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.”
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.