Ellie Cullman has made her mark in the design industry for over three decades, having co-founded her iconic firm, Cullman & Kravis Associates in 1984. A native New Yorker, Cullman is listed in the AD100 Hall of Fame, was named a Grand Master by Elle Décor and in 2016 was the recipient of the New York School of Interior Design’s Albert Hadley Lifetime Achievement Award. She is the co-author, along with Tracey Pruzan, of three books, From Classic to Contemporary: Decorating with Cullman & Kravis, (Monacelli Press, 2017), The Detailed Interior: Decorating Up Close with Cullman & Kravis (Monacelli Press, 2013) and Decorating Master Class: the Cullman Kravis Way (NY Harry Abrams, 2008).
The living room of Cullman’s country home displays some of her extensive collection of Americana Photograph by Eric Piasecki
A longtime supporter of the arts, Cullman has chaired several antiques shows and is a frequent lecturer and panelist on the subjects of design, art and antiques. In 2017, she spoke at the San Francisco Fall Show’s Lecture Series on the Mix Masters Panel. “The San Francisco Show is the perfect sized show for me”, she says. “excellent quality with a large variety of dealers.” She loves shopping the show and named a few of her favorite finds over the years; a Chinese export porcelain tureen from Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, a beautiful English Regency chair from Clinton Howell Antiques and a nineteenth century garden sun dial from Finnegan Gallery.
The sun room in Cullman’s Connecticut country home is her favorite room in the house. Photograph by Eric Piasecki
Working Through a Pandemic
While 2020 has kept us all fairly homebound, Cullman has been lucky in that she lives close to her office and the Manhattan showrooms and her weekends are spent at her country house in Connecticut. “spending the weekends in the country with my children and grandchildren has been the silver lining of COVID.” She says. Fortunately, my office (in the city) is a few blocks from home and since we reopened at the end of June, the staff rotates hours and days to create a safe office environment. When home in my apartment from March to June, I was lucky enough to work in my study at a Regency desk (that had actually previously belonged to Bunny Williams), surrounded by my extensive design library, which I finally had a chance to read.”
A view of Ellie’s office in her New York City apartment. Photograph by Nick Johnson
Collecting is a passion of Cullman’s. To her, a house becomes a home through the stories told in the pieces collected over the years, “personal collections-fine or fun, which express the owner’s interests and passions,” she explains. She adds, “of course bowls of candy are important as well!” Cullman’s favorite piece in her collection has a very personal story, “The first piece we ever purchased is still my favorite. We were living in Japan and found an 18th century screen depicting all the monuments of Kyoto, a magical place that we visited often. We loved it but called our parents for “permission” to make the purchase. They told us we would never find a 9-foot wall in a New York City apartment but actually it has held pride of place in all the apartments we have lived in over the years.” She admits her favorite room is her country house sunroom “it is filled with light,” she says “and it’s my favorite place to read and relax.”
The 18th century Japanese screen sits proudly above her living room sofa in Cullman’s
New York City apartment. Photograph by Eric Piasecki
Shifts in the Design Industry
Cullman has seen a shift in the design industry in 2020, both from her own viewpoint and that of her clients. “I have a greater appreciation for how spaces work rather than having aesthetics dominate design, although I still love being surrounded by beauty!” she says.
Cullman’s bedroom in her country home has walls upholstered in hand-embroidered fabric. Photograph by Eric Piasecki
For her clients, this year has shifted attitudes and priorities. “The pandemic has made our clients focus on how their homes must multitask for their families – accommodating office space, school space, play space, even sick bay. It’s a tall order but we have been able to help clients figure these scenarios out. On the flip side, because everyone has been spending more time at home, clients are really focusing on the design side as well – choosing to freshen up upholstery, add finer furniture pieces or purchase some art.”
The library in Cullman’s New York City apartment. Photograph by Eric Piasecki
We are all looking forward to the light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel and we are starting to see it with new vaccines on their way. For Cullman, 2020 has meant missing out on some of her favorite activities. “I’m missing so much” she admits. “First, the theater. Getting personal, my son, Trip is a theater director, and COVID delayed the opening of his next show. Second, movie theaters, a longtime passion of mine. Third, the incredible restaurant scene in New York. Fourth, the art shows and fairs which New York City is famous for. Thank goodness the art museums have reopened – albeit on a limited basis! And the bigger picture – travel. Nothing is more intellectually stimulating than visiting foreign countries. There is always something to “take home.”
The dining room in Ellie Cullman’s country home in Connecticut, Photograph by Eric Piasecki
The Silver Lining
But for all the things she is missing, 2020 has brought her something even better and more valuable, “spending more time watching my grandchildren discover the world!” she exclaims. And, I never miss a nightly cocktail hour!”
By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat
Ariane served as Show Director for the San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s international liaison as Director at Large, living in London with her family. Follow Ariane on her blog, SOJOURNEST where she focuses on all things home and travel.