Ellie Cullman and Tracey Winn Pruzan

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Ellie Cullman in her study.

It was hard to get down to business with Ellie Cullman and Tracey Winn Pruzan. Our interview started in the kitchen and we could have chatted all day like old girlfriends getting cozy. Both women are relaxed and comfortable about their lives and their careers and it shows.

As colleagues and co-authors of their recently released book ‘Decorating Master Class’ (Abrams, $45.00) they consciously set out to demystify the decorating process, and true to their nature, empower readers with the confidence and knowledge to deal with the often daunting task of decorating one’s own home.

Tracey and Ellie in Ellie’s library.

I’ve wanted to interview you for a long time, you’re such a perfectionist—I guess that’s what impressed me about the book.

It must have been a huge amount of work, there’s every detail you can possibly imagine.

Ellie: Actually there’s a lot that didn’t make it into the book … we said we could have written a complete book on lighting, trim …

Tracey: And color … paint … you could definitely write a whole book on paint. In some ways the book that is very edited.

Ellie: It is the book that I needed when I started to decorate.

Tracey: We wanted to say that we do have beautiful pictures [in the book], but we can tell you how to get there.

A rare 6th to 7th century sandstone Vishnu statue from India blesses the main entrance hall.
L. to r.: Looking towards the main staircase. ; Peeking into the dining room. A 19th century Swedish gilt-bronze-and-crystal chandelier was purchased from Marvin Alexander.
A view into the dining room fomr the living room
Fresh flowers among Chinese export blue-and-white porcelain atop the dining room table. The walls are covered in late 18th century wallpaper from Gracie.
A set of twelve gilt-and-ebonized mahogany chairs from Sotheby’s surround a 19th-century Regency dining room table.
In the dining room corner, one of a pair of George III-style gilt wood oval mirrors hangs on the wall above a Regency brass-inlaid dwarf cabinet.

What are the questions you get asked the most frequently when someone is standing in an empty room?

Ellie: Where to start? First of all we start always with the program: what are the functional requirements of the room? And we do all the function parts and all the hard material parts before we even look at a fabric. It’s critical to us that a room functions. It’s not enough for something to be pretty and it’s also not enough for something just to function, because if it’s not pretty as well, then you’ve missed an opportunity.

Something that has struck me is that when we go to the places we go to, it can often be quite hard to find a place to do the interview, to talk and finding eye-to-eye contact and the right distance between people, which I always find strange because they’re meant to be interior designers.

Ellie: Distance is critical

Tracey: It’s all about that floor plan.

Ellie: Once you figure out not just how the room is going to function but how you function, how you’re going to live in the house, it’s all there.

L. to r.: Fresh flowers in abundance.; A view of the entrance hall from the pantry toward the hand-stenciled floor by Pintura studio.
More fresh flowers. In the corner stands chinoiserie decorated cabinets purchased from Guy Regal Ltd.
Family photos in black lacquer frames stand next to a group of marble spheres and a Chinese blue and white porcelain jar lamp.
A Venetian neoclassical gilt-and-silvered wood chandelier hangs in the center of the living room. A Chinese pottery figure of a court lady from the Tang dynasty stands prominently atop the Chinese lacquered and gilt coffee table.
Another view of the sumptuous living room. The walls are covered in a terracotta and gold overlay Venetian stucco.
An oversized 19th century North Persian Bijar carpet from Doris Leslie Blau covers the floor of the living room. Ellie and her husband, Edgar found the six-fold, 17th century Japanese in Kyoto in 1971. It was the first piece of art she and her husband ever purchased.

L. to r.: A iiving room vignette with one of Ellie’s favorite portraits.; An oil on vellum, “Untitled’ by Willem de Kooning, hangs on a wall above the grand piano in the living room corner.
A view across the living room towards Park Avenue.

It seems to me that it’s proportion that counts. I was wondering how much of it boils down to a kind of math.

Ellie: Well, it’s interesting, we always say there’s a lot of decorating that is a science but, like anything, there are rules you have to break. That’s the fun because if it was just simply math, we wouldn’t want to come to work in the morning.
Another thing we have come to understand by interviewing so many designers is the extent of the whole paper trail for the work they do.

Tracey: You really have to have the Project Book. We really track our projects—everything. We create an Excel spreadsheet and start with a budget for high/low and then fill in the actual as we go, as well as floor plans that we can color in as we find things.

Ellie: We’re proud of being left and right brain focused in the office.

Where does spontaneity come into any of this?

Ellie: That’s a really good question. It comes from falling in love with something. You have to fall in love with something, whether it’s a color, an aesthetic, a piece of furniture … that sort of gets you started. We find too that when we walk clients through our family albums in the office, particularly young clients who really have no idea what they’re after, I tell them to try to literally comment on everything … it can be as much about what they hate as what they like … and we love to shop with our clients.

L. to r.: In the main entrance hall, a circa 1880 Swedish mahogany commode is flanked by Jansen armchairs from Karl Kemp. A set of four Chinese Export oil paintings depicting the Dutch ’Folly’ hang on the wall. ; Favorite paintings collected over the years line the entry vestibule. The walls are covered in Ivory Bark Paper.
Ellie’s dressing room is rooted in a Swedish neo-classical design. The round tufted ottoman is covered in a fabric from F. Schumacher.
A 19th century Swedish writing table from H.M. Luther sits in between a pair of windows covered in fabric from Cowtan and Tout.
Family photos stand atop Ellie’s writing table in her dressing room.
L. to r.: Gilt bronze sconces from Marvin Alexander hang on a mirrored panel in the dressing room.; The dressing room bath.

Do you like to shop with clients!? Oh that’s interesting. Most decorators don’t like that–they can’t wait to get rid of them!

Tracey: We don’t necessarily take them to the D&D Building. That’s overwhelming for somebody. That would just be cruel to drag them there. But what we do is we bring everything back and we’ll make a shopping experience right in our office. We’ll weed and bring back stuff.

How do you make a place great without money?

Ellie: Did you see my $5000 apartment [published in Architectural Digest]? We were the first ones to do the $5000 apartment. It was so funny because Paige [Rense—Editor of AD] called me one day and she said, I have a project for you. It’s a $5000 apartment. And I said, Thanks a lot. You know I could do a plate for $5000. How could you do this to me!? [laughing]

A 1972 painting, ‘The Green One’ by Adolf Gottlieb, adds to ‘the mix’ in the upstairs study.
A Regency Chinoiserie desk dominates Ellie’s study.
L. to r.: Design books and Asian objects fills the bookshelves of the upstairs study. ; Peeking into Ellie’s study. ‘Chinese Fretwork’ from Beauvais Carpets covers the floors of the bedroom and the study.
The ‘grandkids’ scattered all over Ellie’s Regency Chinoiserie desk.

So what did you do?

Ellie: We had the best time. First of all we have an incredibly talented group of women in our office and everybody had done their own apartments on a budget. We went all through Staten Island—we got a light fixture [there] for $40 that I swear would have been $2400 any place else. Then we found this man who told us on 67th Street and Madison, that on certain days to follow the Sanitation Department [truck] picking up all the big stuff. And then Salvation Army—invaluable, Housing Works—invaluable.

If you have used lots of junk, what can you do lift a room so that it doesn’t look skanky?

Ellie: Covers … paint.

Tracey: Cleaning. And taking something out of its environment and putting it in a different environment may make it look fantastic.

The master bedroom, once a celadon green, is now a deep Sienna yellow Venetian stucco enhanced with a layer of translucent gold.
‘St. Petersburg Plaid’ bedroom drapes from Brunschwig & Fils surround a dressing table skirted in ‘Cathay’ fabric from Stroheim and Romann.
Edgar’s closet and dressing area.
On the north wall of the master bedroom (above right), a Robert Henri watercolor stands atop a neoclassical walnut and fruitwood chest of drawers from Karl Kemp.

So did you two have other lives before you started doing this?

Ellie: Oh yeah. First I worked for the Japan Society. I went to graduate school at Columbia to do a PhD in Japanese but I hated it so much and I dropped out. My mother cried and cried. (We lived in Japan for the first two years when I got married). Then I worked at the Museum for American Folk Art [as a curator]. I had four or five careers before I got into this.

Tracey: Actually I’m an artist. I paint. And then after school I was producing television commercials, which is actually a lot like decorating because of the budgets and the script and you have to get through to the end and you have to plan all the details to make it all come together. And I’ve always been writing things.

Edgar’s study. A collection of Chinese Jade ritual pieces are placed between books in Edgar’s study.
A group of photos of Angkor Wat by John McDermott hang above the sofa covered in ‘Marietta’ chenille from Christopher Norman
A view of the guest bedroom.
A six-paneled Chinese screen hangs in the guest bedroom.
L. to r.: A Japanese version of Ellie and Edgar, in oil. ; A George III mahogany partner’s writing table is flanked by a pair of mahogany and caned bergères in the library.
‘Warm Reverie’ by Kenneth Noland hangs on the wall above the silk velvet covered sofa in the library.
Dutch Delft earthenware pottery lines the top of the fireplace mantel in the library.
L. to r.: A reflection in Ellie’s study and reflections of the six-fold gold paper Japanese screen from a Georgian gilt-wood frame mirror in the living room.

What’s the equivalent of a script in interior design?

Tracey: The program. What you want.

Oh. I was envisioning the dialogue between you and the clients. Is interior design just a sort of hyper nesting instinct?

Tracey: Yes.

Ellie: I think that’s well said. I think, you know, what gives you more comfort than your home, eventually?

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