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