Ellie Cullman and Lee Cavanaugh

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Sarah DePalo, Lee Cavanaugh, Ellie Cullman, Claire Ratliff, and Alyssa Urban.

It has been almost a decade since we last walked into Ellie Cullman’s gorgeous Park Avenue apartment but the bowls of candy and the abundance of flowers were still there, as was the warm welcome. A high-end “couture” designer she may be, but she knows how to make a home. There have been a few changes: a new chandelier in the foyer, some re-upholstered furniture in a more contemporary fabric, a few new color field paintings and some cleaner window treatments.

In her latest book, From Classic to Contemporary (The Monacelli Press), she’s hoping to convey to readers how to go about “rejuvenation” by featuring projects from classic to something she intriguingly calls “medium classic” and on to recent contemporary work. We interviewed Ellie together with her senior partner, Lee Cavanaugh, who has been with the firm for some twenty years—a testament to the low staff turnover at the company. “Is it all women?” we asked. “Um … we have a driver.”

Click to order From Classic to Contemporary.

I looked at the Diary and it’s been nine years since our last interview—so I guess we need to ask what’s been happening?

Ellie: Nine years? I had no idea. Wow. That must have been in relation to The Detailed Interior, to the other book.

I caught something earlier you said about interior design choices being so interesting but that “you also want a religious experience” … I meant to get back to that.

Ellie: It’s like I couldn’t just have a parchment top on this coffee table that you’ve seen a hundred times. We’re very lucky [because] people come to the office and artisans from all over the world and show us what they’re doing and this [table top] is actually woven metallic mesh. I was like, “I have to have that!”

Do you see the quality of artisanal work rising in the United States?

Ellie: I do, yes, because for whatever reason because I think it’s almost part of the farm-to-table movement. People want to feel emotionally attached to what they’re doing.

What else have you seen change since we last talked to you?

Ellie: Do we have to talk about the internet?

Why not?

Ellie: The do-it-yourself decorators! Everybody stays up all night, goes on Houzz and all these fabulous websites and comes to the meetings. In the old days when we spoke, you know, we spoke.

A 1940s grand Barovier and Toso Murano glass chandelier makes a statement in the main entry. Adolf Gottlieb’s Iconic Burst (1973) hangs above a classical 1815 American center table with a new yellow onyx top. The faux-painted floor was inspired by a palace in St. Petersburg.

A rare sandstone 6th-7th century male divinity from India keeps watch over the main entry.
A terracotta Han dynasty dancing figure stands upon a Louis XVI brass-mounted late 18th century plum pudding mahogany commode. Flanking the commode is a pair of Jansen armchairs. The 20th century cobalt-blue 1960s Italian glass-edged mirror is by Fontana Arte.
A 10th century head of Brama from Cambodia stands upon the center table.
Peeking into the butler’s pantry

So now they’re presenting to you—is that what you’re saying?

Ellie: Well, they’re questioning more.

Is it about price or is it about taste?

Lee: Everything.

So it’s more of a debate now? But isn’t that, in a way, more stimulating?

Ellie: Yeah! When they have taste, it’s fabulous! One thing people don’t get at all is scale. And we had one client who trawled around the internet obsessively and then the next morning she would call [us] to return it even though she hadn’t bought it.

Lee: People stay up all night and email me pictures and pictures and pictures, “Would this work? Would this work?” So I have to spend time going through everything and saying why it won’t work.

The dining room walls are covered in a stunning Chinese hand painted wallpaper dated somewhere around 1770. A Regency-style dining table is surrounded by English mahogany ebonized-and-gilt chairs from the early 19th century. Against the north wall a George II carved gilt wood mirror in the manner of William Kent hangs above a George III satinwood inlaid mahogany sideboard. An impressive Louis XVI-style gilt bronze-and-crystal chandelier is suspended from a gold-glazed ceiling.

Against the rear wall stands a Chinoiserie lacquered collector’s cabinet.

Hanging on either side of the wall leading to the living room is a pair of George III-style gilt wood oval mirrors. English Regency rosewood brass line inlaid side cabinets stand beneath each mirror. The hand embroidered curtains are by Lesage.

So your job has become more exhausting is what it sounds like to me.

[Pauses then they burst out laughing] Ellie: It all depends on the client! There are still the old school clients who we adore. I don’t understand how anybody buys anything off a picture. Think about it. We get the Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues and everything looks amazing. I dog ear all the pages … and then we go to see it and maybe we buy two things … three things.

Lee: We get so excited and then we see it and say, “This looks terrible.” And the scale is another thing too. It looks like this tiny little piece in a picture but it’s much bigger.

What other things do you think you just know, basically from long experience?

Lee: Well I think one thing is definitely floor plans—how you go from room to room.

Ellie: One thing we’re just obsessed with in the office is the flow from room to room. There’s nothing worse than walking into a house and not understanding the logic, the aesthetic of the house. It’s critical. We also talk about function—it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is, if the area doesn’t function, like forget it.

Lee: Also if you have a lot of brown furniture, if you want to update it and to mix things together, sometimes it’s hard for people to say, put something mid-century with an English antique—it can go very wrong.

Ellie: It’s the little subtle things. I think that’s the whole thing about design.

One of several views of Ellie’s Park Avenue living room with walls in a Venetian coral stucco, over-glazed in gold. The 1920s oversized carpet is a Lavar Kerman.
A pair of Jansen black lacquer commodes, stamped “1930, Argentina” flanks the doorway to the adjoining dining room. Hanging above the left commode is White Beluga I (1974) by Helen Frankenthaler.
Looking across the living room. The 1950s painting over the mantel is by Max Weber; the card tables are English Regency.

The little subtle things like what for example?

Ellie: Like I [had] George III armchairs here originally, and actually a different desk—an Adams-style desk with four legs. It was really bad having twelve legs sitting in front of the window.

So how are you going about implementing the idea of your book, classic to contemporary?

Ellie: We come into it with this idea of rejuvenation [giggles] … the book takes it all the way from very classic, to medium-classic, and then we have a few very contemporary projects in the book. It’s [partly] about making your antiques look less old.

Did you say “medium-classic”? That’s a very good term.

Ellie: Well, classic-lite. I think what we’re most proud of is the idea that we don’t have signature style and that we’ll fall into whatever somebody else’s vision is for the house. It’s so much more interesting.

An Austrian gilt wood chandelier from 1800 is suspended above the sumptuous living room space.
A Tosa-school Japanese six-panel screen dated somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries depicting a view of Kyoto hangs near hand embroidered curtains by Lesage. The oak-and-ebonized brass-mounted armchairs are English Regency.

A close up of Helen Frankenthaler’s White Beluga I (1974).
A painting by Adolf Gottlieb, The Green One (1972), is one of many elements that give a contemporary slant to the classical design of the furniture.
One of a pair of lamps by Willy Dario stands atop the English Regency card tables.
Family photos are displayed throughout the living room.

One of Ellie’s grace notes: bowls of candy here and there—always. And the flowers! Always.
Looking across the living room towards the library.

But I do associate you with a signature style—this very rich, layered, detailed, meticulous style.

Ellie: Well thank you, I think it is but I think you can work that into any vocabulary.

What is the work environment like in your office? Is it all women?

Ellie: Um … we have a driver. But it’s so collegial you have no idea. Nobody can understand it. We’ve always been so proud of the work environment in the office.

Lee: For me personally I wouldn’t want to be on my own and be by myself. You know we have this big island in the back and all day long we all have our stuff out and we’re all talking about each other’s projects and giving each other advice or opinions. It’s just nice to bounce ideas off people and to have back office support.

I understand you have also made your longer-term employees your partners.

Ellie: Yes and we also did something called an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). My idea was that everybody should have a real ownership of the company. If you think about it, there are very few design firms that have continued over decades. I mean McMillen is probably the only one in America and then there’s Colefax & Fowler in London. Every architecture firm continues, every lawyer.

In the library a late 19th century Polish chandelier is suspended from a ceiling covered in aluminum leaf. The richly colored Tabriz wool rug is from the early 20th century.

Kenneth Noland’s Warm Reverie (1962) hangs above the library sofa. A custom coffee table by Tony Victoria has a woven metal mesh top.
More views of the library. An English Regency gilt wood convex mirror hangs above the fireplace mantel.

So what does it take today to be successful?

Lee: I think especially with the higher end, the customized things, the embroidery, the custom carpets and fabrics, the kind of things you can’t find online, the clients come to us for that.

Ellie: It just doesn’t give them the excitement of something that is only for them, like if they’re paying for a couture designer, they want to know that they’re not going to walk into their friend’s house and see the same thing.

What’s your background then, Lee where did you train?

Lee: It was kind of a very open design background. I started in fashion and I studied a lot of fine art and textiles at the University of Vermont. I grew up there, right outside of Burlington.

The walls of the stairwell are primarily filled with a large sampling of works on paper from a variety of American artists. Included in no particular order: Robert Henri, John Marin, Yasuko Kuniyoshi and Maurice Prendergast.
The walls of the upstairs hallway are lined with a set of China trade paintings dated from around 1815.
Charles Burchfield’s House on Allen Road (1942) is the focal point of an upstairs hallway wall.
The walls of the upstairs study are upholstered in polychrome embroidered taffeta; the Neoclassical chandelier is Austrian. On the far wall a Regency convex mirror hangs above a two-tiered console table displaying more family photos.
Edmond Tarbell’s A Quiet Afternoon (1900) is a perfect choice for a study and its quiet colors.
Looking towards the study bookcases that also hold the flat-screen TV. The glass-and-bronze coffee table is mid 20th century.
A pair of 19th century Italian open armchairs stands on opposite sides of a stunning English green lacquered-and-Chinoiserie decorated 19th century partners desk.
A 19th century walnut-and-gilt Swedish chandelier hangs from the ceiling of the master bedroom.
Fruit Vendors (c.1899) by Everett Shinn hangs above a Neoclassical Italian 1870s walnut-and-fruitwood commode.
Looking across the master bedroom toward the bath and upstairs hallway.
Aimee (1875) by Frederick Bridgman hangs above a comfy corner chair and ottoman.
Coney Island (1951) by Reginald Marsh hangs above a brass étagère holding more photos, books and a small flat-screen TV.
The master bathroom.

Ellie’s dressing room is decorated in Swedish green with gilt highlights and Eglomisé panels.

A collection of 19th century Japanese woodblock ukiyo- e hangs above a small English writing/dressing table.

Who are your favorite designers then?

Lee: Oh … I don’t know. I can’t name someone—I don’t study different designers. There’s no specific person. Just all of it.

But aren’t you overloaded with Instagram and media photos—it’s overwhelming. I find myself constantly looking at pictures of interiors.

Ellie: I don’t do Instagramming particularly now that I’m so obsessed with politics.

Lee: For me, I mean, all of my peers are looking at Instagram all day long and I get bored looking at images all day long. It just doesn’t inspire me to look at someone else’s pictures, I guess. I still like magazines and books—the real thing.

So how do you filter all of it?

Ellie: We’re very opinionated.

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