LP! : Throughout the home, you have achieved balance without being dependent upon strict symmetry. In the living room, for example, one sofa has a single rectangular coffee table, while the opposite sofa has two square tables.

The designer placed hand-carved cherrywood Biedermeier chairs and gilt bronze table for a dining or reading area.

EC: A feeling of balance in a room creates a comfortable setting for those using the space. Creating balance doesn't necessarily mean creating perfect symmetry; it can be accomplished by an even distribution of light, upholstery and furniture. We also like to use a yin-and-yang philosophy, like how Alyssa's team paired those tables with the sofa and how they also placed the wood end tables, one round and one octagonal, on opposite ends of the sofa. Alyssa also kept all the furniture pieces on one rug to help keep the space feeling unified.

LP! : One of the most beautiful elements of this project is the layering of detail: the subtle square pattern in the textured wool rug reflected in the embroidery of the curtains, and the oval inlay on the mantle repeated in the oval mirror above the fireplace. Everything feels meant to be. Is every little detail planned or do some things happen more organically, or even by surprise?

EC: We find it happens more organically. We begin with a vision in our heads and as our rapport with the client deepens and we shop for furnishings, the development of the interior begins to flow and coalesce. It's a journey we make happily with our clients, and one in which we let sensibility and instinct be our guide.

LP! : Were there any "ah-ha" moments in bringing this project together?

EC: This was absolutely the first time in over thirty years that we designed a living room that was not a rectangle! The carpet had to be cut on site to fit the unusual proportions. The room, which embraces a corner, is a parallelogram with the fireplace on the diagonal. The floor plan, thus, was quite tricky but I believe that the result works as well for a group of four as it does for a group of twelve. Always, we want a conversation group to be coherent and cozy.

Cullman notes that the use of chair rails in a room provide another dimension, much like "defining the waistline of a room".
Keeping the geometry of the arched doorway and inlaid marble mantel in mind, the designer chose an intricately carved oval mirror.

Alyssa Urban of Cullman & Kravis

Editor's note: This September, Ellie Cullman, along with her partners Lee Cavanaugh, Sarah Ramsey, Claire Ratliff and Alyssa Urban, will release the firm's third book, From Classic to Contemporary: Decorating with Cullman & Kravis, published by The Monacelli Press.
The book is available for pre-order.