NEW YORK - "Art," says designer Elissa Cullman, “is the soul of every interior.” Over the past three decades, her New York-based firm Cullman & Kravis has mastered the “modern traditional” approach, pairing edgy post-war and contemporary works of art with carefully chosen antiques and subtly luxurious furnishings. Her recent book, The Detailed Interior: Decorating Up Close with Cullman & Kravis (Monacelli Press, 2013) demonstrates her love of fine art as well as comfort. “We never sacrifice form for function,” she says. “A room should be beautiful.” Cullman recently spoke with Meredith Mendelsohn about maintaining that balance.
Designer Elissa Cullman.
Elissa Cullman: What advice would you give to new collectors about displaying art at home?
Meredith Mendelsohn: No space is complete without a work of art. Anything can work in concert – as long as there is an underlying passion for the art and antiques. It’s important to understand what sizes work well within that space so that the installation can be harmonious from wall to wall and from room to room. Also, the right lighting is critical and will transform the way the art looks in situ. The biggest lighting mistake people make is not lighting their art at all.
EC: When you start working with new clients, what are some of the first elements you address?
MM: We always consider their functional needs as well as their design preferences. Our goal is to interpret their vision in the most aesthetically pleasing way. We always start with an inventory of their furniture, objects and artwork. Next, we look at interior design books and magazines together to establish the vocabulary they are looking for – we call this the “zip code” for the project.
EC: Some interiors seem more challenging than others when it comes to displaying art. Can you recall a situation that required real finessing?
MM: A Manhattan apartment had a long hallway that was just 42 inches wide (above right). We did what we call a decorating intervention. We vaulted the ceilings and introduced niches for incredible Swedish porphyry vases, and then we looked for an artwork that you could see and enjoy from a short distance away. We decided on a series of 30 drawings by Allan McCollum. He is very specific about how his works should be hung, and these just made it by an inch!
Dramatic art, vaulted ceilings, a marble floor and a mirror help visually widen and lengthen
EC: How do you find the right balance between antiques or vintage design and works of art, whether they are contemporary or traditional?
MM: Traditional environments are made younger and more vibrant with contemporary art. Conversely, contemporary spaces are made more complex and layered by the inclusion of a few pieces from the past. In one room we placed a Joan Mitchell painting with French 1940s sconces and Regency card tables. I just love how everything is talking to each other.
EC: How would you characterise your design aesthetic?
MM: Our goal is to redefine the traditional interior. Our interiors are complex, layered and full of history without being stuffy and overly formal. We like to call this approach “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.
Furniture from the early 20th century complements a more contemporary photograph by Nan Goldin.
EC: Were there any particular influences that shaped your taste and style?
MM: The two years I spent in Japan were pivotal in the development of my aesthetic education. I immersed myself in two rigorous Japanese aesthetic traditions – tea ceremony and flower arranging. When you spend three hours arranging just five chrysanthemums, it sharpens your eye!