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Residential Duality: Modern Traditional Interiors Unplugged with Ellie Cullman

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With New York City's annual Architectural Digest Home Design Show recently coming to a close, I wanted to step a bit outside my core competency of architecture and commercial interiors to take a closer look at residential interior design.

I've always been fascinated by the design process for residential spaces as it seems to be driven by contradictory ideologies (at least in my mind): on the one hand, there is the notion of modernism, whether it be avante-garde, practical, utopian, or pure minimalism, whereas on the other hand, there's an unavoidable, overarching desire to achieve a traditional coziness of sorts, a space that's comfortable and livable. This duality, which we'll call "Modern Traditional" Residential Interior Design, is no humble undertaking. In fact, it's a balanced process that few can manage well.

In my opinion, Ellie Cullman of Cullman & Kravis, is one of the pre-eminent interior designers leading this movement. Ellie is no stranger to the limelight, having recently been included in the AD 100 List, Architectural Digest's shortlist of the best of the best in architecture and design. And for starstruck readers, Ellie is the go-to designer for Oprah Winfrey and Candice Bergen, to name just a few celebrity clients.

I was in Ellie's office on the Upper East Side of New York City a few weeks ago where we spoke about the emergence of Modern Traditionalism. Ellie graciously educated me on some of the major nuances of this crusade via her personal journey and broad body of work dating back to the mid-eighties, all of which I'd like to share with readers today.

Jacob Slevin: Please describe your most recent body of work.

Ellie Cullman: The goal of our recent body of work is to redefine the traditional interior. Viewed through the prism of modernism which prevails in interior design today, our designs have been edited, clarified and strengthened with new materials and palettes. We like to call this fresh approach with its wide spectrum of references "modern traditional" because the point of view is contemporary while the vocabulary of antiques is in keeping with the 26 year history of our company. Using antiques of all periods and places of origin in crisp and dynamic homescapes, our interiors are complex, layered and full of history - without being stuffy and overly formal.

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Jacob Slevin: Talk to me a bit about your background and your earlier years with C&K?

Ellie Cullman: My personal background includes a three year stint at the Museum of American Folk Art. I was a guest curator for two exhibitions: "Andy Warhol's Folk and Funk" (1977) and "Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America" (1980). In addition, I have personally collected folk art and Americana over the years. (By the way, I've since migrated to English furniture and decorative art with a sprinkling of Chinese and Japanese art, proceeded to 20th century art, discovered Southeast Asian art - especially India, and now I am flirting with an Arbus desk!)

Cullman & Kravis was launched on Oct 1, 1984. The first ten years of our company could be characterized by a focus on historical correctness - perhaps because of my prior museum background. The firm specialized in American and English antiques and worked almost exclusively in those areas. We eschewed the overly decorated style of the 80's and aimed for a simpler, purer aesthetic. And we were doctrinaire - if we were doing an American interior we stayed as purely American as possible.

During the second ten years we expanded our visual vocabulary to encompass other historical styles as well as regional areas. Hired for a townhouse in a Biedermeir vocabulary, a Nantucket shingle style house in a French country style, etc. - we felt excited and delighted by the new challenges we faced.

In the past few years and going forward, the firm is committed to what we call a "classic but cool" approach. Our interiors are increasingly glamorous, antiques are used more sparingly and rooms come together in a dynamic, refreshing way.

Jacob Slevin: How does your multidisciplinary background affect your ongoing output and potentially your nimble ability to balance varying design doctrines?

Ellie Cullman: I approach every project from many points of view, and my process is informed by my experience as a designer, an art and antiques enthusiast, a wife and mother, and, of course, as a New Yorker. With my background in museum work, I have always felt comfortable guiding clients in their purchases of antiques - analyzing what is good, better, best, and what price is justified by the current market. Other principals at C&K have film and television backgrounds. They bring budgeting and production strength of our firm.

One underlying strength is the practical and realistic viewpoint we bring to every project. We understand how families function - kids, dogs, cats, hockey equipment, snow boots, homework, etc. It is never enough to have just a beautiful interior - it must function as well.

Jacob Slevin: Talk to me about colors. How does this serve as a tool when crafting a modern traditional interior?

Ellie Cullman: Years ago, we were very influenced by a historical palette which was derived from Chinese porcelain, antique textiles, carpets and the like. Our goal was for an overall color balance, a mulit-colored palette without one color dominating, a harmonious envelope. Today, however, our favorite word is "pop." While the palette of our rooms is still well balanced, we love to bring in a shot of unexpected bright color. Strong color energizes our traditional rooms and liberates our palette to include non-historical colors like shocking pink and lavender.

Jacob Slevin: What projects are you currently working on?

Ellie Cullman: We have been so fortunate to work on a wide variety of projects with some of the most distinguished architects of our time. Our current projects include:

  1. A Georgian residence in River Oaks, Houston - with Allan Greenberg
  2. A duplex penthouse on the upper east side with 5000 square feet of outdoor living space - with John Murray
  3. A waterfront shingle style house in Sagaponack - with Ike, Kligerman Barkeley
  4. A stone and timber country house in Greenwich on the site of the original owner of Conyer's Farm - with Mark Finlay
  5. A Tudor revival house in Old Westbury Long Island - with Oliver Cope

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Jacob Slevin is the CEO of DesignerPages.com and the Publisher of 3rings.